Raila has led a tough life but history will judge him a giant of our times

ormer Prime Minister Raila Odinga

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga

It is strange what grief can do. The common impression of Raila Odinga is that he is an uncommonly divisive figure.

He is, the story goes, a man at least half of Kenyans adore with a passion and another large number intensely detest.

The imagery former Vice- President Kijana Wamalwa used to dramatise this notion is that Kenya is divided between Raila-maniacs and Raila-phobics stuck in the mind.

The untimely death of Fidel Odinga has helped to cast Raila in a very different light.

Most of the nation united to mark the loss of a child, something considered an unbearable tragedy in any society but especially so in Africa, where the ingrained notions in many communities is that it is the sons’ duty to bury their father.

In grief and in the days that followed Fidel’s death, people saw a different face of Raila; that of one of the most significant figures of Kenyan history who uniquely could draw the rapt attention of the nation and bring together friends and foes from across the political divide.

Fidel’s biography has also reminded us of something else – the huge sacrifices the Odingas have made to make Kenya what it is today.

Neither Raila nor Ida dwelt on it during the funeral service on Thursday, but it is a relevant fact that the father figure was absent from the Odinga household for eight-and-a-half years, starting his spell in detention when the eldest of the children had not entered teenage.

Raila decided to take huge personal risks in the 1980s at a time when the price for rising up against the Moi state was detention or worse.

It is easy to dismiss such a sacrifice. But I remember interviewing Raila a long time back, and he pointed out that the word “detention” sounds abstract until you realise that, for years, dozens of prisoners of conscience in the Moi jails were allowed only one hour of sunlight every day.

The rest of the time was spent in the grinding boredom of solitary confinement at Kamiti prison.

Fidel and his siblings grew up without seeing their father through the key years of their childhoods.


Yet Raila emerged from detention not as a bitter man but as a political figure history will surely judge as one of the most significant characters in the story of democratic reform in sub-Saharan Africa over the last three decades.

Unlike other major oppositionists on the continent – Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, Etienne Tshisekedi of the DRC, Uganda’s Kizza Besigye – Raila can claim to have brought fundamental change to his country.

Perhaps the most important moment was the 2002 “Kibaki Tosha” declaration at Uhuru Park which, at a stroke, ended 40 years of Kanu rule and unleashed the progress Kenya has seen over the last decade and a half.

Many young Kenyans probably assume that there were always multiple channels on the radio and a huge number of TV stations, but these are very recent, post-Kanu developments.

The new Constitution had many fathers, but Raila has to be counted among them. Sometimes he could be too obstructionist in the Kibaki years when a more patient game might have won him the presidency. But, in rejecting the unilateral nominees for the position of Chief Justice, for example, Raila paved the way for the judicial reforms of the Mutunga judiciary.

Few individuals can claim to have shaped their nation’s history in the way Raila Odinga has.

The moment of national unity brought about by Fidel’s death is not likely to last, this being Kenya.

Raila may well never rise to the presidency. One gets the sense that Cord has a long way to go before striking a cord with the young, whisky loving youth with whom Fidel kept company.

But history will nevertheless be kind to him. President Uhuru Kenyatta deserves commendation for rising above party politics and supplying three Air Force jets to take Fidel’s entourage to his funeral.

The eulogies for Fidel Odinga were uniformly glowing. But they also told us a story about his father. He is a giant of Kenyan history who may well remain divisive, attracting the revulsion of Raila-phobics, but he is a figure who nevertheless deserves the nation’s respect.



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