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A journey through Raila Odinga’s politics

Once characterised as a battle-hardened street protester, a tribal kingpin and an aggressive government bully, Raila Amolo Odinga has over the years metamorphosed into a widely accepted national leader and respected pan-Africanist.

At some point described by political nemesis as “unelectable”, Mr Odinga has not only a good fighting chance at the ballot in August, but has previously run electrifying presidential campaigns with his supporters insisting he actually won the disputed 2007 election against Mwai Kibaki.

And in 2013 the incumbent, President Uhuru Kenyatta, just scraped past the 50 per cent mark with a mere 8,000 votes to be declared winner. Mr Odinga’s subsequent petition over alleged electoral irregularities was dismissed by the Supreme Court and so today he has kicked off another lap of his political journey to State House.

If he trudges on well, he will be installed Kenya’s fifth President, but if he falters in his steps, it could bring down the curtains on a momentous and colourful career that spans three decades.

MORE CAUTIOUS

Mr Odinga’s handlers say he is, more than ever before, mentally and psychologically prepared for the August elections. Dr Adams Oloo, a member of his strategy team, observes that the Nasa campaign is more cautious this time round and alive to the possibility of poll machinations.

“He had previously never taken it seriously that state machinery can take away the people’s right to enjoy a victory they have purposed,” says the political scientist, with reference to the 2007 disputed election results.

This partly explains why the Nasa brigade has kept the electoral body on its toes and incessantly raised objections virtually at every move they deem suspicious by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

“He has been on this journey long enough and that comes with its advantages. He has matured in the game and has created a solid voter base over the time. Raila is obviously politically wiser and smarter and this poll will prove just that,” says Dr Oloo.

When he kicked off his political career in the late 1980s, through street demos to push the one-party President Daniel arap Moi administration to embrace political pluralism, Mr Odinga was largely an unpolished politician in approach, physical appearance and even in speech, which was often unintelligible.

TRANSFORMATION

Spotting bushy beards or a goatee, like Mr Odinga did, as well as colleagues in the struggle — including Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, Mukaru Ng’ang’a and George Moseti Anyona — was fashionable at the time. But it gave them a noticeably militant look. Others, like Koigi wa Wamwere, had long and unruly dreadlocks.

But Mr Odinga and Mr Wamwere gradually changed this “defiance look” by shaving their beards and dreadlocks. By the time he was leading his National Development Party (NDP) into a merger with the ruling Kanu party in 2001, Mr Odinga had greatly transformed his outlook. His mastery of Swahili language had similarly improved.

It is also at this point, observes Mr Wamwere, that Mr Odinga managed to shake off the tribal tag by teaming up with politicians from across the country in Kanu and rising to the position of secretary-general.

Mr Odinga joined elective politics in 1992 aged 46. And he did it in style by storming the Ford-Kenya party National Delegates Conference (NDC) at Nairobi’s city stadium accompanied by twig-waving rowdy youths.

His father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was on the podium addressing the delegates, was visibly enraged by the commotion caused by the late entry. He stopped midway and addressed his son: “Amolo, can you tell those boys to stop shouting.”

Although the younger Odinga eventually obliged, he had made a public statement about his political might and abilities in mobilising crowds. During the NDC, Mr Odinga was allocated a peripheral position of deputy director of elections in a meeting that also endorsed his father as Ford-Kenya’s chairman and presidential candidate.

BIGGEST HEADACHE

Mr Odinga went on to get elected as MP for Lang’ata constituency on a Ford-Kenya ticket. Before finally settling in the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) outfit, he earned the dubious title of king of party hopping. He changed parties a record five times within a decade – from Ford-Kenya, NDP, Kanu, National Rainbow Coalition, Liberal Democratic Party and ODM, which has been his political home since 2007.

Unknown to many, Mr Odinga entered politics by sheer accident – after employment opportunities in government and all other avenues to earn a living through “genuine means” were shut on the Odingas.

This was after their father, Kenya’s pioneer vice-president, fell out with President Jomo Kenyatta and later President Daniel Moi. The system was ironically harsher on Mr Odinga’s elder brother, who is now a nominated MP, because it was believed he was next in line to succeed his father.

Nobody gave Mr Odinga much thought because he was considered a harmless “technical person” having studied engineering and that is how he even got a job at University of Nairobi as a lecturer and later as director at Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs). Focus was more on the “dangerous” Dr Oginga, the social scientist and economist. How wrong they were!

A few years down the line, Mr Odinga would become the establishment’s biggest headache, leading to his arrest and dismissal from Kebs. Dr Oginga explains that his brother joined politics to protest against the injustice being visited upon his family and the rest of Kenyans.

LUCKY NUMBER

And ever since, Mr Odinga has never looked back. He trudges on and this time with even more vigour and hoping – like the Biblical Joshua – to deliver his supporters to the Promised Land.

And if you are superstitious or equally believe in the stars, then you will be tempted to agree with the Nasa operatives that this indeed is Mr Odinga’s race. His lucky number happens to be “seven”.