At first, he appeared to be the most unlikely candidate
for the task. After his fifth attempt at running for Kenya’s
presidency, surely Raila Odinga is finished, done. The
only thing left perhaps was how to update his memoirs.
But who needs nuggets from a loser who couldn’t put
them to use himself?
These were the thoughts that weighed on our minds as
we thought of inviting former Kenyan Prime Minister and
freshly defeated candidate of the Orange Democratic
Movement, Raila Odinga, to the 14 th edition of the
LEADERSHIP annual conference and awards.
It’s also interesting that since he narrowly lost last year’s
presidential election to William Ruto who framed the
campaign as an epic battle of “hustler vs. dynasty”,
Odinga has received several invitations to speak at major
international forums in the US and Europe. There must
be a lesson or two about his defeat that keeps the world
wanting to hear from his experience.
But the attraction for LEADERSHIP was even more. On
the eve of Nigeria’s general election, with its attendant
anxieties, tensions and concerns that violence could mar
the outcome – or worse, upend it altogether – who else
is more qualified to share valuable experience than a
man who was a presidential candidate in the Kenyan
general election in 2007, which claimed over 1,200 lives
and another election in 2017 which left at least 37 dead,
many more wounded and thousands fleeing their
Only last October, former two-term Kenyan President
and also contestant in these two elections, Uhuru
Kenyatta, was the guest of the Nigerian government at a
ministerial performance retreat in Abuja.
Unlike when he came on a state visit eight years ago,
Kenyatta made no public statements this time, leaving a
heavy cloud of cynicism in some circles that the man who
betrayed Odinga and paved the way for Ruto’s victory,
was perhaps delighted to sneak into Abuja, Nigeria’s
capital, like a thief in the night.
The press couldn’t get Kenyatta to clear the air. So, we
thought it would be a good idea to invite Odinga,
described as one of the most consequential Kenyan
politicians in the last three decades by Professor Femi
Badejo in his notable biography, “Raila Odinga: An
Enigma in Kenyan Politics”, to shed some light on the
cauldron of Kenyan elections.
I’m glad we did. My two previous articles on Kenya after
the October presidential elections leaned more towards
Ruto, because I felt strongly that the Odinga and
Kenyatta dynasties have run their course and that
perhaps Kenyan politics deserved a breath of fresh air.
But inviting Odinga carried its own risks, too. Just one
day before he arrived in Abuja, he held a huge rally in
Jacaranda, Nairobi, where he announced there would be
a series of rallies against Ruto’s government.
Odinga insisted that the government was illegitimate,
vowed that he would not be silenced, and likened Ruto’s
government to the biblical tax collector, Zacchaeus,
notorious for inflicting punitive taxes on the people. And
then the next day, he got on the plane and headed to
Abuja, with a six-member delegation comprising a
professor and a senator, to speak on “Credible Elections
and an Economy in Transition”.
If the topic sounded just right for Nigeria ahead of an
election foreshadowed by deadly attacks on voting
infrastructure, widespread displacement of populations
as a result of banditry, and economic chaos; it presented
different optics for Nigeria’s diplomatic relations with
Giving Odinga, the leader of the largest opposition party,
a microphone after his Jacaranda rally, was like providing
a foreign staging post for attacks on the new government
in Nairobi, still struggling. It could be seen as lending the
“enemy” a hand.
But it doesn’t matter. Part of why Africa has experienced
five unconstitutional changes in government in two
years, with West Africa as the epicentre, has been
because of shambolic management of elections and
political transitions, among other things.
The continent must grow beyond the rituals of holding
periodic elections, which are increasingly trigger points
for violent changes in governments. Africa has to find a
way to make politics work for a far greater number of
citizens who are currently either induced or indifferent
spectators in their own game. A good place to start
would be a robust opposition. That is why it made sense
to hear Odinga out. And he didn’t disappoint.
As we waited for him to join us at the welcome dinner in
Transcorp Hilton on Monday night, I wondered what he
was going to say. The Secretary to the Government of
the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, was present as were
representatives of the Kenyan High Commission, and a
crème of professionals and business people.
Just a few days earlier a friend had shared a viral video of
Odinga with me where the former prime minister ribbed
his audiences with a bitter joke about Nigeria. It was
about a Nigerian minister on a visit to Malaysia, who was
told by his host that 10 percent of the money for the nice
roads in Kuala Lumpur had been diverted to build the
palatial house where the Nigerian minister was being
On the Malays’ return visit, he wanted to know where his
Nigerian counterpart got the money to build his own
palatial house, especially since the roads he had seen
were filled with potholes. The Nigerian minister took his
guest to the window, smiled and said, “100 percent of
what was supposed to have been used to build the roads
was used here (pointing to his palace).”
Yet, if you have read Michela Wrong’s “It’s Our Turn to
Eat”, you might forgive Kenyans for making corruption in
Nigeria the butt of their jokes. No matter, something told
me that out of courtesy, Odinga, a politician who
prefaces his speeches with jokes and wisecracks, will as a
matter of courtesy, spare Nigeria this time.
When the former prime minister and leader of the
Kenyan Orange Democratic Movement finally showed up
in the dinner room without airs, no fuss. He wore a
simple blue-and-white long-sleeve kaftan top over a
white pair of trousers and entered the room like the
In my brief comments before he took the podium, I
improvised his Malaysian joke saying that he would find
Abuja’s main roads well paved. I added that while I
wasn’t sure that a kobo of the money used for the roads
found its way into the palatial hotel, I could assure him
that his host, LEADERSHIP, can account for the cost of
the dinner we were about to have.
He later told guests that the last time he was in Nigeria
was in 2007 as a member of the international observers
for the general elections that year and recounted how a
policeman who had flagged down his car insisted that he
looked every inch a Nigerian and admonished him for
flouting the restriction order.
And then, he spoke about the Kenyan election. He said
new evidence from the server which the Supreme Court
had denied access during the post-election legal dispute,
showed that over two million votes which could have
given him a clear edge over Ruto were suppressed.
“How can anyone live with such injustice?” he asked. At
that moment I surveyed the room and locked eyes with
the representative of the Kenyan ambassador. His face
Odinga wasn’t done. He said he would not be silenced
and that he didn’t think it was too much not just to ask
for justice to be done, but for it to be seen to be done
and for the will of the Kenya people to find true
The old war horse that he is, the next day, the main
conference day, he deployed a tactical manoeuvre. Of
course, he expressed concern about more elections and
yet less credible outcomes, about state capture of
election management bodies, and the use of voting
machines to rig, Odinga left the heavy, pointed lifting to
his cohort, Akau Mutua, a Kenyan American professor of
Law based in New York.
Speaking off tempore, Mutua hammered the Kenyan
Supreme Court for obstructing access to vital evidence
and for its complicity in perverting the course of justice.
It’s only a matter of time, he said, before the
shenanigans would unravel. As Mutua said that the hall
erupted in applause and I spotted Odinga smiling.
“So, what are you going to do about the newly
discovered two million votes”, I asked him later that day
in his hotel.
“You wait and see”, he replied. “We’re building a
movement that will hold the system to account for its
injustice. How can there be another election until this
matter is resolved?”
At this point, I remembered what his father, Jaramogi
Oginga Odinga, might have said of Kenya: “It’s not yet
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP