In his bi-monthly column for the Daily Nation, our Co-editor, Nic Cheeseman, argues that Raila Odinga has run the opposition party well in the past, despite the electoral defeats that he has suffered. Whilst Cord lost some of their edge and momentum recently but they still have an important and potentially powerful role to play in opposition. To fulfil this potential, Nic argues, they must recognise their own failings in the past and focus their attention in the future.
The Opposition is often depicted as a failure because Mr Odinga has lost two successive elections. This is unfair. In fact, Kenya’s opposition is one of the most successful on the continent. On average, incumbent presidents win 85 per cent of elections in Africa, with 65 per cent of the vote. This means that opposition parties almost always lose, and generally win less than one-third of the ballot. By contrast, in the last two elections the official results demonstrate that Odinga has done far much better at over 40 per cent.
Of course, Mr Odinga did better than official results suggest. Many analyses have concluded that he won the 2007 presidential election. He did not do as well in 2013, but if violence and insecurity had not depressed turnout at the Coast, Cord would have, at the very least, secured the votes required to force a run-off.
Yet there can be no doubt that the momentum of the opposition is at its lowest ebb in recent times. Ahead of the 2007 elections, credible pollsters and commentators thought that ODM was on course for victory. Between 2007 and 2013, the power-sharing government gave senior ODM figures some purpose, and most importantly access to funds. As a result, Cord entered the 2013 campaign with a real chance of winning, and once again opinion polls suggested that the race would be close.
To some extent, it has to do with bad luck. Had some of the voters who were denied the right to vote at the Coast been allowed to cast their ballots, Jubilee would have been denied an outright victory. In the run-off, Odinga would have captured the vast majority of Musalia Mudavadi’s votes, and may well have closed the gap on Uhuru Kenyatta – even if Jubilee’s greater resources would probably have carried the day.
On the back of decades of frustration, some Odinga supporters wondered whether it was ever going to be possible for a Luo to win the presidency. Others questioned what the point of institutional reform was if the new electoral commission was going to perform just as poorly as the last. Lacking any access to state resources that at the national level, it was natural that Cord would struggle to rebuild its morale and political machine.
But, to some extent Cord leaders have helped their own downfall. By Odinga’s own high standards, the 2013 election campaign was lacklustre. More fundamentally, Cord failed to recognise that the electoral game had changed. In 2007, President Kibaki ran a campaign that, for too long, relied on the idea that Kenyans would reward him for delivering 7 per cent economic growth. It was only when it became clear that this was not working that the Party of National Unity began to employ more targeted, divisive, and ultimately effective tactics.
In 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta had learnt the lessons of the 2007 campaign. The Jubilee machine was better-funded and employed a range of savvy consultants who ran a campaign that was frighteningly professional and effective. By contrast, Cord ran a campaign that appeared rooted in the pasta top-down approach that failed to generate national appeal.
This would have done okay against Kibaki, but against Kenyatta and Ruto, it made the opposition look outdated, “analogue”. Following the election defeat, the opposition was in desperate need of leadership. Against this backdrop, the decision of senior Cord leaders not to take up seats within the legislature was understandable, but unfortunate.
Galvanised by effective leadership, Cord MPs might have been an effective thorn in the side of the government. Instead, the opposition ceded the legislative battleground to Jubilee. The legislation that has rolled back the gains made in the constitution may have been introduced by government, but some if it was supported by Opposition MPs.
Since Mr Odinga’s return from the US, things have changed. The opposition has found new energy and, while Jubilee is keen to play down the significance of the Uhuru Park rally, President Kenyatta’s attempt to paint the opposition as the agents of insecurity is clear evidence that the government is worried. Government would not have concocted such a story, or paid such intense attention to policing the rally and denying it publicity if Cord was indeed a spent force.
The disparity between the overwhelming security presence at Uhuru Park and the minimal security presence at the Coast after the attacks is telling. President Kenyatta’s number one fear is not Al Shabaab; it’s about being overthrown by Raila Odinga. This is evidence that Odinga is an important force in Kenya’s politics. But it also presents him with a major challenge. The government has effectively starved Cord of media attention, cutting off the oxygen on which opposition parties depend.
