31 July 2007

Kenya: Globe-Trotting Raila Assembles a Powerful Arsenal

Nairobi — Lang'ata MP Mr Raila Odinga's political profile and financial stature have grown almost side by side over the years, making him one of President Kibaki's most formidable challengers.

Already, Raila - who made his presidential intentions clear as early as 2001 when he led his party, NDP, into a merger with Kanu - is believed to be putting together a sizeable war chest.

To sell his candidature and boost his campaign kitty, Raila visited more than 10 countries in a span of eight months, sustaining the momentum of a crowd-puller glitz that he began in November 2005 soon after leading the Opposition in handing President Kibaki a hands-down beating in the referendum on the Draft Constitution.

Organisers say the visits have also provided an opportunity for the Lang'ata MP to engage closely with Kenyans abroad, scholars and friends of Kenya.

But the choice of destinations, the audience and the activities involved also suggest that these trips have been deftly organised to fund raise.

Meeting high profile personalities

Apart from meeting high profile personalities during the whirlwind trips that have taken him to powerful countries of the G-8, Raila also visited aircraft manufacturer Boeing, software giant Microsoft and construction firm Strabag in the United States in June last year, where he had tea with top executives.

Mr Bill Gates, the world's second richest man, is the owner of Microsoft.

Raila's whistle-stop tour also took him to Australia, Germany, South Korea and Canada. He also visited Nigeria, Namibia and Uganda. The recent trip was the much-publicised and equally controversial London retreat in May.

Apart from meeting the top executives in the US, other events lined up included hosting Kenyans at black-tie dinners where a plate went for $100 (Sh7,300). Other dinners he attended drew about 300 people, mostly organised by his supporters, who paid between $40 (Sh3,000) and $70 (Sh5,200) a plate.

His biography, Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics, launched locally in July is selling at $50 (Sh3,650). The MP then left an indelible mark on his audience that he would stop at nothing short of the presidency.

"Raila is not talking as if he is prepared to play second fiddle to anyone. He is talking as the person who has put his whole in the coming presidential elections, which makes him a danger to the ODM-Kenya coalition," said Mr Maurice Mwangi of Maryland, who attended one of the dinners.

Political friends remain a closely guarded secret

However, only sketchy details of the politician's recent visits are in the public realm. The MP's meeting with certain wealthy business people, leaders and technocrats are kept under wraps.

Raila's list of local and foreign political friends - thought to be immensely wealthy - remains a closely guarded secret, for strategic reasons.

While still Energy minister, Raila re-established and nurtured his links with the Libyan Government of Col Muammar Gaddafi, where again he not only did good business in oil importation, but also got substantial material support during the 2002 General Election.

Besides supporting Raila's political cause, the Libyans also played a key role in stabilising Raila in the oil business. Reliable sources say that Libyans bankrolled the Narc campaign with some $3 million (about Sh210 million), thanks to Raila's good contacts in the oil-rich land of Gaddafi.

There is no doubt, therefore, that if Raila becomes the ODM-Kenya presidential candidate, he can once more count on massive financial support from the North African country.

Besides Libya, Raila enjoys good links with the South African Government of Mr Thabo Mbeki while in Nigeria, he is known to have strong links with Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, who was a long time close friend of Raila's father, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Linkage between politics and business

That Libyans, South Africans and Nigerians had enough confidence in Raila to channel campaign funds through him although he himself was not a presidential candidate in 2002 is an indication of how highly regarded he is in some international circles.

Evidently, he could certainly count on even more enthusiastic support from his international contacts should he become the ODM-Kenya presidential candidate.

For Raila, the linkage between politics and business goes much deeper than petroleum business. It is significant that the Odinga family business, Spectre International Ltd, acquired the then state-owned Kisumu Molasses Plant soon after Raila started politically cooperating with Moi.

However, the Lang'ata MP has consistently argued that the acquisition of the molasses plant was purely a business deal, which had nothing to do with politics. But his critics point at the coincidence between the time his family acquired the parastatal and Raila's shift of political alliance.

Former Commissioner of Lands Mr Sammy Mwaita offered to sell the 240 acres on which the Kisumu Molasses Plant is built to Spectre International on January 11, 2001 at a price of Sh3.6 million at a time when Raila started working closely with Moi. By June that year, he was Energy minister.

Acquisition of the molasses plant

Significantly, Spectre had applied for the same land in a letter of February 18, 1999, but the Government at the time had rejected the request. Titles were prepared in favour of Spectre on February 3, 2002 for a 99-year lease backdated to September 1, 2001.

When the Odinga family started the process that led to the acquisition of the molasses plant in 2001, Raila had already established good business contacts in South Africa. Energem Resources Incorporated, an international firm quoted on the Toronto Stock Exchange, had been looking for an investment opportunity in Kenya for a long time and the Kisumu Molasses Plant was just right.

Soon after taking over the plant from the Government, Raila struck a lucrative deal with Energem, whereby the Canadian firm bought 55 per cent of Kisumu Molasses plant.

The Canadians also ploughed in millions of dollars to rehabilitate the plant and it is today one of the country's largest manufacturing concerns employing hundreds of people and producing at least 60,000 litres of industrial ethanol for local consumption and export.

Ethanol from the Kisumu Molasses Plant is used as a fuel additive in East and Central Africa. Among other products coming out of the plant include yeast, carbon dioxide alcohol and related industrial products.

Hopes that Nigeria would back his candidature

A valuation of the plant carried out three years ago placed it at $100 million (Sh7 billion). The remaining five per cent shares in the plant are owned by a development trust on behalf of the local community.

Back to his whirlwind tour: Raila visited Dubai on a business trip, where he attended the Dubai Grand Exhibition. Dubai is increasingly becoming a haven where big business deals in Asia are sealed, thus offering a fertile ground for the MP to oil his campaign machinery.

From Dubai, Raila headed to Seychelles for a holiday with his family. In January, Raila visited the UK to consult with experts on the way forward on constitution review.

It was after this that the National Democratic Institute (NDI) picked him as a member of a high-powered delegation to conduct a pre-election assessment in Nigeria. Here, NDI President Kenneth Wollack accompanied him. Incidentally, the NDI runs a political party finance initiative in some African countries and other parts of the world.

During his Nigeria visit, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) MP met President Obasanjo, a long time friend, who had been in office since 1999, but relinquished power this year.

The oil rich country is one of the key nations in Africa that the Lang'ata MP hopes would back his candidature. With a long list of oil magnates, Obasanjo could prove an invaluable ally.

Diaspora is an increasingly influential constituency

Earlier, Raila had been to Saudi Arabia and South Korea, the world's 10th largest economy and one of the most technologically advanced. While in Seoul, Raila attended the International Peace Federation Conference and later used the opportunity to meet an influential religious leader of a church known to have millions of followers across the globe.

In May, Raila left for Germany, where he visited his former university, Magdeburg, on invitation. In June, Raila flew to the US, where he held talks with Senator Barack Obama, one of the candidates seeking the Democratic Party ticket to vie for the American presidency.

In July, Raila was in Australia for 10 days where he met businessmen and Kenyans living abroad. The visit also took him to Sydney, where he met more business executives and addressed Kenyans living in the city. The Diaspora is an increasingly influential constituency that observers argue the national political class can ignore at its own peril.

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