Top Stories / 2017 Elections
Wednesday, 29 Mar 2017 10:40 EAT
When the phone rang for the third time in 10 minutes last week, I knew it must be urgent, so I excused myself from the lunch table to take the call. It was a close friend from Nairobi, a staunch Raila Odinga supporter, who wanted to make sure I’d give the former prime minister his message when I met him in New York.
His message was hardly novel: he said NASA would easily triumph in August, but Kalonzo Musyoka would bolt if he was not chosen as the flag-bearer, which could see victory slip out of the opposition’s grasp. My friend therefore wanted me to urge Raila to make this one last sacrifice for the country, and anoint Kalonzo to seal a better Kenyan future.
My friend’s panic wasn’t surprising. This scenario of NASA losing the election if Raila is at the head of its ticket has been the stuff of headlines recently, but Raila’s demonization has in fact been the hallmark of Kenya politics for years: He’s power hungry and will stop at nothing to get to the top. He’s a polarizing figure, there’d be violence if he won, so he should be a kingmaker rather than a candidate (that was in 2007, but its doing the rounds again now). The government and ruling elites will never allow him to win, so someone else should lead NASA.
But the funniest anti-Raila canard was last July, when in the epic struggle between Jubilee and CORD for Luhya support, vast crowds turned out for Raila’s rallies. No problem, said Jubilee detractors -Raila cannot translate crowds into votes! Some people really hate Raila. Or fear him.
The anti-Raila fervor is entirely normal. The world over, political challengers share one aim: undermine the opposition front runner. So Raila is often targeted not just by government supporters but some fellow opposition figures too.
This has taken its toll, but it’s also helped shore up his large base, and cemented his reputation of being such a popular champion of the common person that the government and the rich fear him more than anyone else. The same goes for the army of corrupt oligarchs and the security and other establishment elites who surround, and owe their fortunes, to the presidency. As my friend Ndung’u Wainaina tweeted recently, “it is corrupt leaders and elite beneficiaries of corrupt deals who feel most threatened by opposition chief Raila Odinga”. Never mind that Raila has shown over the years that he is very pragmatic and would not use a blunderbuss to achieve his goals.
The coming selection of the NASA leader will be a pivotal moment in our history as it could mark the first shift of power to a progressive-led coalition. If it occurs, it’d finally break the hold on Kenya of the continuously reigning group that inherited power at independence in 1963. Officials tasked with the choosing the flag bearer must therefore make the decision based on the most rigorous and objective analysis of which leader provides best hope of victory.
I am convinced that a united NASA stands an excellent chance of success under Kalonzo’s or Mudavadi’s leadership - that is how thoroughly discredited Jubilee is. It embarked on a looting spree from Day One, and refused to put on the brakes even as the election season approached. There is clearly a profound dysfunction at the heart of the presidency, with President Uhuru Kenyatta unable or unwilling to impose even rudimentary order. Or perhaps there a decision was made that as much money as could be siphoned off from the state was the more important priority than public opinion, as leaders can be bought bring along their followers.
In any event, this dysfunction has driven ordinary Kenyans into unimaginable deprivations or to the underworld, scrambling every single day to somehow acquire their own and their families’ most necessities, most of which have never been so unaffordable. Jubilee has also overseen the evisceration of our local economy and laid waste huge numbers of productive enterprises and the jobs they produced.
The system is utterly broken and no longer has the capacity to perform government’s most basic function of providing basic human security, social, economic or political. Kenyans know that, even in Jubilee’s heartland, but of course to many want their own to run government, everything else is secondary. We are heading towards disaster on too many fronts, not least of which is the polarizing ethnicity, which could break us apart once again.
Few who manage government are attending to that danger or devoting themselves to providing services they are mandated to do. All hands are on board to ensure Jubilee retains power in the election. Hence the effort to yank Kalonzo from NASA is at fever pitch, in one final effort to eke out a win, or at least have a credible explanation for one. This campaign about Kalonzo leaving has continued despite his having stated that he is with Nasa to stay. One newspaper reported in a blazing headline last week that Raila had rushed back from his US visit because of a Kalonzo crisis, but that was patently false – Raila had told me and others on the day he arrived in NY that he was returning to Kenya a week later – and that’s when he departed. Kalonzo incidentally was again reported by the Nation to have repeated his NASA commitment on Friday. He also some of the talk about his leaving comes from some within Nasa.
