Enigma of Kenyan Politics Leaves Odinga’s Future Uncertain

President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, held a surprise meeting with his political arch-rival Raila Odinga, right, in Nairobi on March 9, 2018. President Kenyatta and Raila Odinga pledged to work together to bring peace in Kenya. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Raila Odinga, one of Kenya’s indefatigable candidates for the country’s top office, seems to be nearing a turning point as leader of the opposition. Since his first failed bid for the presidency in 1997, Odinga has been defeated three more times, most recently in the highly-contentious presidential election. After 20 years of trying and failing, there is a fair amount of uncertainty as to the direction of Odinga’s political future.

Recent happenings in Kenya have led to murmurs that Odinga, who is now 73, has turned his back on the opposition. Some speculate that he realized being president—which also implied leading a vulnerable opposition—is no longer worth fighting for. But history is replete with instances where Odinga has caught his foes—and his allies—flatfooted, making his political future somewhat hard to predict.

Since Odinga announced an end to bickering between himself and Kenyatta, the erosion of his opposition credentials can be traced to three surreptitious meetings he has held so far with political leaders who are widely considered to be government insiders. The men he met with are capable of upending or buttressing politicians, particularly one as ambitious as Odinga. Further meetings, all held in April, have been held between Odinga and former Presidents Mwai Kibaki and Daniel arap Moi. It is noteworthy that Odinga has intermittently wrestled for power with both former presidents, a fact which makes the apparently innocuous engagements seem less than coincidental.

Attempts to get members of Odinga’s team to comment on his plans or on the content of the meetings have come up empty. Being a seasoned veteran of Kenya’s forbidding political environment, Odinga seems to be opting for the strategy of ambiguity that has served him well over the decades, never divulging his true intentions. Despite the lack of information, it has not been lost on Nairobi watchers that the closing of ranks between Odinga and other political elites makes sense, bearing in mind their economic, political, and social ties.

One connection that has been raised again in recent months is that President Kenyatta’s father, Jomo, who was Kenya’s first president after independence, was deputized by Jaramogi, Odinga’s father. Though President Kenyatta and Odinga were publicly battling for office, their two political dynasties have had ties dating back to the heady days of the country’s independence struggle.

Having held the reins for two five-year terms, President Kenyatta will be ineligible to run in 2022 when the next presidential elections are scheduled. On paper, his preferred candidate is 51-year-old Deputy President William Ruto, who touts a reputation as a rags-to-riches leader, though his story has come to show a lot of gaps. While Ruto’s detractors are quick to criticize these gaps, many in Kenya espouse his positive leadership qualities. Whether this will translate to a term as president remains to be seen.

In the meantime, according to mainstream media, Odinga is slated to be named an African Union Special Envoy, as part of a truce with President Kenyatta. Kenyatta is personally leading Kenya’s lobbying for this role at the AU, with the apparent support of the Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki.

Appointing Odinga as special envoy, while a calculated political move, also takes advantage of his reputation and expertise. Although some, including national assembly majority leader Aden Duale have claimed to be unaware of the offer, Odinga’s reputation as a statesman would certainly help the AU navigate complex and dangerous challenges. He also has support from Kimani Ichung’wa, the chair of Kenya’s National Assembly budget who believes Odinga has “earned his stature as a true African statesman.”

If appointed to the position, Odinga would join a group of eminent and respected Pan Africanists dispatched to help the AU solve emerging political conflicts including former presidents Thambo Mbeki of South Africa, Olesugun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Festus Mogae of Botswana, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Currently, the AU has 13 special envoys with specific assignments in various jurisdictions across the continent, including those responsible for countries facing civil unrest and inter-clan conflicts.

Beyond a possible role as a special envoy, charting Odinga’s future is impossible without recognizing that he is the quintessential politician, with the ability to steer and sway with Kenyan politics. This demonstrated by the fact that he has been able to rise to his current level in politics despite only having been in government for five years since 1992. A singular charismatic leader, should Odinga recede from his role in the opposition, the paramount question is: what will remain of the opposition?

There is no question that there is much at stake, as without Odinga, there is no clear leader that can command his level of allegiance. As Robert Kinyanjui, a political science lecturer, shared with me, “Kenya will miss the necessary gravitas Odinga brings that can coalesce individuals who can contend fractures resulting from a lack of serious and popular leadership within the opposition.”

Others, including Dr. Okello Mac’onyango, a senior lecturer in government studies, believe that the imminent exit of Odinga from the political scene will provide an opportunity to others who are equal to the task of leading to emerge. He believes that, “While it’s expected that politics will never be the same with Raila Odinga out of the scene, Kenya is rich in its manpower and certainly we will witness a prodigy emerge.”

Odinga’s past and future political trajectory encapsulates the history and reality of Kenya’s politics. If he were to make an exit from the public scene, some argue that Kenya would be bereft of a defender of freedom, while others would, to put it mildly, applaud his minimized role. Wherever he ends up, it is unlikely that Odinga will disappear anytime soon.

Charles Wachira is a journalist who has written for Bloomberg LP, the Washington Post, Inter Press Service, and other outlets.