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RAILA AMOLLO ODINGA

Raila Odinga

Raila Amollo Odinga comes from one of Kenya's well-known political families. His father, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was a key figure in both the pre and post-independence Kenya and will go down in Kenya's history books as one of the country's pioneers. Most political scholars in Kenya argue that while Raila has clearly inherited his father's charisma and leadership qualities, his fathers shoes might prove too big for him to fit. Though this argument sounds credible, and is bought by a large section of Kenyans, it tends to ignore one characteristic that is unique to Raila and was not quite as evident with his father, plus a host of other politicians in the country. This is the fact that Raila, for some reason, enjoys tremendous grassroots following, particularly among the youth and the urban poor who see him as a common man due to his down-to-earth nature. This, in addition to the almost religious following he enjoys in the populous Luo-Nyanza makes him quite a formidable political opponent. The irony in all this is tha Raila enjoys a priviledged family backgroung, is very well educated, and is by all stretches of the imagination, a wealthy man, all characteristics that would preclude him from his man-of-the-people role he plays.

Somehow, he still has that connection with the masses, and this gives him tremendous political leverage against his would-be opponents. This would explain why Raila has pocketed Langata Constituency, an urban constituency in the capital city Nairobi, winning elections by landslide margins. Most political powerhouses in Kenya enjoy religious following in their rural constituencies and not in the more diverse urban constituencies. Before he left FORD-Kenya for the National Development Party(NDP), there was speculation that his tight grip on Langata was largely because he was a member of his father's FORD-Kenya party. All these speculations were laid to rest when he ditched FORD-Kenya after his fall-out with the party chairman Kijana Wamalwa and contested Langata on an NDP ticket and still won by a landslide. It became apparent that this was more about the man than his party.

His rapport with the youth and urban poor could be attributed to his challenge of the Moi regime at a time when it was very dangerous to do so. This made him win the support of many, as a politician who would always stand for what he believes in and as a brave warrior. His three incarcerations which he endured, also portrayed him as some sort of superman because most other political detainees have come out either pacified or too sick to pursue active politics. During the early 1990's Raila was so popular among the urban youth, who would turn roudy at times during anti-government protests. Raila's political opponents capitalized on this and coined him the phrase "Mr. Violence". Even after the negative press Raila got as a result of the violence allegations, his popularity with the youth and poor remains intact.

Raila was born in Maseno, Nyanza Province, on January 7th 1945. He attended local schools in his home area until 1961, when he landed a scholarship to study in the then East-Germany. He attended the Herder Institute and later proceeded to Madgeburg College of Advanced Technology(Otto Von Guericke). He graduated in 1970 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. On his return to Kenya, Raila was appointed Assistant Lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nairobi. In 1970, a specialist in Production Technology, he founded the Applied Engineering Services, a consulting firm specializing in industrial projects. His political career has been anything but smooth. He has had several run-ins with President Moi's administration, making him yet another example of the infamous and repressive detention without trial that most opponents of the KANU government came to experience prior to the introduction of Multi-Party politics in 1991.

Raila's problems began in 1982, after the failed coup attempt by elements of the Kenya Airforce. He was alleged to have been one of the masterminds behind the failed coup and was charged with treason. It is interesting to note that prior to the failed coup, Raila was not in the millitary as one might expect, but a technocrat working as the Deputy Director at the Kenya Bureau of Standards(KEBS).He was incarcerated in remand home for seven months before being formally detained without trial. He was released on February 6th 1988, six years after his arrest. His release however was very short-lived and in September of the same year, just seven months after he was released, he was arrested again. This time his arrest was in connection with the Kenya Revolutionary Movement(KRM), an underground organization advocating the need for pluralism in Kenya's politics. Raila was released on June 12th 1989. His third incarceration would come on July 5th 1990, at the height of struggle for Multi-Partyism in Kenya. Other notables arrested with Raila and locked up at the notorious Kamiti Maximum Prison included Kenneth Matiba, and former Nairobi Mayor Charles Rubia. Raila was released on June 21st 1991, and in October, fled the country to Norway alleging government attempts at assasinating him.

At the time of Raila's departure, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy( FORD) was just 2 months old, but already making top KANU heads spin. The pressure from FORD proved too much for the Moi administration, which in December 1991, repealed Section 2(A) of the Constitution effectively paving the way for Multi-Party politics in Kenya. With politics in Kenya at fever pitch, Raila found it hard to stay away, and in February 1992 he returned back home to join FORD, at that time led by his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. He was elected Vice Chairman of the General Purposes Committee. In the months running up to the 1992 General Elections, it became apparent that not everyone in FORD was a happy camper. Serious personality and ideology differences became apparent within FORD and in August 1992, the inevitable happened. FORD finally split into FORD-Kenya, led by Raila's father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and FORD-Asili by Kenneth Matiba. Raila naturally fell into his father's camp, where he became Deputy Director of Elections. Things however got a little tricky for Raila in FORD-Kenya. Though he was clearly the second-most powerful figure in FORD-Kenya behind his father, Raila grew increasingly agitated at what he saw as an attempt to sideline him by some of his father's trusted aides like James Orengo, Kijana Wamalwa, and Paul Muite. Though it was clear that Raila was unhappy at FORD-Kenya, he was smart enough to realize that abandoning the party with his father still at the helm could be a serious political blunder.

When Jaramogi died in January 1994, and Kijana Wamalwa succeeded him as FORD-Kenya chairman, it did not take long before Raila revealed his quest for the party leadership. The struggle for the party chairmanship became a very heated affair and there was litle doubt that another party split was coming. Though a single party officially, it was no secret that FORD-Kenya had disintergrated into two rival factions, one calling Wamalwa chairman and the other Raila. Finally in January 1997, with his sights on the upcoming General Elections, Raila left FORD-Kenya to join the little known National Development Party(NDP), in what most political observers considered political suicide. What they didnt count on was Raila's massive grassroots support and organizational abilities. Raila transformed the moribund NDP into a vibrant political party, and led a massive walkout of MPs from FORD-Kenya, mostly from his Luo-Nyanza Province, into his new party. In the 1997 Langata constituency by-elections, that were occasioned by Raila's change of parties, he won by a large margin, contrary to an upset that most pollsters had anticipated. Raila even went on to beat FORD-Kenya in the 1997 General Elections, coming in third after Moi and Kibaki respectively. In the 1997 elections, Moi(KANU) won with a total of 2,500,856 votes. Mwai Kibaki(DP) came in second with 1,911,742 votes and Raila(NDP) third with 667,886 votes. Kijana Wamalwa(FORD-Kenya) was fourth with 505,704 votes.

Raila has recently found a strange bed fellow in KANU, working closely to merge the two parties into a formidable force for the 2002 General Elections. Taking a lot of heat for his collaboration with KANU, his oppressor for many years, Raila has justified his position by claiming its for the sake of the country's unity, and that its easier to clean a house from inside than outside. I would argue its all about winning, and the power that comes with it. Raila figures that with Moi bowing out in 2002, he stands a better chance of rising to the top within KANU than without. On a recent business trip to Houston, Raila in responding to a question posed by one Kenyan, characterized the 2002 Elections as a "walk-over" arguing that the opposition in Kenya will never agree on a single Presidential candidate. As harsh as Raila's criticism of the opposition might sound, I feel inclined to agree with him, given the egotistic wars that continue to plague Kenya's opposition parties. If they could not unite in 1992, when KANU appeared to be served to them on a silver platter, I would be very shocked if they do it this time around.

Click here to view Raila's Houston visit photo gallery.

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