Kenya: Ruto is in Office but Powerless, Odinga is Powerful Yet He Has No Local Title

President Uhuru Kenyatta (centre) in a show of unity with Deputy President William Ruto (left) and opposition leader Raila Odinga, during the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative report at Bomas (file photo).
29 February 2020

As weekend rallies wind down, the handshake between President Kenyatta and Mr Raila Odinga, that put a public seal on a private deal on Kenya between the two politicians, will be two years old in March.

While significant because of the past, the importance of the Handshake lies not in history, but in the immediate future. This is being shaped by the Handshake's issue better known as BBI, the acronym for Building Bridges Initiative.

BBI is two-pronged. There is the bureaucratic-cum-technocratic-cum-intellectual arm that is the secretariat. It purports to collect views from Kenyans on the Kenya they want.

Then there is the mobiliser of public opinion, rouser of support, and organiser of the sales pitch for designated change. This arm drives the partisan political rallies at which Mr Odinga presides as BBI co-principal.

It is the latter arm that has taken Kenya by storm, kept the populace on tenterhooks and handed the chattering classes a guessing game: What are President and Mr Odinga planning for the presidential succession?

As the Handshake turns two, it is important to review the change it has brought, and still seeks to bring about in the political arena.

With the Handshake, Mr Odinga, who a week earlier had called the government a malevolent dictatorship, transited swiftly seemingly swimmingly from rebel-in-chief to presidential confidant, government insider and unelected powerhouse.

Even as Prime Minister between 2008 and 2013, Mr Odinga did not enjoy such power and certainly not the confidence of President Mwai Kibaki or, much less, that of the President's allies in Cabinet and public service.

President Kibaki's Party of National Unity largely refused to share power with Mr Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). In the words of then Justice Minister Martha Karua, ODM bullied its way into government.

The result was a dysfunctional so-called Grand Coalition Government.

Now, Mr Odinga denies he is in government, but reveals in a TV interview that he is tightening things (regarding graft) from the inside.

Suffice to say his power does not even stem from his hugely important and high profile African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development post.

It springs from his closeness to President Kenyatta which is demonstrated in unguarded displays of camaraderie in public, presidential functions, birthday parties and nights out in town.

For Mr Odinga's base, Mr Kenyatta has visited Kisumu several times and is keen on the development of the city's hyacinth-threatened port.

As President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have grown more politically estranged, so have the President and Mr Odinga grown closer.

President Kenyatta will defend Mr Odinga against attacks from Dr Ruto, but has never raised a finger in support of Dr Ruto when accused of corruption, especially by Mr Odinga.

Dr Ruto is in office but not in power. Mr Odinga is in power without being in office.

So is Mr Odinga as prime mover of BBI, sitting on the cusp of greatness or edge of abyss? Change is often resisted, but BBI as the change agent is monopolistic and a juggernaut.

Therefore, Mr Odinga's hand remains greatly strengthened to influence the proposed change of the Constitution and with it power structure and political architecture.

Previously, Mr Odinga has tried everything, including a military coup, to bring about change in Kenya, and four times to be president. But never before has he been in such a commanding position to succeed.

However, much as there is not great resistance to BBI, the situation can change suddenly and drastically if it was to introduce unpopular change pushed by vested interests, or attempt to impose leaders on Kenyans.

Is BBI not meant to smoothen Mr Odinga's path to power? Suffice to say that most political players in Kenya believe BBI will massively impact the 2022 General Election and with it the presidential succession.

Indeed, BBI and Mr Odinga have already manoeuvred themselves into vantage positions from which to call election-influencing shots.

This is what Mr Odinga's allies, such as organised labour boss Francis Atwoli, and Mr Kenyatta's friends, such as Mr David Murathe, mean when they say Kenya has only two formations named BBI and Tanga Tanga.

And it is why they boast that Kenya's next president will be "picked in a boardroom and not at the ballot."

By designating Tanga Tanga, a faction in the governing Jubilee Party, as rabid opposers of BBI, supporters of BBI show their desperation to see off even token opposition. Kenyatta & Odinga Bros cannot wait to celebrate Handshake's birthday.

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