ODM leader Raila Odinga during an interview with the Standard Group crew at his Upper Hill offices in Nairobi on October 07, 2020. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]
Raila: I have not changed and will still speak truth to power
There is never an easy time to be Raila Odinga. But events over the last couple of months have made it noticeably harder for the man.
As Kenyans broil under heightened political temperatures and an economic downturn largely driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, Raila has been warding off accusations of jumping into bed with a Government that’s made a fine mess of everything.
To his critics, he is silent on the economy, silent on the pandemic, silent on rampant corruption and silent on the politics of the day.
But the former premier insists he has remained loyal to a unity pact with President Uhuru Kenyatta that was sealed with a firm handshake on March 9, 2018. This after piling pressure on the Government through a series of unorthodox manoeuvres.
In this new-found space, Raila insists he is still the same man he has always been. He insists he is still speaking truth to power. He insists he is still holding firm to the ideals that have been close to him over the past four decades of his involvement in politics.
“I have not changed. I have never changed. I am as consistent as I have ever been,” Raila said in a wide-ranging exclusive interview at his Capitol Hill office.
It is easy to believe the former prime minister because he looks at ease in his surroundings. Everything around him seems designed to make him more comfortable. From his black leather loafers to the cushion behind his back on the mahogany seat as well as the constant buzzing of attentive handlers.
Raila says there is only one difference between now and then. “The way I communicate with government has changed. Now I talk to government and government listens.”
Two years ago, communication between Raila and Uhuru had broken down. A hotly contested election in 2017 and his subsequent defeat put him on a collision path with the State. A series of events aimed at antagonising the Government culminated in a public swearing-in as the self-proclaimed ‘people’s president’.
Those heady days now feel like light-years away. The handshake, which was fashioned as a move to bring the country together and build bridges between rival politicians and communities, has thrust him into the orbit of decision-making organs of State.
His Capitol Hill offices have become a sort of Mecca for politicians, technocrats, serving and retired civil servants, as well as Uhuru’s kin. In the midst of these heady trappings of power, the only thing missing is an official State designation.
Raila has never been one to tip-toe around issues. His splashes into political whirlpools have always been noisy, and his dalliance with President Kenyatta has been the definition of messy. Then there is the matter of the President’s deputy, William Ruto, with whom Raila is in a sparring battle.
“I have nothing personal against Mr Ruto,” he insists. But he pulls no punches when he talks about a man who was solidly in his corner 13 years ago when a disputed presidential election plunged the country into chaos.
“Ruto is supposed to be the President’s assistant, but he is missing in action. I don’t know who is side-lining who. If somebody chooses to isolate himself, he should not blame other people.”
While Ruto’s allies say he has been relegated to watching State activities from the benches, Raila insists that the DP is briefed on the goings-on in the country.
“Ruto is part of the handshake. He has been consulted on what is happening. Everyone has been involved.
“If I felt frustrated and side-lined, I would take a walk. Jaramogi was a vice-president and when he found it untenable to stay in government, he stepped aside,” Raila said.
The two leaders had a chance meeting on October 3 during the Kip Keino Classic athletic event at the Nyayo National Stadium. It was a cordial affair with both men seated side by side. As Raila and Ruto watched the runners tear up the track, two different races with a presidency as the main prize must have occupied their minds.
The first is the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) while the second is the debate around President Kenyatta’s succession. While Raila continues to talk up the BBI, insisting that it will be crucial to the nation’s well-being in the future, Ruto has consistently poked holes in it.
For every BBI brick that Raila lays, the deputy president has gone after it with a sledgehammer.
“People are opposing what they have not even read,” Raila said. “These are anarchists who don’t want order in the country. BBI is not for Uhuru or Raila. It is for the people. Let them be the judges.”
The promise of a BBI report has been long coming, though. Postponements have rocked its official presentation to the people. Yet Raila remains hopeful that once presented, the document will be key in solving historical issues.
When asked when the report will be ready, he replies with a curt, “Soon. I cannot be any clearer than that.”
The document, Raila reiterates, belongs to the people. “If they reject it, that is their democratic right. We will go back to the status quo.”
The second race that has set Ruto and Raila on a collision course is the thorny issue of succession politics.
Questions on political ambition and intention have always elicited a straight answer from Raila, but this time he is more measured. Perhaps age has mellowed him and he has learnt to play his cards close to his chest.
His associates say the former premier has in the past been too candid about his intentions thus gifting his opponents with information to thwart his game plan.
“We have agreed with the President that we will not talk about politics until 2022,” Raila said. “We should let the Government focus on delivering what it promised the people in 2017. They have not done what they said they would do and some are busy campaigning. What happened to the jobs that were promised? Now they are issuing people with wheelbarrows and telling us what they will do in two years.”
Before the handshake, the Government was accused of being complacent about corruption. In spite of the handshake, the scandals have refused to go away. In fact, the rot has deepened, with a recent special audit by the Auditor General’s office revealing that the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic led to the loss of billions of shillings.
“Allegations can be wild sometimes. And when we started seeing news in the media about Kemsa, I said that we needed a special audit to know the extent of graft. I have been in Government before,” Raila said.
He continued: “I never play politics with corruption. You don’t condemn people unheard. Whenever we have been speaking, it has been based on professional reports.”
Even as due course of law is followed, Raila says that a bottleneck exists in Kenya’s war against graft.
“We have a problem with the Judiciary. People are taken to court and are either freed or the cases are never heard. The Judiciary is an accomplice in this war against corruption, the weakest link. Look at NYS, Arror, Kimwarer and the land-grabbing cases. There is a lot of hullabaloo in arrests. We need to do something.”
He says excuses by the Judiciary that the prosecution has done a shoddy job hold no water. “I am not a lawyer. But I know the prosecution has carried out its duty, but they are not being heard.”
As the evening sunsets over Upper Hill, the view from Raila’s rooftop office opens up to long shadows thrown by the surrounding buildings. The ODM leader is accustomed to shadows been cast at the most inopportune moments.
Recently, there was a falling out in his party after attempts to impeach Migori Governor Okoth Obado floundered. Raila declines to comment on the matter. “I don’t want to talk about particular individuals. The Migori affair is an internal matter.”
As the interview progresses, scores of politicians flock to his office. A house-keeping matter involving Ruaraka MP TJ Kajwang’ and former Makadara MP George Aladwa needs ironing out. Their respective entourages describe it as a ‘small sibling rivalry’.
They get out of the lift and are drenched in sanitiser before proceeding to the boardroom to wait for their turn with the party leader. There is also a temperature check and an attempt at observing social distancing. Even here, the dangers posed by Covid-19 remain a clear and present danger.
“We would have loved to open up the country even yesterday,” said Raila. “We have lost jobs, our children have been idle at home and we have had a rise in domestic violence. So the easing of these measures is a welcome move.”
Raila believes the Government has tried its best to manage the Covid-19 crisis. “Although the initial response was slow, the Government caught up. I will give them a 7/10 score. Nobody in the world was prepared for the virus.”
As for his next move, he is intent on keeping his rivals guessing whether he will be on the ballot, or if he will play kingmaker.