Kalonzo’s loss would have huge 9but not fatal) consequences as he has enormous credibility within NASA, having courageously stayed within the “opposition wilderness” alongside Raila, and resisting blandishments and political threats that have also been thrown at Musalia Mudavadi, as well as Hassan Joho and others. Kalonzo also campaigned brilliantly for CORD in 2013, and he is one of our least tainted leaders. I cannot see what he would gain by leaving NASA than what NASA could offer him in the event he was not chosen its leader. In any event, both he and Musalia were shunted aside by Uhuru after they had been assured of the top spot in Jubilee for the 2013 election.
But while Kalonzo as a united NASA flagbearer would be able to dispatch Uhuru, I believe even more strongly that it’s only Raila who can ENSURE victory - and in the first round. The internal polling from the NASA coordinating group led by David Ndii and other polls provide overwhelming evidence that Raila at the head of the ticket would garner the most votes.
But there are other crucial reasons I think Raila would as well. We all know that turnout is the key to victory amid the intense dissatisfaction and disaffection of our polarized times. Hillary Clinton, considered the most qualified candidate in decades to run for the US presidency, lost to Trump, the LEAST qualified candidate with abhorrent views, because she did not enjoy passionate national support, which depressed her turnout. Even the highly popular President Obama’s insistently urging his vast constituency to vote for Hillary failed to move many to the polls last November.
Kalonzo enjoys passionate support within his own and some other populous regions, but in the key vote-rich Nyanza and Western blocs, NASA turnout would be significantly reduced without Raila leading it. Current polling aside, this was borne out by provincial voting totals when Kalonzo ran in 2007. That year also marked Kalonzo’s most unfortunate decision to throw in his lot with President Kibaki after a very tainted election.
In terms of passionate grassroots support from outside his own region, Raila is unmatched by any Kenyan leader. That’s because Raila has always had a clear, national, pro-people social democratic ideology. That’s what made him the only major political leader who dared stand for elections outside his home region. All our four presidents ran for office from their home turfs; President Kibaki stood in a Nairobi constituency, but after a very close race in 1969 which he almost lost to Jael Mbogo, he shifted to Othaya.
Another crucial factor behind the passion for Raila is the perception that he is the one leader with the commitment, the boldness and the personal strengths needed to dismantle our ruthless and deeply-entrenched oligarchic business and security cartels. These groups control much of the nation’s wealth and exercise a stranglehold on people’s democratic and economic aspirations and will not fear someone merely because he or she was elected president. Raila gets the nod on this because of his long history of resistance against the system.
He is in fact the only major current leader who has paid an enormous price for his convictions with almost a decade in brutal detention. As President, he would finally have the instruments with which to begin the long-overdue process of cleaning up our utterly corrupted system. I despair for Kenya if Raila is not elected in August, as there is no one on the horizon among the half dozen or so major candidates with a chance to win the presidency who can be considered genuinely progressive.
Despite heroic struggles and sacrifices, meaningful change has eluded Kenya so far as power has stayed within a small group that inherited independence a full half century ago. No other democratic African country has seen such a monopoly on political power. This reality is uncannily captured in a photograph that shows all our four presidents ceremonially standing next to each other – President Jomo Kenyatta, his VP Moi, Moi’s VP Kibaki and presidential offspring and Kibaki’s Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru! I believe that is the only such photograph in the world showing four elected presidents whose reigns would end up spanning 54 years (but hopefully not 59!).
If NASA can stay united, change is around the corner. Once NASA transparently selects a flagbearer, the first and most important order of business is a vigorous campaign which spells out, over and over again, very clear and simple messages about what it stands for and what it will provide our people.
NASA supporters love condemnations of Jubilee’s many depredations, but doing merely that, or as is happening too often, focusing on answering diversionary accusations, or engaging in political tit for tat, would be a huge mistake. Kenyans want to know what NASA would actually do for them, and how. The means of independently communicating such messages to the people must be found, as most of the media will not highlight them, media’s inevitable commitment is to fight for the status quo.
What people need most is jobs, education, easy access to health and affordable food and housing. They need to hear how NASA will provide these as well as the fundamental frameworks for the overarching principles of inclusion, equity and devolution. Jubilee did not provide any of this in the four years it ruled. A united Raila-led NASA needs to convince Kenya that it can and will. That – and a clean election – will see it prevail.
Salim Lone, a journalist and columnist for the Daily Nation for many years, was spokesman and adviser to opposition leader/Prime Minister Raila Odinga 2005-2013. He is now writing a book on the post-Moi years, and lives in Princeton in the United States.