8 February 2014

Kenya: Can Raila Bounce Back?


If Raila is to begin to bounce back he had better get a handle on a compelling narrative. And he had better find the perfect timing to deploy it. Otherwise a very hard wind will indeed blow in his direction.

Raila Amolo Odinga is in trouble, the kind of predicament that attracts offers of the old advisory bromide about not digging any more when you find yourself in a hole. Raila has so much going against him that he will need all his much-vaunted political strategy genius to bounce back.

The man who has lost three presidential polls since 1997, two of them consecutively, is giving every signal of wanting to make a fourth stab at State House, his third consecutive one, in 2017.

At the same time, large swathes of his support base of the last two presidential election cycles are showing signs of loser fatigue, with the Coast, for instance, reviving the idea of galvanizing itself as Kenya's sixth regional vote bloc behind a party of its own and a return to its electioneering tradition of backing incumbent administrations.

Raila's Luo Nyanza backyard and epicenter of his political support is evincing unprecedented signs of weighing its options, particularly in the face of ODM leadership polls scheduled for February 28.

Jubilee's opinion poll surge

Every which way he looks, Raila is faced with challenges that are daunting even for one of the most iconic and seasoned fighters of Kenya politics. According to the first opinion polls of 2014, he is not doing well on the national stage.

Pollsters Strategic Public Relations recently reported President Uhuru Kenyatta's TNA has overtaken ODM in popularity at 32.4 per cent to 28 per cent. This is a significant surge in the second year following a General Election.

At home, some Luo MPs are said to be seriously weighing the issue of striking out on their own path. In fact, there have been reliably reported sightings of Luo politicians making enquiries at the Registrar of Political Parties' offices about the preliminary formalities of launching a party.

One national newspaper has even reported a flurry of meetings being held in Nairobi hotels to discuss the launch of a political movement to be known as Kalausi (Dholuo for whirlwind) to demand "a fresh start in Nyanza".

Political pundits of all persuasions are agreed on one thing: ODM will end the first quarter of the year in a welter of multiple fallouts following its leadership polls.

There are always fallouts in Kenyan political formations in the wake of leadership polls, particularly General Election nominations, but the ODM polls promise fallout with a vengeance.

There were howls of protest inside ODM in January 2013 during and after the nominations for the March 4 General Election, with talk of a "Lake Victoria Mafia" and the "Kisumunization of ODM" flaring up briefly on the Internet.

At the end of the day at least five elected leaders in Luo Nyanza came from parties other than ODM, including one from former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka's Wiper and four from Bungoma Senator-elect Moses Wetang'ula's Ford Kenya.

Kalonzo and Wetang'ula are Raila's co-principals in Cord. For the first time in 36 years a Kenyatta sits at State House. And President Uhuru Kenyatta and his strategists are most unlikely to be just innocent bystanders as ODM seeks to reinvent itself for the next presidential polls cycle. Huge intrigues are afoot.

The cold war inside ODM, where Raila is still undisputed overlord, as he is also inside the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord), ostensibly revolves around the grievances of a number of Luo leaders who feel that the powerful secretary-general position held by Professor Peter Anyang' Nyong'o should not go to a non-Luo.

Raila on the other hand is adamant that it goes to a contender like Dr. Agnes Zani from the Coast or Budalang i MP Ababu Namwamba, a Luhya. His preferred candidate for the vice-chairmanship is Mombasa Governor Ali Hassan Joho, one of ODM's wealthiest members and benefactors.

Raila ruthless with Luo leaders

Former Kanu era Cabinet minister Dalmas Otieno, the Rongo MP, had wanted the position, but withdrew and was publicly condemned by Dr. Oburu Odinga, Raila's elder brother, as someone who once declared a Luo will never be President.

Otieno has lived to rue at least one aspect of his Kanu loyalist days. As he dropped his bid for the top post, Otieno warned darkly that the Odinga brothers' attitude would ultimately harm ODM.

A number of Luo leaders were so miffed by the Odinga brothers' insistence on giving ODM a face-of-Kenya aspect in its top leadership positions that they threatened to begin boycotting activities and events hosted or officiated by the undisputed leader.

Raila lashed back massively, taking the opportunity of his father's 20th memorial in Bondo, Siaya County, to embarrass his detractors by name, one by one, by making the counter-claim that it is they who had individually approached him for endorsement to the top party posts.

Speaking at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, Raila told his audience pointedly: "Youth is not only about the age of a person, but also ideas".

The outgoing SG, Prof Nyong'o, seconded Raila's remarks. The Odinga detractors were being told to their collective face that not only were they attempting behind-the-scenes special pleading they are bankrupt in the ideas field too.

In almost any other region of the country but Luo Nyanza, a serial presidential poll loser who upbraided such large numbers of the region's leaders so publicly and so ruthlessly would soon suffer consequences.

ODM may not be a Luo party per se, but it sure is an Odinga outfit where it really matters. When push comes to shove in the build-up to the next presidential elections, Luo Nyanza will line up solidly behind Raila's fourth and most determined attempt yet, which will constitute the powerful symbolism of an Odinga seeking to unseat a Kenyatta.

Raila's troubles on the road to the ODM polls constitute a predicament he can well do without, particularly considering the fact that he has to contend with a Kenyatta who enjoys all the advantages of incumbency and now has all the reins of power in his own hands.

Raila complained loudly and often that Uhuru had benefit of very considerable wind assistance from the Mwai Kibaki power elite during the run-up to the March 4 2013 polls.

At one point his complaints became so loud and so detailed that individual top officials of the Kibaki Administration felt compelled to buy advertising space in the newspapers in an attempt to rebuff them.

They included the then Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kimemia (now Secretary to the Cabinet) and the then Permanent Secretary for Internal Security and the Provincial Administration, Mutea Iringo (now Principal Secretary Internal Security).

Bounce-back will depend on narrative

In 2017 Raila will face an Uhuru with one Presidential term under his belt and the system completely in his hands. As things stand now, both men have yet to develop anything that looks like the winning narratives of their coming duel.

American media expert and presidential scholar Evan Cornog, in his book How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success From George Washington to George W. Bush, observes: "Campaigns are a high-velocity duel of story versus story that stretches out over months.

New stories must constantly be developed, as old ones either are overturned or lose the public's interest. The successful candidate is the one whose stories connect with the largest number of voters".

As in the run-up to the election itself, CORD still lacks both strategy and a commanding narrative. Uhuru and William Ruto's handlers in the run-up to the March 4 2013 General Election proved themselves to be much more adept with the campaign narrative than Raila & Co. Which is why UhuRuto are no longer in campaign mode, but CORD still is.

And this happened not once but twice. Even long before the formation of Jubilee and CORD, UhuRuto were already on to a good thing, narrative-wise, with their focus on Kenyan sovereignty in the face of the cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Cord was too busy trying to laugh this 50-years-after-Independence assertion of sovereignty off the campaign stage to notice its potency. And then when TNA and the URP were formed and joined forces and unleashed the 'Tyranny of Numbers' narrative, Raila, Kalonzo and Wetang'ula, who were not yet even together on one ticket, begun to pay some serious attention. But too little, too late.

Whatever else went down during the General Election and the announcement of the Presidential poll results, subsequent challenge by Raila at the Supreme Court, the Court's decision and aftermath, Jubilee passed the test of superior narrative and created reasonable doubt about CORD's objections across the board.

The $64 million question now is: who and what combination of factors will create the next winning narrative(s) and when, ahead of the 2017 Presidential race?

Perceptions and timing are everything. A good narrative must not begin too early. If Raila is to begin to bounce back he had better get a handle on a compelling narrative.

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