Raila Odinga – The enigma of Kenyan politics

Raila Amolo Odinga held two different portfolios in President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet. First, between 2003 and 2005, he served as the Minister for Roads, Public Works and Housing. He then found himself out of the Cabinet, before he returned in 2007, this time as the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya. There is contextual clarity on the events that occasioned his first appointment to Kibaki’s Cabinet, his subsequent dismissal in 2005 and his 2007 return.

In the political formation before the 2002 General Election, Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) joined National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK), an amalgamation of parties whose luminaries, then, were Kibaki, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and Charity Kaluki Ngilu. Odinga’s arrival in the NAK corner prompted the formation of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Alongside Ngilu, Kibaki, Wamalwa, Moody Awori, Kipruto arap Kirwa, George Saitoti and Kalonzo Musyoka, Odinga became a member of the NARC Summit — the main engine that ran the NARC campaigns.

By that point, many Kenyans had made it clear they were tired of the independence party, the Kenya African National Union’s (KANU) rule and wanted a change. The vexing question was who would lead a united opposition.

When it was least expected, he made two of the most consequential public statements that helped birth Kenya’s third and some say most effective  Presidency since independence

This was where Odinga’s political genius played out. He kept himself ahead of the curve.

When it was least expected, he made two of the most consequential public statements that helped birth Kenya’s third — and some say most effective — Presidency since independence.

Both statements were made in 2002. The first, “Si ata Mzee Kibaki anatosha?” was a question he asked a massive crowd at Uhuru Park in Nairobi on 22 September 2002.

Odinga’s query, which translates to “Doesn’t Mzee Kibaki suffice?” settled the debate. From then onwards, the Opposition closed ranks around the NAK leader and NARC was born. In four months, what had seemed impossible — the end of KANU’s 40 years in power — happened.

But before this new era began, Kenyans were to endure a gut-wrenching jolt about one month before it started. On 3 December 2002, the NARC Presidential candidate, Kibaki, was returning to Nairobi from a campaign rally in Machakos when his vehicle rolled several times at the Machakos-Mombasa Road junction, about 50 kilometres from the capital city. Kibaki suffered serious injuries and had to be airlifted to London for specialised treatment.

The country held its breath. The Opposition fretted about what would happen next. There was widespread despondency. But not for long because Odinga, still himself reeling in shock, went public with this statement: “Our captain is injured but the game will go on. We shall continue with our campaign until our captain returns.”

A fresh burst of energy and belief infused the opposition ranks and carried it all the way to victory. Although Kibaki had no further part in the campaigns, he did return. The sight of him in a neck brace was heart-breaking but he was soon well enough to lead an economic revival not seen in Kenya since independence.
Odinga, a football fanatic and a man given to using its metaphors in political conversation, had once again made his intervention at a critical moment in the nation’s fortunes.

Few were surprised, therefore, when upon unveiling the first NARC Cabinet, Kibaki appointed Odinga Minister for Roads, Public Works and Housing. Odinga’s LDP, however, accused Kibaki of reneging on the pre-election Memorandum of Understanding the party had entered into with Kibaki’s NAK. This pact reportedly earmarked the premiership for Odinga. The counterargument to LDP’s accusations was that the then Kenya Constitution did not make provision for the position.

The 2003 Constitution review conference aggravated the relationship between the Kibaki and Odinga factions. While Odinga’s camp pitched for an autonomous premier, Kibaki’s group favoured a ceremonial premier and an autonomous president. These divisions led the country to the 2005 referendum. Kibaki’s faction was for the new Constitution. Odinga’s camp, however, persuaded Kenyans to reject the proposed Constitution.

After losing the referendum, Kibaki made a move not witnessed before in the history of independent Kenya. He fired his entire Cabinet. He invoked the powers given to him by the Constitution and fired all ministers and their assistants and promised the country a new Cabinet in a fortnight. Only two people survived Kibaki’s axe — Vice President Awori and Attorney General Amos Wako.

Out with Odinga went William ole Ntimama (Public Service), Anyang’ Nyong’o (Planning), Kalonzo Musyoka (Environment), Najib Balala (National Heritage and Culture), Ochillo Ayacko (Sports) and Linah Jebii Kilimo (Immigration and Registration of Persons).

Here is the pertinent question of the moment. What was Odinga’s contribution to Kibaki’s Cabinet as the Minister for Roads, Public Works and Housing?

After decades of stagnation and regression, infrastructural development had to become a centrepiece of the Kibaki Administration. This means that the Cabinet docket of Roads, Public Works and Housing needed to be in especially capable hands. It wasn’t for nothing that Kibaki gave it to Odinga. And he didn’t disappoint. Grabbed land was reclaimed and many people found themselves holding fake titles. It was during Odinga’s tenure at Roads that the now famous government bulldozer became a common sight in the country, bringing down buildings big and small that had been built on road reserves.

