How Raila Odinga Lost His Stronghold, Then Kenya’s Presidency

KISUMU, Kenya – For decades, veteran Kenyan opposition politician Raila Odinga has been the main political power broker in western districts around Lake Victoria, relying on ethnic Luo voters to back him. in five consecutive elections for the presidency.

They stuck with the man they affectionately called “Baba” or “father” as he challenged the entrenched corruption and lost the presidential election four times – twice in controversy the vote was too close to call.

But the loyalty of his Luo stronghold was called into question last week, when Mr. Odinga, 77, was tipped to be the fifth, and possibly final, loser to run for president. In an election with more than 14 million voters, the vote count – which he said he intends to challenge in court – showing him only about 233,000 votes behind his opponent, William Rutocurrent vice president.

But he will almost certainly have won the award if more than 600,000 registered voters in the four districts dominated by Luo did not fail. Many residents said in interviews that he has lost their support because he and his party endorse the party’s wealthy and his relatives – rather than those young – for seats in governor, Congress and district councils, showing that he has succumbed to the corrupt machine. he has long objected.

John Okello, 38, a community organizer living in the low-income Obunga area of ​​Kisumu, a city of 1.1 million people living in a low-income area of ​​Kisumu, said: “Raila was once a everyone’s people. “But that’s no longer the case.”

Ethnicity has shaped Kenyan politics for decades, leading to rampant corruption and expropriation and, sometimes around elections, all-out violence. But for the first time this year, millions of voters crossed ethnic lines, changing political dynamics in the region. a bitter election ending with four of the seven national election commissioners walked out and declared that they couldn’t stand the final countminutes before the head of the electoral commission announced the results.

Ethnic shifts are especially evident in Central Kenya, where voters from the Kikuyu community – Kenya’s largest ethnic group – heed the guidance of President Uhuru Kenyatta, a fellow Kikuyu, who anointed Odinga as his successor. Voters in Central Kenya instead voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Ruto, an ethnic Kalenjin.

Ken O. Opalo, a political scientist at Georgetown University, in Washington, who studies Kenyan politics and has been there during election season, said: “The assumption that many people always make is voters. from a community this will wobble in some way. “But there was both fatigue and dissatisfaction with Kenyatta’s performance, and William Ruto’s message resonated with many Kikuyu, which somewhat helped break the cycle of ethnic voting.”

For Mr Odinga, the failure to spark excitement in his own region began before Election Day. In the primaries, his party, the Orange Democratic Movement, or ODM, installed solid members of the party as candidates, overtaking the prospects.

In the primaries, when party members were voting, allegations of corruption, fraud and bullying hampered the process, according to several party members, officials and candidates vying for the position. mind.

Some of those who felt cheated decided to run as independent candidates, only to be pressured to withdraw. When they refused, they said they were ostracized, harassed and being attacked.

“We are accused of being anti-Baba or an enemy of the party,” said Sospeter Obungu Owich, an ethnic Luo, who is running as an independent candidate for a district seat in Kisumu. after party officials brushed him aside. He said he was attacked twice by “goons” while campaigning, and two staff members were injured.

Patrick Ayiecho Olweny, chairman of Mr Odinga’s party in Kisumu district, admitted “harassment and political violence” against Mr Owich and others, and blamed “a generation of hostile youth”. which the party cannot control.

He also acknowledged that the main process was rife with political patronage and vote buying, but he blamed the party’s top counterpart in the capital, Nairobi, for mismanaging the whole process, saying that , “It’s a mess.”

Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham who has written extensively about politics in Kenya, said that for Mr Odinga, “claiming to be a pro-democracy opposition leader promotes change was undermined by the inability to organize his own party democratically”.

Mr Cheeseman, who traveled to Nairobi to observe the election, said: “Some disgruntled voters are less likely to go to the polls to vote for him as their presidential candidate.

By contrast, Mr. Ruto’s party, the United Democratic Alliance, has managed the primaries better, with Ruto himself intervening to appease some disgruntled candidates, Mr. Cheeseman said.

In the presidential election, voter turnout in the four Luo-dominated districts – Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori – was 72% – about 20% lower than in the 2013 election. Voter turnout on the coast in Mombasa County, another large area, is also lower than Odinga Citadel, where only 44 percent of voters cast their ballots, compared with 66 percent in 2013.

Mr Ruto, 55, not only passed the vote in Central Kenya – he even won at the president’s own polling station – but also attracted nearly 80% of voters in many districts of the stronghold his in the Rift Valley. The four districts with the highest turnout in the August vote – Bomet, Kericho, West Pokot and Elgeyo Marakwet – belonged to Mr. Ruto.

Aside from the difficult primary process and disheartening voter turnout, Odinga’s campaign has also been plagued by a lack of clear messaging, experts say. Mr Odinga surprised his followers when in 2018 he struck a deal with his arch-enemy, President Kenyatta – an alliance known as the “handshake”. Critics labeled Mr. Odinga a grassroots “project”, and he lost his status as an outsider.

In contrast, Mr. Ruto, a wealthy businessman and vice president of the country, considers itself an ally of the poorest people in the countryor what he calls a “hustle nation,” using a wheelbarrow as the symbol of his party.

Some of Mr Odinga’s supporters lamented in interviews that after allying with President Kenyatta in 2018, Mr Odinga did not return to his base to engage young people about his concerns. them, including unemployment or supporting families. suffered police brutality.

After Mr. Odinga announced he would oppose the vote in court, initial objection in Kisumu quickly subsided and in the days since, many have said in interviews that he should give in to Mr. Ruto and work with him.

“Now that he’s lost his presidency, he should also start the wheelbarrow movement and let’s move forward together,” said Alphonse Onyango, a 30-year-old security guard.

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