I found it hard to form a conclusive opinion on Raila Odinga prior to our interview at the Union. My research into the leader of Kenya’s opposition party showed him to be a deeply polarising figure. His career spans decades, and his supporters point to his commitment to democratic reform as Kenya has cycled through leaders, transitioned from a one-party state to a multiparty democracy, and ratified a new constitution. But others see his shifting political alliances during these changing political conditions as indicating a thirst for power. In light of this latter point, I asked how his political activity has changed as Kenya’s political conditions have evolved.
“I was arrested; I was detained three times for a total of nine years,” he told me of his time opposing Kenya’s single party regime. Since the country managed to achieve multiparty democracy, he said, “I’ve been in parliament both as opposition and also as government for a total of 20 years.” He told me about his time as Prime Minister, a post that was created as part of a power-sharing deal after his loss in the 2007 election spurred ethnic violence that killed over a thousand people. He cites the transition to multiparty democracy and the achievement of a new constitution—he led the campaign to approve the constitution—as high points for the opposition.
Such was his history going into Kenya’s most recent elections, which occurred last August. He narrowly lost, but the Supreme Court nullified the election and called for new ones after Odinga and his party claimed that the poll had been rigged. But when it was time for the new election, Odinga withdrew his candidacy. When I asked him why he had done so, he told me that the electoral commission had failed to improve upon the problems which had plagued the first election. So “we decided not to participate in the repeat because it was going to be a charade. We asked our people to stay away and there was a massive boycott of the repeat poll.”
What happened next was yet more controversial. “Our people decided that, since we know the results of the server, (the results which were in the ICT [the server] showed that we had won the elections) we should swear in, and so we did swear ourselves in.” This deepened the rift between Odinga and the incumbent Kenyatta. That rift lasted until last month, when Odinga and Kenyatta decided to put their differences aside and enter into a dialogue. I was curious as to why Odinga swerved from swearing himself in to reconciling with Kenyatta, so I asked what prompted him to do so.
You see, there’s two options,” he told me. “We realized one of them would end up basically [with the] disintegration of the country.” He cited the examples of the USSR, Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Ethiopia in explaining that he would rather join with Kenyatta to tackle Kenya’s problems than sow the seeds of discord. “We set up a team to initiate a national dialogue on these issues so that a consensus can be arrived at. If we need to change our laws, we will change them. If we need to amend our constitution, we will amend it. If we need to have conferences […], we will do so. So that we can entrench and institutionalize constitutionalism among the people of Kenya.”
When I asked him what the role of the opposition would be in addressing these problems, he stressed the importance of building a national identity. “We need to first discuss amongst ourselves, who are we as Kenyans? Where did we come from?” He cited the Berlin Conference, when Africa was arbitrarily divided into colonies, as the source of the ethnic tension that now characterises Kenyan politics, and he stressed the need to make politics less ethnic and more ideological. “It took this country many years to get to where you are called United Kingdom. It was not just done overnight,” he told me. “This is the kind of opposition we want to have as Kenyans. To create that mentality among the Kenyans that yes, we are a people, one people.”