Kenya: Why Odinga's Holding All the Cards in 2022 Race to State House

As President Uhuru Kenyatta's second term enters the final leg, one man appears to hold all the aces in the hotly contested succession race.

Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader Raila Odinga is easily one of the most popular aspirants with a rare gift of the gab.

He commands a cult-like following and his 2018 'Handshake' with Mr Kenyatta has, for the first time, placed him in a pole position in the battle for State House.

Political analysts and strategists say he is the fulcrum on which next year's presidential campaigns will play out.

The former prime minister is the most experienced politician in the probable line-up, whose firm political base will play a huge role in the formation of alliances and coalitions.

His recent meeting with Kanu chairman Gideon Moi and the president's brother, Muhoho Kenyatta, left tongues wagging over his next move.

It also sustained the political union narrative-- considering Mr Moi is part of the One Kenya Alliance that brings together Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi, Wiper Democratic Movement's Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang'ula of Ford-Kenya, a coalition that had appeared to exclude the ODM supremo.

Support bases

With 16 months to the polls, presidential hopefuls are strengthening their bases and building bridges to success, with the former PM slap bang in the middle of the action.

Deputy President William Ruto is keen to face him at the ballot, but has no qualms working with him; One Kenya Alliance (OKA) is interested in his endorsement, while opinion is divided in President Kenyatta's corner on whether or not he should go for the top job.

"When I see Raila Odinga, I see my competitor in 2022. In fact, from where I sit, Raila is the most formidable opponent that I have in 2022 side," the DP told Citizen TV on Thursday, highlighting the centrality of Mr Odinga in the 2022 race.

"I do not know how the politics of Kenya would look like if he is not my opponent in 2022. If Raila Odinga would not be my competitor, who would be my competitor?"

The Odinga-friend-turned foe added: "From where I sit, the two strongest forces that we have politically are the Hustler and the ODM team on the other side."

Mr Javas Bigambo, a political analyst and a governance expert, says Mr Odinga, 76, has been the "orbit upon which Kenyan politics revolve" for about three decades.

"His ability to have the political pulse of the nation in his hand, and resonating with the anxieties and demands of mwananchi easily sets him apart from the other politicians. He is known for upsetting the apple cart and he is a master of tactical manoeuvres. He cannot be wished away," says Mr Bigambo.

Some of President Kenyatta's lieutenants and DP Ruto's foot soldiers have confessed to the fact that the ODM leader remains the man to watch.

Although he is yet to declare whether he will be making his fifth stab at the presidency, "he is a formidable candidate compared to the One Kenya Alliance and that's why all senior politicians are looking up to him", according to Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, Dr Ruto's ally.

"The two political formations that people are talking to is Raila and Ruto teams. I would be wasting public space, time and energy to discuss the other forces like One Kenya Alliance at the expense of the real people that we should be competing with," offers Mr Murkomen.

So crucial is Mr Odinga's presence in the 2022 presidential ballot that the DP's campaign strategy hinges on it.

"We want to ensure Raila does not enter State House and that the Hustler movement provides the next leadership because we know the most credible competitor we have is in ODM. If he is not on the ballot, then we will say Hallelujah," says Mr Murkomen.

Teams important

Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru, President Kenyatta's ally, says "the 2022 race will be between Raila and Ruto, and the winner will be determined by the kind of team they put together."

Nominated MP Maina Kamanda, a staunch supporter of the Handshake, says only Mr Odinga has the stamina to fly the "Handshake presidential flag in 2022, hence all attention is on him".

"All these people that have come after Handshake must embrace it. None of them is in a position to fly its flag in 2022," says Mr Kamanda in reference to the One Kenya Alliance.

About three weeks ago, DR Ruto celebrated the ODM leader's "commitment to national political formations" rather than tribal outfits.

"Some people think I have problems with Raila. I do not. These are political differences. There are things I agree with him, like the need to form national parties. If anybody wants to partner with us to bring up the hustler, we have no problem. We will work together," says Dr Ruto.

The statement generated debate, with some observers ruling out the notion that the two political arch-rivals cannot mend fences.

This followed protests by Mr Odinga's confidants, who claimed the ODM leader was being undermined in the 'Handshake' deal.

A week later, President Kenyatta visited Mr Odinga at his Karen home. They later toured various projects in Nairobi and held a joint presser at State House Nairobi as an assurance their pact was intact.

The talks between Mr Odinga, Mr Moi and the president's brother came after the DP's meeting with ODM deputy leader Wycliffe Oparanya, which fuelled speculation of a Raila-Ruto alliance.

ODM National chairman John Mbadi said ODM had not entered into any alliance, and that they were still committed to the implementation of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

"It is too early to talk about alliances. If you have been keen, alliances come to force three or two months to the polls," says Mr Mbadi.

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