21 July 2012

Kenya: Worrying Traits From Raila Odinga


Generally, Raila Odinga is a great politician. He is an indefatigable campaigner; he is also reputed to be a great political tactician comparable to the first Chancellor of German Otto von Bismarck. There is no doubt that as things stand, Raila Odinga is the man to beat in the forthcoming presidential race, Miguna Miguna's book "Peeling Bank the Mask" with its rather unflattering stories on the ODM leader notwithstanding.

The way I see it, Miguna's book may not, in the fullness of time, have significant negative influence on Raila's votes, apart from seriously bruising the PM's ego. But, there is something bubbling in the background that may damage Raila's political standing much more than anything Miguna Miguna could unleash. A good and effective leader, like the man Raila has been compared to-the 19th Century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck- is one who sees the larger picture and has the courage to tell it like it is knowing that most productive decisions are often not the most popular.

An efficient leader avoids, by all means, pandering to populist demands. He or she is a leader who will not waffle, twist and turn just to please the public. When Otto von Bismarck, the father of modern German, wanted to unify the disparate and numerous Germany states, he knew what needed to be done and did not seek to please public opinion before embarking on the unification process.

He launched a series of military campaigns and by the time he was done, the modern state that is German today was born. If Bismarck had dithered, waffled and flip-flopped over the issue of unifying German states and took a populist stance trying please everyone, the nation state of German would most likely not be in existence as we know it today. But even more ominous, Europe would not have enjoyed the years of relative peace- between 1860 and 1890- a period that helped Europe lay the foundation for the socio-economic development that is enjoyed today.

What am I driving at? Grave concerns over recent traits exhibited by Raila Odinga-the man most likely poised to be Kenya's next President. Earlier this year, Raila visited Coast Province and in a message tailored to pander to what the ODM leader viewed as interests of Coastals, Raila urged the government to negotiate with the secessionist group MRC.

A few days later, Raila changed tune and said the government cannot negotiate with a group whose political mantra is " Pwani si Kenya (Coast is not part of Kenya)" It is good that the PM beat a retreat, but again he ought not to have made the "negotiate with MRC" remarks in the first place. Then last week the PM was at it again, this time around, it was the question of matatu operators wearing uniform. Now, sometimes back when the late John Michuki was Minister for Transport, he came up with stringent regulations that tamed, disciplined and significantly reduced road carnage.

Part of Michuki Rules was a requirement that matatu operators must wear uniform when on duty, that matatus be fitted with safety belt and speed governors. As may have been expected, the matatu industry strongly resisted these changes preferring to operate in the Laissez-faire mode they were used to. Never mind that the new rules were meant to deal with the indiscipline and insanity of the industry that had been responsible for thousands of lives lost in wanton road accidents.

Matatu business presents a strong lobby group with significant political muscle not to mention cash. This is a group that any politician thinking short-term would love to have on his side, but at what cost? Clearly, Raila's order that matatu operators no longer need to wear uniforms and that city council askaris should not tow illegally parked matatus do not constitute well-thought out policy statements.

These represent populist pronouncements meant to pander to political exigencies of the moment. Let me put it bluntly; these are what, in Kenyan political-speak you can call "road-side" pronouncements. And a few days ago, Raila had been in the news ordering for the arrest of Shelter Afrique boss, Alassane Ba for allegedly assaulting a Kenyan woman, as the PM put it.

True, no woman, whether Kenyan, Ugandan or even Mongolian should be subjected to assault. Naturally, it becomes an emotive issue when a foreigner is said to have assaulted a local. The PM was in his populist element when he declared, "I have today read in the newspapers that a foreigner Alassane Ba has assaulted a Kenyan lady but police cannot arrest him. I have ordered that that immunity to Shelter Afrique be removed so that he is charged. The Prime Minister has ordered so..."

Again, such words do not sound like well-thought out policy statement worthy of a Prime Minister. They sound like populist statements just meant to curry favour with the voters. These are not the hallmarks of effective leadership that Kenyans have become accustomed to expect from a man of Raila Odinga's repute. Leadership is about making tough calls when necessary and sticking with them because, as the leader, you have the bigger vision, the bigger picture and you stand for the good of all.

Raila's advisers who have been pushing him towards a character shift that has seen him make more and more "road-side" populist announcement are doing a great disservice to the PM. This kind of character change may end up costing Raila Odinga more votes than a dozen "kiss and tell" books by Miguna Miguna. This is not the Raila Odinga Kenyans know and are used to.

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