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Kenyatta and Odinga: Foes-turned-allies in race for Kenya presidency

KENYAN President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ringing endorsement of his long-time opponent Raila Odinga on Saturday for the country’s August 2022 presidential elections draws a line under decades of bitter public rivalry.

Here is a look at how the two men – both from established political dynasties – have fared in the rough-and-tumble world of Kenyan politics, and their surprising journey from foes to allies.

 Born into politics

Both men were born to fathers who played a key role in Kenya’s struggle for independence.

Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga joined hands to fight against British rule but developed a fierce rivalry after Kenya became independent in 1963.

Odinga served as the country’s first vice-president between 1964 and 1966 under Kenyatta who was president.

But they diverged on the question of foreign policy, with Kenyatta building alliances with the West while Odinga found himself drawn to the socialist ideas espoused by the former Soviet Union.

Raila, his second child, even went to East Germany to study engineering before entering politics and campaigning against the autocratic rule of Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded Jomo Kenyatta as president.

Jailed for eight years under Moi’s regime, Raila Odinga finally entered parliament in 1992, aged 47, when Kenya held its first-ever multi-party elections.

Uhuru Kenyatta, who is 16 years younger than Odinga, followed suit in 2001 but with Moi’s backing, after completing his studies in the United States and running an agricultural business.

Rivals at the polls 

The two men, who in private refer to each other as ‘my brother’ and whose children grew up playing together, have always been on opposing sides during elections and have been quick to lash out at each other in public.

‘He has no plan for Kenyans, he only seeks to make Kenyans angry and thrives in division and poverty,’ Kenyatta said about Odinga in 2016.

Their rivalry kicked off in earnest in 2002 when Odinga campaigned for Mwai Kibaki, who emerged as the clear winner against the inexperienced Kenyatta, then making his first bid for the presidency.

In 2007, it was Odinga’s turn to stand against Kibaki, while Kenyatta supported the incumbent president.

The result, which saw Odinga cry fraud over Kibaki’s re-election, triggered the worst post-poll violence to ever hit Kenya, leaving more than 1,100 dead.

To stop the killings, international mediators forced a deal that saw Kibaki stay on as president while Odinga took the specially created position of prime minister in a power-sharing government.

Kenyatta served as deputy prime minister in charge of trade, followed by finance.

In 2013, the two men faced off against each other at the ballot box, carrying the support of their communities with them – the Kikuyu and the Luo, who are among Kenya’s largest tribes.

Odinga lost to Kenyatta, who was re-elected four years later in another controversial poll, prompting the opposition leader to petition the Supreme Court.

The court annulled the vote due to ‘irregularities and illegalities’ – a first for the continent.

Dozens of people lost their lives due to protests and political violence.

A fresh vote was held, vaulting Kenyatta to victory as Odinga boycotted the ballot, holding an alternative presidential inauguration before his supporters in January 2018, three months after the re-run.

An unexpected ‘handshake’

But barely two months later, the arch-rivals stunned the country by shaking hands and announcing a rapprochement.

The pact – known universally as ‘the handshake’ – paved the way for the duo to push electoral reforms via the so-called Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) which aimed to expand the executive by creating the new position of prime minister.

According to Kenyatta, this would overturn the winner-takes-all electoral system blamed for frequent explosions of political violence in the East African nation.

But his detractors see it as little more than a power-sharing deal allowing Odinga to be president and Kenyatta, who cannot run for a third term, to serve as prime minister.

Odinga dismissed such speculation as ‘propaganda peddled by busybodies’ in an interview with AFP last year.

Nevertheless the project is currently on hold, with the Supreme Court due to rule on its legality, and has little chance of being put into practice before the August 9 elections, analysts say.

Yet the pair’s journey from electoral rivals to political partners is unlikely to see a reversal anytime soon.

‘We shall walk together,’ Kenyatta told a cheering crowd in Nairobi on Saturday, as he announced his backing for ‘our team captain.’



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