Just when he is so close to the prize – of becoming Kenya’s next president – Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s ranks are being depleted by the desertion of his heavyweight political allies. What, in the name of politics, is happening to the man heavily tipped to become Kenya’s fourth president? Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi.
THREE YEARS AGO IT WOULD have been difficult to foretell that Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, would one day be a man under siege. For the last six years, it was an automatic assumption that Odinga would become Kenya’s fourth President. The opinion polls correctly translated the mood on the ground. But that was then. Kenya’s exciting, highly fickle, and dynamic political scene has a new screenplay developing. Odinga is either being isolated or shooting himself in the foot.
Odinga’s latest tribulations are courtesy of the 52-year-old Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi. He is the son of one of Kenya’s former powerful local government ministers, Moses Substone Mudavadi, who was a confidante of ex-President Arap Moi. Musalia is not known to ruffle feathers. However, his moves in the last four months have rewritten the Kenyan political script, and unsettled many people. A former trusted ally of Odinga who faithfully served as the prime minister’s deputy in the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Musalia has done the unimaginable. He has abandoned his boss just when his support mattered most.
Musalia’s entry into politics was stage-managed by President Moi in 1989 following the death of his father. Moi enabled the young Musalia to succeed his late father as a member of parliament for the Sabatia constituency in the Western Province. He immediately became a favourite in Moi’s government, where he served as a cabinet minister in various ministries, including finance and agriculture, rising to vice president in the twilight months of the government. After a long life serving under Moi, Musalia paid the ultimate price of loyalty to Moi and Kanu when he became Uhuru Kenyatta’s running mate in the 2002 general elections. He lost his parliamentary seat and was subsequently confined to political oblivion.
Having learnt the painful lesson, he emerged in the 2005 constitutional referendum as Odinga’s point-man for the populous Western Kenya vote. During the 2007 general election, Musalia delivered the Western Province vote to the ODM as expected.
For giving the ODM one of its largest support bases, only second to the Rift Valley, Musalia was rewarded with the deputy prime minister’s position, in addition to the plum ministerial portfolio of local government – the ministry that his father once served. He also bagged the ODM’s first deputy leader’s slot.
As the year 2012 began, Musalia sprang a surprise when he suddenly emerged from the cobwebs of loyalty and challenged his boss Odinga for the ODM’s presidential candidacy. His move upset the ODM’s formbook in which it had long been assumed that Odinga’s presidential ticket was a formality, thanks to the opinion polls that gave him an unassailable lead. At first Musalia’s challenge to Odinga was seen as feeble and inconsequential, given Odinga’s political standing and the cherished reforms he had introduced. So the question asked by many people was: “Just what inspired Musalia to oppose Odinga?”
It is common knowledge that for a time Odinga had been looking for a running mate who would bring in more votes from either the Central or Rift Valley provinces. To this end, Odinga had made forays into these two vote-rich and populous provinces seeking a suitable deputy. Musalia was miffed when he realised that he was no longer in Odinga’s succession plan, and decided to go against his boss. But his challenge distressed the ODM party.
Unknown to many, Musalia had used his position as the minister in charge of local authorities to endear himself to the grassroots civic leadership in the country. The ODM’s top brass discovered this very late, and despite attempts at damage control, they could not derail Musalia’s train.
Rather, in May this year, Musalia cited high-handedness and the lack of internal democracy in the ODM as the reason why he was leaving the party for the rival United Democratic Front (UDF). His departure is perhaps the most vital blow yet to hit Odinga’s chances of winning the much-coveted Kenyan presidency.
For a long time Musalia’s attributes of being non-confrontational, his cool demeanour, and his amiable character were used to mock, and even corrupt his first name from Wycliffe to “weak leaf”, painting him as a puny weak-kneed politician. But he will be sorely missed by Odinga’s campaign.
As compared to other acrimonious defections in the ODM, Musalia’s move was not expected until it was too late. It is this game-changing move by Musalia which has made wags in Nairobi question Odinga’s chances of clinching the presidency without the support of influential regional kingpins, who have abandoned him within the last 18 months.
Odinga’s stellar political career saw him rising to the top and pulling together a constellation of diverse politicians under Kenya’s best-organised political outfit, the ODM. The party prided itself on having a formidable presence across the country. Accompanying Odinga at all times were influential opinion-shapers who gave themselves the fanciful name, “Pentagon”. This well-oiled machine was effective in mobilising support for the ODM and smoking out all threats.
The “Pentagon” consisted of former agriculture minister William Ruto, water and irrigation minister Charity Ngilu, co-operatives minister Joe Nyaga, the former colourful tourism minister Najib Balala, and of course Musalia. These five people, with Odinga at the helm, represented the country’s crucial electoral vote baskets.
In early 2011, the ODM began to bleed thanks to a self-inflicted wound which had been left untreated since 2009. At the time Odinga was having difficulties with his trusted lieutenant, William Ruto, who was the ODM’s second deputy leader and key vote-gatherer in the expansive Rift Valley Province. The bone of contention was the reclamation of a critical water tower, the Mau Forest, which had been settled in illegally by members of Ruto’s Kalenjin community. While to Odinga the Mau Forest was an environmental issue, Ruto saw it as a political matter.
Initially it was generally agreed that relations between Odinga and Ruto had taken a mere nasty turn. However, matters took a personal and vindictive nature when Ruto and five others, were put on the target list of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged roles in the 2007-08 post-election violence in which over 1,300 people lost their lives.
To Ruto, both the Mau Forest issue and the ICC charges were a betrayal by Odinga. He rejected his second deputy leader’s position in the ODM, and after rummaging through the bazaar of Kenya’s political parties, he eventually settled in the United Republican Party (URP).
Following Ruto’s footsteps out of the ODM was Balala. Unlike Ruto, there was no appeasement for Balala; he was summarily dismissed from the cabinet and banished from the ODM.
A bitter Balala left and found solace in the UDF. This came about the same time as two other members of the Pentagon, Ngilu and Nyaga, representing the Eastern region electoral zone, were given a cold shoulder by Odinga. It is the final departure of Musalia, who has now joined Balala in the UDF, that has left the ODM haemorrhaging and anaemic.
That Musalia’s exit has exposed Odinga’s underbelly and sapped his chances is a matter of worry for the ODM. To Musalia’s credit, his rise matches the historical trend of Kenyan presidents. Just before they ascended to the top post in the land, Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki were all non-militant, appeared fragile and lily-livered, accommodated all, and possessed cool deportments.
Musalia fits this profile perfectly. With his departure from the ODM, Kenya’s voting patterns are surely going to be reconfigured, and pundits are already wondering what might happen at the next general elections. Observers are asking what jinx is disturbing Odinga’s chances, just when he is so close to the prize.