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Why African opposition parties are in turmoil

Friday February 7 2014

Cord leader Raila Odinga (right), Kalonzo

Cord leader Raila Odinga (right), Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula acknowledge cheers as they arrive at Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground in Kisumu where they addressed a rally on January 18, 2014. Photo/JACOB OWITI 

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Last weekend, Raila Odinga told the Sunday Nation that “Any political party exists with the aim of winning elections so that it can implement its agenda. A party without ambition has no reason to exist.”

No-one could disagree with Raila’s words; all but the ideologues in any political party recognise that principles are meaningless without at least the possibility of winning power. But it is far from clear what the agenda referred to by Raila is.

ODM has been in a slumber since long before the election of last March. Outmanoeuvred by the Jubilee Alliance during the campaign and then in court, it is difficult to think of one occasion since when the party has inspired popular criticism of the government. Even when gifted with moments of ineptitude by the government, ODM has spurned the opportunities to reinvigorate itself in opposition.

The job of the opposition has instead been taken up by the likes of Alfred Keter within the government, the cross-party alliance of county governors and a small but dwindling group of civil society activists.

Each of these groups has pursued a different line of attack. To Keter and his allies, it is the Kenyatta’s government’s efforts to build new patronage networks that are the cause of frustration.

For the governors, it is the autonomy and financing of the counties that is at stake. And for some civil society activists, the gap between the bleak economic realities of everyday life and promised wealth that is the basis for their criticism of Jubilee’s policies. Corruption, the constitution and social inequality should be the remit of the opposition in parliament. But ODM is instead distracted by more parochial matters.



The pessimists in the party seem to think the best that can be hoped for is for the party to close ranks around its Luo heartland. Such a strategy can only lead to oblivion in 2017. The optimists among its leaders are no more realistic.

Hopes that the party can be a genuine national force, as Raila said last weekend, are forlorn.

Across the continent, opposition parties find themselves in a similar situation. In South Africa, despite the ANC’s failings and the economy’s problems, the legacies of liberation are still sufficient to guarantee the party and Jacob Zuma victory in this year’s election.

Short-lived attempts to build a viable opposition movement by Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance and Mamphele Ramphela of Agang collapsed into farce last weekend.

Opposition parties are struggling across much of the rest of Eastern and Southern African too. In Tanzania and Zimbabwe, Chadema and the MDC respectively are riven with factionalism. Across both their borders in Mozambique, Renamo has given up even the pretence of being a political party. In Rwanda and Uganda, incumbent presidents seem set on extending term limits without having to worry too much about whatever backlash they may suffer.

Opposition parties in all these cases are afflicted by the same problem: their inability to win power. Raila insists that ‘Losing an election is not fatal in the life of a politician. It is like losing a battle in a war. You can lose many battles in a war but eventually win the war.’ The truth is very different. Faced with opponents that cannot be defeated, opposition parties atrophy.


But there is another broader problem. Beyond campaigning against particular unpopular leaders, what is the point of opposition parties today? For 20 years, the answer to that question was simple: to champion the cause of human rights and democracy in the face of the remnants of authoritarian rule. But that argument seems to have run its course and ODM seems unable to resurrect it, although it must.

Raila’s determination to cling to the party leadership is understandable. He remains one of the country’s leading political figures and retains a burning sense of injustice about the outcome of the 2007 and 2013 elections. Nor is there an obvious successor to handover power to. But there are significant doubts about his ability to lead the party into the next election.

Speaking about inequality in a coherent and powerful way is the very foundation of the Raila political dynasty. But whether dulled by his advancing years, his time in government or by the disappointments of the past two elections, this message is no longer having the effect it once did on Raila’s supporters.

If Raila is serious about resurrecting ODM and challenging for the presidency in 2017, then he needs to give thought to how best to battle conservatism in Kenya. Once its internal elections are complete, ODM needs to show how the pursuit of democracy, protecting the constitution, guaranteeing human rights and prioritising social equality is not incompatible with security or economic growth.

To paraphrase Raila, a party without such ambition does not deserve to continue to exist.

Prof Branch teaches History and Politics at Warwick University, UK [email protected]