Raila Odinga set on Kenya's top job

2013-03-01 11:07
Raila Odinga

Raila Odinga

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Nairobi - At 68, Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister and historical opposition leader, is having his third and likely final stab at the country's top job.

The presidential aspirant, a Luo from the western region of Nyanza who likes to say he was "born into politics" is optimistic that he can win straight out in the first round.

Odinga, often known rather by his first name Raila to distinguish him from his father Jaramogi, a prominent post-independence political figure, and his brother Oburu, a member of parliament, has pursued his political ambitions undeterred by beatings, persecution, exile and several spells in jail.

"He's never finished," said political analyst Mutahi Ngunyi. "Even when everything seems to be going against him, he pulls a rabbit out of his hat and reinvents himself."

In all, Odinga spent almost eight years in jail without trial before briefly being granted political asylum in Norway at the beginning of the 1990s.

His admirers point to the fact that while most Kenyan politicians have their constituency in the town where they were born, Odinga is an exception, being a Nairobi MP.

"Raila is a Luo without question, but he is instinctively and ideologically a genuine nationalist as well," one advisor says.

On the walls of his suite of offices, portraits of himself, his father, and anti-colonial rebel leader Dedan Kimathi jostle for space with the pictures that late conservationist Joy Adamson painted of the different tribes of Kenya.

Odinga was a contender in the 1997 elections where he came third after Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, now the outgoing president.

Stubborn and short-tempered

In 2002 he backed Kibaki, who won. In 2007 he ran again, against Kibaki this time, and lost, whereupon his supporters accused Kibaki of having rigged the results.

Daniel Branch, an academic and the author of a book on Kenya's recent history, says Odinga sees the March 4 poll as an opportunity to make up for the injustice of the last elections.

"Odinga is no doubt motivated by a desire to right what he sees as the injustice of 2007, when he and his supporters think he won the presidential vote," Branch told AFP.

Long renowned as a firebrand speaker able to galvanise any crowd, Odinga, described as stubborn and sometimes short-tempered, has lost some of his skills as an orator.

Some attribute the change to ill-health that started to take hold in 2006; others say it started when he became prime minister in 2008.

Once he became prime minister, "he could no longer criticise things that were wrong in government without having to do something about them," one of his advisors told AFP.

His energy has also waned - on at least two occasions recently he has been seen almost nodding off during an interview.

However his advisors point out that his pre-election schedule is so gruelling it would exhaust a much younger candidate.

"He's reached an age where he's starting to get tired, and then you have to look at his hectic schedule," said Mwalimu Mati, a prominent civil society figure and anti-corruption campaigner.

Odinga has also dropped some of his more colourful touches such as showing up at rallies in a red Hummer.

Food, education and jobs

Married to Ida, Odinga has four children: Fidel, Winnie, Rosemary and Raila Junior.

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 the former east Germany, in Magdeburg and Leipzig, and he called his oldest son Fidel 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.

In a recent interview he reminded AFP that he is a businessman. Somewhat controversially he launched his petroleum import company when he was energy minister in 2001 under Daniel arap Moi.

Odinga has "accumulated" wealth during his time in politics says anti-graft campaigner Mati, "but not on the same scale as Uhuru Kenyatta", his main rival in the race.

If he wins, Odinga told AFP he would prioritise "food, education and jobs" and that he wanted to make Kenya self-sufficient in food production.

He also promised that if elected he would cut the salary of the president and the vice president, but had to admit somewhat weakly he could not remember by what percentage.

In the days of the Cold War, his father Jaramogi's closeness to the Soviet Union worried observers.

Raila, however, is seen largely favourably by the international community, particularly since his main rival Uhuru Kenyatta faces a crimes against humanity trial by the International Criminal Court.

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