Raila Odinga: Veteran Kenyan oppositionist vies again

2017-08-07 12:00
Raila Odinga (File: AFP)

Raila Odinga (File: AFP)

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Nairobi - Raila Odinga, Kenya's veteran opposition leader and one-time prime minister, is taking his fourth tilt at the presidency in next week's election.

The 72-year-old has been a mainstay of Kenyan politics since the 1980s but has never achieved his presidential ambition.

His career emulates that of his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who led the opposition for three decades but never the country.

This time Odinga is heading a coalition called the National Super Alliance (NASA) which hopes to overcome traditional opposition divisions to defeat incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, 55, and his ruling Jubilee Party in the August 8 poll.

The Kenyatta vs. Odinga battle is set to be the last in a dynastic political rivalry between the two families that began when Jaramogi Odinga lost out to Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first post-independence leader: Kenyatta is only allowed to serve one more term while Odinga is seen as too old to make a fresh bid for the presidency in five years' time.

Lifelong presidential ambition

Born into political royalty, a member of Kenya's western Luo tribe, Odinga entered parliament in 1992 during the rule of president Daniel arap Moi and after spending much of the previous decade jailed or in exile during the struggle for democracy.

He vied for the presidency in 1997, 2007 and 2013, claiming to have been cheated in the last two votes.

Many observers agree with Odinga's view that the 2007 election was stolen from him.

The result triggered widespread politically-motivated tribal violence which left more than 1,100 dead.

To stop the killings, international mediators forced a deal that saw the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, continue as president with Odinga taking the specially-created position of prime minister in a power-sharing government.

He held the post until 2013 when he ran for president, losing to Kenyatta by a very narrow margin and then losing his court challenge of the result.

A decade on, the violence of 2007 looms over Kenya's politics, throwing fuel onto the smouldering fire of tribal resentment.

Many Luos believe they - through Odinga - are being denied political power by a cabal of Kikuyu elites currently led by Kenyatta.

In rallies and public statements Odinga has said he is "poised for an outright win", accused Kenyatta of seeking to rig the election and called on his supporters to "protect our vote" -- a barely-veiled threat to take to the streets if they don't like the result.

A polarising politician

Supporters regard Odinga as a much-needed social reformer, while detractors say he is a rabble-rousing populist unafraid to play the tribal card.

Renowned as a firebrand speaker able to galvanise a crowd with his growling oratory, Odinga, described as stubborn and sometimes short-tempered, seems to have lost a bit of his rallying skills with some attributing the change to ill-health and advancing years.

With speech notes in hand he often stumbles and labours his words - especially in English - but speaking off-the-cuff and in his native Swahili he retains the ability to inspire.

Married, Odinga has three surviving children: Rosemary, Raila Junior and Winnie.

Odinga grew up an Anglican and later converted to evangelicalism, being baptised in a Nairobi swimming pool by a self-proclaimed prophet in 2009.

He studied engineering in communist former East Germany, and he named his eldest son Fidel, who died in 2015, after the Cuban revolutionary.

However, observers say the "socialist" and "communist" labels he was given were more an attempt to discredit him by the Moi regime than an accurate reflection of his leanings.

After returning to Kenya in 1970 Odinga set up as a businessman before following his father into politics.

Nowadays he describes himself as a social democrat who wants to fight inequality.

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