Given this, and the government’s refusal to enter into a serious dialogue, Odinga will be naturally tempted to hold more rallies. But the more people that attend such events, the greater the paranoia of the government will become, leaving the opposition increasingly vulnerable to intimidation, slander, and possibly arrest. If the progress that Kenya has made over the last decade is to be protected, attempts by Jubilee to intimidate the media, stymie devolution, and consolidate its hold on power must be contested. Even those who do not like him must recognise that as things stand, Odinga is the only public figure capable of leading such resistance. The complaints of Jubilee-aligned individuals that Odinga is not the man to save Kenyan democracy would be more persuasive if they were willing to take up the task themselves.
What next? First of all, the opposition must recognise its own failings. However much one agrees with Odinga’s criticism of the government, these statements will ring hollow until Cord governors and start to hold the government to account. This won’t be easy. At present, Jubilee is running a very effective campaign of co-opting key Cord legislators. At the same time, a number of governors have distanced themselves from the call for a referendum because they are not sure Cord will be an effective political vehicle in the next election, and so want to keep their options open. But it is vital that the Opposition demonstrates it has exhausted all official avenues to hold government to account before taking its protests to the streets. This is the single best way to legitimate mass action. If Cord is seen to be putting in hard work behind scenes, and to have generated feasible and well-though out alternative policies, future rallies will get more sympathetic responses from media, donors, and swing voters.
Second, Cord needs to narrow down its aims. Many of the issues listed in its thirteen point agenda are important, but I’d bet that even devoted Cord activists can’t remember all of them. The most effective issue Odinga has at his disposal is devolution. This is a clear example of an area in which the government is attempting to re-centralise control in contravention of the spirit of the constitution. It also makes for very good politics: Odinga needs to attract county leaders to his side, and stem the steady trickle of local leaders to the ranks of Jubilee. A campaign to ensure that 40 per cent of government revenue flows to counties would win the backing of Governors, who have consistently claimed that central government is denying them the resources they need to do their jobs.
To their credit, Cord leaders have realised this and seem to be moving in this direction. However, there is also a danger here. Many counties are not spending their resources effectively, and increasing the share of revenues that are devolved to them is unlikely to improve the quality of public services – at least in the short term. So, any move to hold a referendum on protecting/extending devolution would need to go hand in hand with a strong focus on ensuring that Cord-friendly counties perform better and start to deliver on their promises.
Third, the opposition should continue to push for the reform of the IEBC, but realise that the last election is not the most effective issue on which to campaign. The 2013 polls were a mess and could easily have triggered widespread unrest. The IEBC must be held accountable for this, and if the next election is to be any better, it clearly needs to be reformed. Cord needs a new and more positive message to reconnect with the electorate, and should re-focus its efforts on the failure of the Jubilee Alliance to deliver on its election promises.
Fourth, Cord should abandon its plans to boycott companies that it claims are “over charging” Kenyans. This strategy is simply too confused, and too fraught with danger, to be worth pursuing. It is confused because it lacks consistency. Initially, the campaign was justified on the basis that some companies were unfairly profiting because they control of the market. But it now seems to encompass other, less palatable, motives. A boycott of Safaricom, for example, would have little to do with costs, as the company has played a key role in driving down prices and rolling out IT services to Kenyans. Rather, the motive would be political: Cord blames Safaricom for last year’s election fiasco.
Checking the abuse of power and contesting in the next elections will not be an easy task. At present, the Opposition is forced to operate with one hand tied behind its back. But Cord supporters should not give up hope. Civil society and political activists feared the worst when Daniel arap Moi won the 1997 elections, but Kanu lost power in 2002. Constitutional campaigners feared the worst when President Kibaki sabotaged the constitutional review process between 2003 and 2005, but a new – and better – constitution was passed in 2010. Raila Odinga played a critical role in both of these turning points in Kenya’s recent past. In multi-party Kenya, you do not have to be president to change history.