It was not until the government started implementing its infrastructure development programme that residents of places such as Kilimani, Lavington, Runda, Red Hill, Kasarani, Ngong, Dandora and other places around the country realised that land in their midst had been earmarked for a network of roads. The term by-pass entered the national lexicon as Eastern, Northern and Southern highways started circumventing the city of Nairobi. The jewel in the crown of these new infrastructure projects was the Thika superhighway. It was a whole new travelling experience for Kenyans. Odinga was the public face of this development which comprised a key plank of President Kibaki’s Vision 2030 legacy.

The consequence of Odinga’s exit from Kibaki’s first Cabinet was complete deterioration of the relationship between Kibaki’s NAK and Odinga’s LDP. This led to the collapse of NARC in 2006. Odinga moved on to the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Afterwards, in preparation for the 2007 Presidential elections, Kibaki formed his own coalition, the Party of National Unity (PNU).

On 27 December 2007, after months of fierce and divisive political campaigns, Kenyans went to the polls to elect a new Parliament and President. The frontrunners in the Presidential race were Kibaki of PNU, then aged 76, and Odinga of ODM, then aged 62.

The ODM party won most of the Parliamentary seats but Kibaki beat Odinga in the presidential poll. Odinga immediately contested the election results. Protests ensued in Odinga’s support bases. The protests degenerated into horrific acts of violence. More than 1,000 Kenyans consequently lost their lives. Over 350,000 others were displaced.

Concerned that the violence in Kenya could morph into a civil war, the international community put Kibaki and Odinga under pressure to call a truce. Under the auspices of a group of African leaders led by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Anan, the Kibaki and Odinga factions negotiated for 41 days. Eventually, on 28 February 2008, the two sides of the political divide struck a deal. Under the peace deal, Kibaki retained the Presidency while Odinga became the Prime Minister, a newly created position.

The agreement, known as the National Accord and Reconciliation Act, clearly spelt out the Kibaki-Odinga power relations. The President remained the Head of State while the Prime Minister had powers to coordinate and supervise the execution of government functions and affairs, including those of ministries. Further, the National Accord stipulated that: “the composition of the coalition government shall at all times reflect the relative parliamentary strengths of the respective parties and shall at all times take into account the principle of portfolio balance”.

The cooperation between the newly created office of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretariat was critical. The Cabinet Secretariat was the unit that then managed the Cabinet agenda and ensured that ministers had the policy documents they needed. Odinga appointed Mohamed Isahakia, his former campaign manager, as Permanent Secretary (PS) in charge of his office. Isahakia who has a doctorate from Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Oregon, was to work closely with Caroli Omondi, a lawyer, and the chief of staff at the Prime Minister’s office. The two were to collaborate in ensuring that the Prime Minister’s office delivered in its supervisory role. Kibaki retained Francis Muthaura, one of his closest allies and advisers to serve as the Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.

Odinga and Kibaki faced a number of challenges in setting up the Government of National Unity, as the coalition government was officially called. To begin with, the ambiguity of the National Accord on the size of the Cabinet caused confusion. The Accord left such decisions to the discretion of the coalition partners. Besides, Kibaki and Odinga had the challenge of creating and staffing new executive offices.

A bloated Cabinet was the other challenge that the Kibaki-Odinga coalition government had to contend with. There were valid fears that a large Cabinet would impede supervision and coordination.

The fact that PNU and ODM had premised their campaigns upon different manifestos did not help matters. Kibaki and Odinga therefore formed a task force co-chaired by Nyong’o and Saitoti and charged it with the task of integrating the PNU and ODM manifestos. The intention of this initiative was to develop a common coherent script from which the coalition Cabinet would read. The harmonisation of the two manifestos took a very short time.

Once ministry portfolios had been filled, the Kibaki-Odinga Government of National Unity got to work.

So, what were Odinga’s contributions to the Kibaki legacy during his stint as Prime Minister?

Despite the development of a common manifesto and improvement of inter-ministerial coordination, fears that intra-ministry infighting and deadlocks would jeopardise implementation of government programmes lingered. To minimise such developments, Odinga introduced performance as a strategy to cultivate a sense of competition in the Cabinet.

Performance contracting entailed the creation of a clear set of performance targets for each ministry. The strategy rode on systematic collection of data on ministries’ performance and rewarding good performance.

According to Odinga, by the time the coalition government commenced its term in 2008, the Kibaki Administration had already had experience with performance contracting but it had not yet been institutionalised.

Earlier in 2003, Kibaki’s government had launched a performance contracting pilot programme in 16 state corporations. Later, in 2005 and 2006, the pilot programme was expanded to include PSs and major municipalities. The Kibaki Administration’s successful implementation of the pilot programmes won Kenya global recognition. In 2007, Kenya won the United Nations Public Service award for its performance-based contracting system in the public sector.

