Kenyan elections: last chance for veteran challenger Odinga

by Njoki Wamai

Veteran Kenyan opposition politician Raila Odinga, 72, makes his final bid for the presidency as he challenges incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta in elections on Tuesday, August 8. There is something of a dynastic struggle about the electoral contest – the two contenders are the sons of the two founding fathers of independent Kenya – yet on the eve of the  election the poll remained too close to call, with 6% of the 19 million registered voters undecided. The outcome of the election, the sixth since Kenya embraced multi-party politics in 1992, will depend on the elderly challenger’s ability to mobilise younger and urban voters and to break the ethnic logic that has dominated Kenyan politics since independence.

Two months ago Kenyatta, 55, was widely favoured to win, but Odinga has closed the gap in the last few days. The other three contenders are all former academics who aren’t likely to make any serious impact on the presidential race in 2017, though they have provided a ‘third way’ outside the partisan politics that Kenyatta and Odinga are seen to represent. While Kenyatta’s Jubilee and Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA) coalitions offer largely similar programmes in education and security, the differences between them are to be found in the areas of economy, social welfare and how to deal with past injustices perpetuated by different regimes.

Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013 in spite of the International Criminal Court (ICC) charges against him for alleged crimes against humanity during the violence that followed the December 2007 election. Kenyatta teamed up with William Ruto to form the Jubilee Coalition which won the 2013 election. After a campaign that cast the ICC as an imperial and neo-colonial force that threatened Kenya’s sovereignty, the election result seemed a symbolic defeat for the ICC and its supporters. In the 2017 election, Uhuru Kenyatta has campaigned on a platform based on his past achievements in the last five years. He points to his government’s role in infrastructure development such as the successful completion of the construction of the first standard gauge railway from the coastal city of Mombasa to capital Nairobi.

Kenyatta also prides himself on implementing the 2010 devolved constitution by investing more in healthcare across the devolved counties and better service delivery through the Huduma centres. Huduma centres are government ‘one stop shops’ for all government services which include identity services like passports and driving licence applications, company and association registration, birth and death registrations among other government services. Previously, citizens in far flung rural areas had to travel to the major cities like Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa to access government services but they are now available at the county level following devolution of government services.

Political dynasties

Raila Odinga, an old hand in Kenyan politics, is making his final stab at the presidency. Odinga, 72,  has been part of Kenya’s democracy movement since Uhuru’s father Jomo Kenyatta was president. The Odingas and the Kenyattas have a long history in Kenya’s politics. Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga, the fathers of this year’s candidates, are also considered the fathers of Kenyan independence though they soon fell out due to their ideological inclinations during the Cold War. Jomo Kenyatta supported western allies and Jaramogi Odinga supported Russia. The increasingly repressive Jomo Kenyatta frustrated the older Odinga’s quest for multiparty politics when he attempted to form a political party in 1966. The second president, Daniel arap Moi, later detained the younger Odinga for clamouring for greater freedoms during his authoritarian rule between 1978 and 2002.

Despite coming from an equally prominent and privileged background, Raila Odinga is considered more in touch with ordinary people given his history of protesting tyrannical leadership and demanding pro-poor policies: measures that his critics dismiss as rhetoric. Raila Odinga promises to introduce universal healthcare, universal education, increased support for the elderly and unemployed, and investments in low-income housing, while also supporting investors by creating an enabling environment. Kenyatta has also promised similar pro-poor projects.

The one striking policy difference is Odinga’s intention to implement the 2014 Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report which was commissioned by the past Kibaki government but never implemented by Kenyatta. The report promises to address several issues which have been an impediment to Kenya’s nation building project such as the land question which has its roots in British colonial land expropriation and the failure of the Jomo Kenyatta government to provide redress. The Kenyatta family is therefore accused of perpetuating land inequity, and the current president Uhuru Kenyatta has been non-committal about addressing past injustices.

Maize scandal

Various other decisions by Uhuru Kenyatta both in the past and more recently have provided further fuel for his opponents. One is the failure to debate Odinga in person prior to the election. Since 2013 Kenya has adopted American-style public debates hosted by the media and universities. The presidential debate is said to have had 9.2 million Kenyans watching but President Kenyatta dismissed the exercise as a waste of time, rather as Prime Minister Theresa May did before the recent British elections. The Kenyatta government also stands accused over the current high cost of the staple food, ugali (maize meal). When government suddenly released low-cost maize meal onto the market a few months ago, the opposition accused it of stockpiling maize and then releasing it as a political gesture to buy votes for Jubilee.

Increased corruption has further reduced Kenyatta’s popularity, particularly outside of his Kikuyu ethnic group. Although Jubilee pledged at the last election to address corruption, the intervening years have been marked by scandals that are are alleged to have been orchestrated by cabinet secretaries and officials close to the president. Campaigns in this last week became increasingly animated as threats against rigging claims and counter claims made by the opposition against the government and vice versa dominate campaigns. Both candidates are confident of an election win.

Ethnic identities have long been assumed to play a prominent role in Kenyan politics, and this logic will to prevail to a certain extent in this election, especially in rural areas. Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto, a Kalenjin, are relying on their mainly Kikuyu and Kalenjin supporters to turn up in large numbers and vote as a bloc in their regional strongholds. Odinga is also relying on his own ethnic group, the Luo, and other populous ethnic groups who have joined his coalition. However, the ethnic logic is being eroded particularly in the cities, and more especially in Nairobi, where voters are more likely to vote based on policy and class issues. But the lack of clear difference between the two candidates on many of the key policy issues has made the race less predictable than before. With the Kenyatta-Ruto team failing to energize new voters outside their populous ethnic blocs, much will depend on whether Odinga’s new, young, urban supporters and the old ones from his ethnic coalition take the trouble to go out and vote.

Follow election day developments in Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper.


About the Author

Njoki Wamai

Njoki Wamai is a postdoctoral research associate at POLIS. She recently completed her doctoral thesis on the politics of the International Criminal Court intervention in Kenya. @njokiwamai | new24@cam.ac.uk