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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Raila Odinga: the king-maker who would be king

Raila Odinga is described by both friends and foes as the engine that drives opposition politics in Kenya.

And when the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) elected him as their flag-bearer for the 27 December elections, analysts predicted that the king-maker could now be set to become king.

He ran for office against former President Daniel arap Moi in 1997, coming third behind Mwai Kibaki, the man who went on to win the last election and who now, mysteriously, has secured the support of his former arch-enemy Moi along with the Kikuyu vote of what is known as the "Mount Kenya mafia". Although he trailed in third, that 1997 run secured for Mr Odinga a national profile from which to launch his future presidential bid.

Raila Odinga is the son of Kenya's first vice-president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who split with Kenya African National Unity (Kanu) founding father Jomo Kenyatta in 1966. Raila Odinga is renown for his powerful grassroots organisation. A mechanical engineer by profession, he was accused of plotting a coup against President Moi in 1982, charged with treason and detained without trial for eight years, six of them in solitary confinement, before fleeing to Norway in 1991.

But he returned the following year to join his father's new party, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford).

On Jaramogi Odinga's death, Raila challenged Michael Wamalwa Kijana for the leadership of Ford-Kenya and lost, so left to join the National Development Party (NDP). After the 1997 elections, he merged his NDP with Kanu but was passed over for the Kanu leadership and formed the Rainbow Movement in protest. The Rainbow Movement gave birth to Raila's LDP which went on to join the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) to form NARC, which obliterated KANU from power.

Raila Odinga has a powerful grassroots organisation that can muster more than half a million votes in Luo Nyanza and an estimated 400,000 votes in Western province. With this kind of political clout - and a forceful personality to match - he has been able to influence Kenya's political agenda. He has what some describe as a daredevil character, that is the boldness both to challenge and openly criticise his opponents, a trait which has won him friends and enemies in equal measure.

To his supporters he is known affectionately as Agwambo ['mysterious' in his Dholuo language], and budding politicians from Nyanza have often sought his blessing to launch their careers, feeling that without his nod, they would be bound to fail. In 2002, Moi reached out to him as he sought to repair his dented political image. Raila disbanded the NDP and regrouped his political forces in Moi's Kanu, becoming the party's secretary general as part of the deal. Political analysts at the time predicted that there would be a further falling out between the seasoned duo and it came in 2002, when Moi hand-picked Uhuru Kenyatta to succeed him as Kanu's presidential candidate, in defiance of calls for a ballot. Raila duly walked out, along with key ministers from Moi's government to form the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) party which obliterated Moi and Kenyatta, and removed KANU's 40-year stranglehold on Kenya, bringing Kibaki to power.

He was seen as instrumental in President Kibaki's victory despite the serious injury he incurred in a pre-election accident. "The captain is injured but the struggle continues," Raila declared and Kenyans for the first time voted for an opposition candidate en masse. But he soon fell out with his new ally and launched the ODM in opposition to Kibaki's government to campaign for a No vote in the 2005 constitutional referendum. Raila accused Kibaki of being insincere and failing to live up to his promises to tackle corruption.

Diehard supporters of this East German-trained mechanical engineer believe he could be the right person to deliver the much-wanted changes to Kenyan politics: to put an end to tribalism, nepotism and corruption and bring Kenya into the modern age. As a prominent and successful businessman, he is experienced in global corporate practices and says he intends to inject this knowledge into his administration to reconstruct Kenya's economy. His supporters say Raila is fearless and can be the hands-on president Kenya needs to mend the decades of misrule.

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