Keen to avoid the mistakes that had plagued efforts to introduce performance contracting in the 1990s, Odinga adopted a different approach. He appointed Richard Ndubai, the PS for public sector reform and performance contracting into the picture. He tasked him to sell the performance contracting concept to the Cabinet and to develop mutually agreeable, failsafe and credible appraisal criteria.

Both Odinga and Kibaki demonstrated their commitment to performance contracting. Besides rolling it out in 2003, Kibaki showed his support for performance contracting by transferring the line department to the Prime Minister’s office. Odinga leveraged Kibaki’s goodwill and lobbied the staff at his office to readily accept performance contracting.

With Kibaki and Odinga’s support, Ndubai expanded performance contracting across the entire government structure. So as to encourage ministries to own performance contracting, ministries were involved in the annual setting of performance targets. Towards the end of each year, every ministry developed a strategic plan. It was from the objectives outlined in the strategic plans that ministry performance targets emanated. There was, however, a standard performance contracting template. It had about six performance criteria under which specific performance indicators were listed.

Performance contracting provided the coalition government a mechanism to encourage members of the coalition’s Cabinet and the entire civil service to remain focused on service delivery. It mobilised people to work towards common goals.

In 2009, Kibaki directed Odinga to move in and reclaim Mau Forest. This decision was informed by concerns expressed by experts that the Mau Complex had then lost 107 hectares of its trees over the last two decades. Experts attributed this worrying development to illegal settlement, logging and charcoal burning that went on in the forest right under the watch of corrupt officials.

Experts warned that the ripple effect of the Mau Forest degradation would affect tourism, water supply to cities and industries, agriculture, energy generation and consequently damage East Africa’s largest economy. Even though Odinga’s intervention in the Mau Forest had Kibaki’s blessings and the support of the Cabinet, it set him against his political allies.

William Ruto, Odinga’s right-hand man at the time, opposed the eviction of people from the Mau Forest. Odinga, however, refused to budge. He insisted that all the forest land that KANU had illegally allocated had to be reclaimed by the government.

Odinga anchored his resolve to restore the Mau Forest Complex on the conviction that by so doing, he would secure the livelihoods and economies of all the people who directly or indirectly depended on the Mau Forest ecosystem

Since the Mau Forest Complex reclamation had received the Cabinet’s nod, Odinga advocated for an inter-ministerial approach in its reclamation process. The Ministry of Forestry was to spearhead the eviction process.

There is no doubt that the greatest milestone of the Kibaki-Odinga coalition is its delivery of the new Constitution. In 2010 Kibaki and Odinga rallied the country to vote in favour of the proposed new Constitution. The new Constitution significantly checked Presidential powers, addressed corruption, political patronage, land grabbing and tribalism, among other problems that Kenya had been grappling with since independence.

Addressing an electrified crowd at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre soon after receiving the provisional results of the referendum, Kibaki hailed the adoption of the new Constitution as a win for Kenya. Besides, he said it was a win for all those who had fought long and hard for a new constitutional dispensation that reflects the country’s hopes and aspirations.

On 27 August 2010, Kenyans witnessed the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution. The new Constitution heralded a new dawn. It brought open and inclusive governance, whose face is devolution. Thanks to devolved governments, Kenya has narrowed the gap between rich and poor regions.

When Kibaki’s second term in office ended, Odinga took a third shot at the Presidency. But contrary to the expectations of many, he lost the elections to Jubilee Party’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto.

Odinga anchored his resolve to restore the Mau Forest Complex on the conviction that by so doing, he would secure the livelihoods and economies of all the people who directly or indirectly depended on the Mau Forest ecosystem

Election loss has become a recurring theme of Odinga’s political existence. Few people in Kenya, even those who do not like him, believe he is not qualified to be President.

“I also don’t believe there is anything impossible in this world. I believe that things are possible. But I also want to say that it must not necessarily be Raila; like now, I am not even saying that I am going to run again because that is too far-fetched now. I am always willing to support somebody else. The last time we went for a nomination and if I had lost I would have supported somebody else. I came up with Kibaki Tosha and people thought that I had committed political suicide. Many told me that Luos could not vote for Kikuyus, but I said, ‘I’ll show you.’ And I convinced them.

Apart from President Kibaki himself and probably the other presidents before him, only Odinga consistently galvanises the nation’s heaviest intellectual artillery into the most heated debates about Kenya’s destiny. He shapes the nation’s political agenda while not occupying State House.

Odinga remains the political sultan of the street with powerful friends in high places in Kenya and abroad. His supporters won’t allow him to go quietly and he is their willing hostage. Even before he has made his announcement, there is widespread belief that he will again be one of the big draws in the 2022 race. He made a big mark as a member of the Kibaki Cabinet. Who knows, he may finally get a chance to form his own.

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