How Raila rose from Building Bridges Initiative ashes more energised

Friday, October 15th, 2021 00:00 |
ODM Leader Raila Odinga. Photo/COURTESY

A tactical shift from his trademark huge public rallies to boardroom meetings with key stakeholders from various regions has boosted Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s political fortunes in recent weeks.

Following his March 2018 Handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila went slow on his criticism of the Jubilee government’s shortcomings, thus affecting his credentials as the defender of the downtrodden, especially in his traditional strongholds.

His popularity took a further beating following a High Court ruling that declared the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), and its proposed amendments to the Constitution through a referendum, illegal, bringing to a screeching halt what seemed to be Raila’s remaining political card for the 2022 presidential election.

Down but not out, Raila quickly cobbled together a new political slogan dubbed “Azimio La Umoja” and embarked on countrywide meetings to recover lost ground.

Buoyed by Uhuru’s apparent support, Raila now looks revitalised and energetic, and for the first time in his long political career, is basing his campaigns on issues and policies instead of the traditional mass euphoria.

Dr Joseph Simekha, one of Raila’s strategists, attributes the turnaround to a change of strategy and the fall of BBI.

“People, particularly those from Mt Kenya region, only came to the realisation that they would have reaped big from the BBI after its fall.

This has made them bitter with those who campaigned against it,” says Simekha.

He argues that Raila’s new strategy of identifying and engaging targeted groups directly in town hall meetings and on social media is yielding handsome dividends.

In the last couple of weeks, Raila has engaged the Mount Kenya Foundation, a cabal of billionaire tycoons from the vote-rich region in several hotel meetings to listen to their needs and priorities ahead of the 2022 election.

Series of rallies

On Tuesday, Raila engaged hundreds of youths from the same region in a candid discussion on their aspirations at the University of Nairobi.

The next day, Raila made a whirlwind tour of parts of Nairobi that culminated in a public rally at the historic Kamukunji grounds where he declared that next year’s election was his best shot at the presidency.

Sticking to his apparent resolve to base his campaigns on issues, Raila took the opportunity to expound on his proposal to pay Sh6,000 stipend to all unemployed youth if he ascended to power.

Yesterday, a bold Raila began a tour of Deputy President William Ruto’s backyard, with a series of rallies in Turkana County where one of his former deputies in the Orange party has crossed over to support the latter.

Today, he is scheduled to land in Eldoret, Ruto’s home turf, for a meeting with leaders from West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet, Uasin Gishu and Nandi.

Last week, he hosted a three-day retreat in Naivasha, even as he assembled a new inner circle to accommodate President Kenyatta’s team that is backing his presidential campaign.

The former premier had invited his close associates for the meeting that ended on Saturday at the Great Rift Valley Lodge in Naivasha before embarking on a tour of Laikipia county.

Raila has in the recent past held town hall meetings with key political players in Nyanza and Western regions, and is scheduled to hold similar engagements in the Rift Valley in coming days.

Within a span of two months, Raila seems to have gone through a major political transformation that has once again endeared him to the electorate.

Political analyst and former lecturer at USIU-Africa in international relations Prof Macharia Munene says the transformation fits well with the description of Raila as “a political craftsman”.

Cost of living

“He has transmuted himself to realign with the current trends in the country in order to become more pleasant and relevant,” says Munene.

The scholar says that though it is too early to make any conclusions regarding the 2022 presidential race, it is apparent that the duel is turning into a two horse race — Raila against Ruto.

ODM chairman John Mbadi says that though Raila has made strides in courting new allies, he must also consolidate his traditional voting bloc.

“Raila is trying to change the narrative that has always been sold in the Mount Kenya region that he is a devil.

The picture that was being sold was purely based on politics,” said Mbadi, adding: “In politics, sometimes when you go out to win new support, chances are that you may lose some of your traditional supporters.”

He also said the opposition chief must package his messages to win the youth who feel the cost of living is skyrocketing.

“Raila must package his message in a way that gives hope to the youth. Raila is always known to be a father of hope. We must also invest in the rural economy.”

Political analyst Prof Amukowa Anangwe says Raila will be a key player in the 2022 Uhuru succession.

Anangwe downplayed Ruto’s perceived frontrunner tag, saying the DP had engaged in premature campaigns and warned him of the challenge he is likely to face from Raila and Amani National Congress (ANC) leader Musalia Mudavadi in the race to succeed Uhuru.

“As the Luhya would say, when you run alone, that is not a competition. It is a lone-ranger activity.

Now time has come to separate men from the boys and Ruto must contend with Raila but also with a resurgent Mudavadi.

How it will end, only time will tell. Any of the three could end up succeeding Uhuru in 2022.

“All Raila has done is to revive his political networks and to court Mount Kenya. Musalia is also traversing Mount Kenya region before he returns to consolidate his Luhya base,” Prof Anangwe, who has declared his intention to vie for the Kakamega gubernatorial seat, says.

Without a doubt, Raila has always been in the minds of many Kenyans as the emblematic representation of the opposition.

Yet, thanks to the Handshake with Uhuru, today he stands out as the foremost defender of the State.

Raila speaks on a wide range of issues, almost with the voice of a powerful government insider.

Last week, as Kenyans were bashing the government over the skyrocketing fuel prices, it was Raila who came out to calm nerves with a promise that the cost would fall in two weeks.

Besides explaining government policies, Raila also been busy receiving high profile foreign visitors and diplomats at his Upper Hill office.

Another political analyst, Mark Bichachi avers that Raila has been a serious presidential contender for the last 17 years and only lacked one crucial element — support from the mountain.

In August, Raila, while on a visit to Tanzania, paid a courtesy call on the country’s leader Samia Suluhu Hassan before visiting families of the late Presidents Benjamin Mkapa and John Magufuli.

Shortly after, Raila was to host visiting Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid at his Upper Hill office, where he has also received several high ranking diplomats.

Traditional block

In his tours across the countryside, the warm reception and support accorded to Raila by the National Government Administration Officers and Jubilee allied governors is discernible.

Many are the times Raila has accompanied the President on a tour of development projects initiated by the Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS), a role that had been reserved for the Deputy President.

“Raila has obviously taken advantage of the Hanshake to strategically position himself for 2022. He is the type of politician who knows when to retreat and when to strike,” Munene says.

And like a chameleon, he has always been quick to dissociate himself from government failings wherever it has been on the receiving end.

Bichachi says victory for Raila is heavily hinged on whether he can get a percentage of Mount Kenya votes or not.

“In supporting, President Kenyatta, Raila hopes to shed Raila phobia and embrace the mountain.

If he is able to somehow keep his traditional block and get even 20 per cent of Mount Kenya he will have reached over 60 per cent of the vote to make him president.”

He, however, warned that for Raila to win back One Kenya Alliance (OKA), he has to show that he is still a lot more popular than the alliance’s principals.

“One Kenya Alliance needs to work with him if they hope to achieve success in 2022.

Beyond that Raila has to create a new ‘Pentagon’ with roles that each principal can enjoy. Raila has to build a dynamic alliance,” Bichachi says.

Political commentator Javans Bigambo sums it up: “Raila knows that he has just this one chance, which he must use to beat the bad omen of being trounced by his political juniors.

Raila knows that to beat Ruto, he needs OKA on his side, so as to isolate Ruto and set him up as a lone ranger.”

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