By Washington Osiro,
This past week on April 1st (I know) I heard a show on my favorite radio station National Public Radio (NPR) that got me thinking about the current state of Kenya’s politics. The show was about California’s US Senator Dianne Feinstein. Ms. Feinstein is the senior senator from California. She has been in office for almost thirty years after replacing GOP Senator Pete Wilson who resigned in 1992. While length of service and old age are not necessarily disqualifiers from holding public office, they become liabilities when they hinder one’s ability to effectively do their job. To this end, the New Yorker magazine wrote a scathing article aptly titled Dianne Feinstein’s Missteps Raise a Painful Age Question Among Senate Democrats where staff writer and author Jane Mayer effectively questioned the mental acuity and effectiveness of the 87-year-old former Mayor of San Francisco.
Likewise, NPR’s California Report was effectively asking whether Senator Dianne Feinstein is past her prime and should step down from office; should have stepped down while at the top of her game like her counterpart, the diminutive Barbara Boxer, did in 2017. Boxer, the two-term senator retired after her second term having defeated former HP executive/GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina by 10 points: 52-42.
The contrast between the political lives of California’s two US Senators got me thinking about the longtime face of Kenya’s political opposition Raila Amolo Odinga.
Like Dianne Feinstein’s widely panned and ineffectual performance during the 2020 Senate Confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, the thankfully COVID-free octogenarian cut a sad and tired figure walking the streets of Nairobi alongside the younger but visibly more rotund and laboring President Uhuru Kenyatta. Along with the president, the still-recuperating RAO were “inspecting” development projects in Nairobi with Uhuru’s deputy Ruto nowhere to be seen.
The visuals of the two leaders, masked and socially distanced in the Lock-down Part Deux depopulated Nairobi, were simultaneously metaphorical and literal.
In the two progenies whose families have sat atop Kenya’s political food chain since independence, the country’s body politic is metaphorically being walked back to its past courtesy of these scions of the two famous political families. The walk back to that past is literally being aided by legislative skullduggery, BBI, that is not new to a country whose pre, then post-independence leadership was shaped in part by legislative manipulation – the obscure Maralal Compromise. For those who do not know, this was the compromise that paved the way for the colonial government’s favored Africans to ascend to power while shutting out individuals they considered disruptive and rebellious.
To reiterate a point, Raila has fought the good fight and for a variety of reasons, he has come up short. Given this reality, the man should have exited the country’s political stage immediately after the twin fiascos of 2017 – the two “elections” that saw “re-election” of Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, and their Jubilee Party to a second five-year term.
RAO should have given the two victors the space to carry out their mandate – as tenuous and shambolic as this mandate was. After all, how many times were Kenyans told that ‘twas Raila’s “obstructionism” and vitriol that was preventing Kenyans from reaping the rewards of Jubilee’s supposedly development-centric agenda? What of the incumbency’s claim that RAO’s political style was “dividing Kenyans and propagating violence?”
By continuing to insert himself into the comedy of errors that has been the last eight years under Jubilee, RAO has not only soiled his image, but has also given the bumbling incumbency a lifeline.
By allowing his person and name to be associated with the boondoggle that is the Building Bridges Initiative even as Kenyans are suffering through a pandemic, RAO has allowed his erstwhile rock-solid creds as Kenya’s posterchild for all things constitutional democracy, participative politics, and care for the down-trodden to be forever linked to a certified power grab by a small coterie of wealthy and entitled members of Kenya’s socio-political and economic elite accurately known as the Dynasties.
By standing alongside the leader of an incumbency demonstrably incapable of Crisis Management Basics, RAO’s likeness and reputation is now etched alongside Uhuru Kenyatta’s schizophrenic (mis)handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Worse, RAO’s erstwhile eagle-eyed lookout for the misuse and abuse of public funds along with use of his lofty perch from which to call out the malfeasance is all but gone. Those who missed Season 1 of COVID Millionaires are now settling in for Season II. Instead of PPEs, ventilators, and lockdown-related funding from Jack Ma et al, Kenyans are now receiving a tutorial on EUA, Sputnik, and COVID-19 vaccine-inspired Cold War between their foreign benefactors – the West, Russia, and China.
Unchanged in either season is cui bono – those who stand to gain from the self-dealing scourge that is the real pandemic Kenya has endured since its birth.
Like Dianne Feinstein, Raila Odinga is now a pale shadow of his former self and his difficult and ineffectual appearance this past week vividly illustrated that. However, while an arguable tipping point of California Democrats along with the progressive and liberal wings of the party have been vocal about their disappointment with Feinstein, Kenya’s opposition, Raila’s base – political AND ethnic – have been mute, almost recalcitrant in voicing their displeasure at their leader’s countenance of his name and likeness providing cover for everything they previously announced absolute resistance to.
If RAO thought that supporting the government of Uhuru Kenyatta would win him support from Uhuru’s supporters, I think that expectation, if one can call it that, has been answered roundly – negatively.
While the 2018 handshake between the two men possibly bought Kenyans peace and stability, it also unleashed a violent and disruptive attack on the remaining strands of safety netting for the country’s neediest as those with the most use the global pandemic to amass even more.
And all the while, tis Raila Amolo Odinga’s name and legacy being dragged through the mud.