Who Should Lead the Kenyan Opposition?

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In his regular column for Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper, DiA’s Nic Cheeseman considers the main opposition candidates, and asks who is likely to perform best at the polls.


WITH JUST FIVE MONTHS till the next general election, the opposition is consumed by the question of who to select as its presidential candidate. The supporters of Raila Odinga assume that the opposition stalwart will be the flagbearer, but members of Kalonzo Musyoka’s Wiper Democratic Movement are said to be confident that he will get the nod.

This confusion highlights a paradox that lies at the heart of opposition politics in Kenya. While it is becoming increasingly clear that sooner or later Odinga will need to give way to the younger generation, there is no one within the National Super Alliance (NASA) that is likely to mobilize more votes than him in 2017. As a result, finding an effective solution to the challenge of the Odinga succession is as important to the long-term prospects of the opposition as the election campaign itself.

The Odinga problem

The dominant status of Raila Odinga is both a strength and a weakness for NASA. It is a strength, because Odinga remains the standout opposition leader in terms of profile and geographical reach. To see this, it is important to look beyond the fact that Odinga lost the last two elections and to place his performance in regional perspective.

Compared to other opposition leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, Odinga has done well. Keep in mind that most countries in Africa have yet to witness a transfer of power, and that on average opposition parties only win 12% of elections that are contested by the sitting president. These figures serve as an important reminder, should it be needed, that running an opposition election campaign is extremely difficult in semi-democratic political systems in which the government enjoys numerous advantages of incumbency.

A review of the empirical data testifies to Odinga’s comparative success. In all of the elections held in Africa between 1990 and 2010 contested by the sitting president, the ruling party won, on average, 65% of the vote – 41% more than the best performing opposition party. Compare this to recent elections in Kenya. In the 2007 and 2013 elections, Mwai Kibaki (46%) and Uhuru Kenyatta (50.5%) got nowhere near 65% of the vote. They also beat Odinga by much tighter margins: Kibaki by just 2.1%, and Kenyatta by 6.8%.

Indeed, given that we know that the 2007 election was flawed, and the 2013 elections were deeply problematic, the official results probably understate opposition’s true support by a significant margin. Given this, it is clear that where elections are concerned Odinga is one of the best performing opposition leaders on the continent and has been for some time.

One of the most impressive aspects of Odinga’s appeal is its geographical reach. Many opposition leaders in Africa remain wholly dependent on their own ethnic group or region, and struggle to establish a nationwide profile. By contrast, while Raila is clearly strongest in his Nyanza base, he has also mobilized voters in Western, Mombasa, the Rift Valley, Nairobi and beyond. It is true that much of this support was recruited through regionally powerful allies, but opinion polls suggest that he retains considerable a personal following in many of these areas.

As Godwin Murunga has recently argued, when Raila’s record is viewed in this light his credentials to be the NASA candidate in August look particularly strong.

The pretenders to the throne

The significance of Odinga to the opposition becomes clear when one compares his profile and support base to that of the other leaders who aspire to be the leader of the opposition. Musalia Mudavadi has often been mooted as a “compromise candidate” on both sides the political divide, but his credibility as an opposition figure was significantly undermined by his dalliance with the Jubilee Alliance before the last election.

Partly as a result, Mudavadi failed to effectively mobilize his own ethnic group in 2013, polling just 3.96% of the vote and losing out to “rejected votes” in many constituencies. Although his support in Western remains a valuable political asset, there is little evidence that he could mount an effective national campaign under his own name.

Kalonzo Musyoka has a stronger claim to the NASA crown, especially given that Odinga previously agreed to support his candidacy, but faces similar challenges. Having served as Vice President to Kibaki, and deputy to Odinga, it is not always clear what Musyoka stands for, and what he would do if elected. His broader support base is also questionable. In the 2007 election when he stood as a candidate, Musyoka only polled 8.9% of the vote, which almost all came from his base in Eastern. Moreover, his control over the Kamba vote has been called into question by the emergence of rival leaders such as Alfred Mutua, and he has yet to demonstrate a national support base.

Recent opinion polls lend support to this evaluation. None of the credible polls have put Mudavadi or Musyoka on more than 10% of the vote, and other figures such as Moses Wantagula often fail to break 1%. Of course, these numbers need to be carefully interpreted. If Odinga was excluded, it is likely that many voters would back other opposition leaders, boosting the tallies for Musyoka and Mudavadi. But even if three quarters of Odinga supporters transferred their allegiance in this way, the opposition would still suffer drop in their poll ratings.

The succession challenge

Although it is hard to see how the opposition can do without Odinga, it is also clear that his leadership has a number of weaknesses. First, his longevity and prominence within Kenyan politics means that while he is an effective lightening rod for the opposition, he is also distrusted in some pro-government parts of the country, with critics arguing that there should have been an investigation into his role in the 2008 post-election violence. As a result, there are limitations to the inroads that a Raila-led opposition can expect to make in a number of places.

Second, Odinga is getting older and has not always been in great health. Consequently, there is a question mark over whether he has the energy and ideas required to lead together an effective campaign in 2017. Even some CORD supporters and activists were disappointed with the 2013 effort, which came across as being old fashioned and poorly coordinated. Given the resources available to the Jubilee Party, much more will be required if NASA is to win power this year.

Third, like many political leaders on the continent, Raila has failed to put in place a clear succession plan. This may be because he does not want to think about the end of his political career, does not believe that there are any suitable candidates, or is unwilling to share the limelight. Whatever the reason, this strategy has left the opposition poorly placed to manage the transition to a new leader. Thus, Odinga’s political retirement, whenever it comes, is likely to be accompanied by a succession crisis – a process that appears to be already playing out in the build up to 2017 polls.


The Kenyan opposition now finds itself caught in a Catch-22 situation. While an increasing number of opposition leaders are coming to the conclusion that the need to look beyond Odinga in order to win power in the long-term, in the short-term NASA is likely to lose votes if it chooses anyone else to be its presidential candidate.

One implication of this conclusion is that in addition to seeking to win power, the opposition would be well advised to use the 2017 election to bring through a new set of leaders that can assume Odinga’s mantle in the future. To do this, Raila will need to accept that even if his name ends up on the ballot this time round he cannot lead forever, to work with his colleagues to identify possible replacements, and to use the campaign to transfer his support and legitimacy to his successors.

This will surely be a painful process for a man who has devoted his life to the pursuit of State House, but it is the only thing that will secure his legacy for future generations.


Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham

This column first appeared in the Sunday Nation.

3 thoughts on “Who Should Lead the Kenyan Opposition?

  1. Odinga remains the only opposition leader able to beat Uhuru. In as much as he is old, he is very development-oriented. However, he surrounds himself with people who can’t strategise. He welcomes deserters with open arms. These same people, I believe, have caused his political campaigns to fail.

    He is the best chance Nasa has got.

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