Raila Amollo Odinga, the 77 year-old doyen of Kenya’s opposition politics and son of former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, has defied great odds to emerge as one of the most resilient politicians in East Africa’s largest economy.
Now at the height of his political career and making his fifth stab at the presidency under the Azimio La Umoja (Resolution for Unity) coalition of 26 political parties, the stakes are very high for Odinga as Kenya gears up for general elections on August 9.
Born on January 7, 1945, Odinga is a hero of the second liberation and a maverick politician who has a huge following in many parts of the country.
To his admirers, he is fondly known by various names, Agwambo (mysterious), Tinga (tractor) and Jakom (chairman).
Odinga was among Kenyan progressives who agitated for political pluralism in the 1970s and 1980s, paving the way for the introduction of a multi-party system in 1991, and thereafter broadening the country’s democratic space.
In addition, Odinga was at the helm of a crusade that culminated in the enactment of a new constitution in August 2010, ushering in a golden era for Kenya’s civic space, management of national resources, cohesion and stability.
A mechanical engineer by profession, Odinga became an elected lawmaker to represent Nairobi’s Lang’ata Constituency (now renamed Kibra) in 1992 when Kenya held its first multiparty elections.
In 1997, he took a stab at the presidency, coming third after the late President Daniel Arap Moi of the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) and Mwai Kibaki, the late Kenyan third President who by then was the official leader of the opposition.
Odinga had a political alliance with Moi shortly after the 1997 general elections, and became the secretary general of the ruling KANU, placing him in a vantage position to become a future president.
Odinga’s short-lived ‘marriage’ to Moi ended in 2002 when the latter refused to endorse him for the presidency, instead opting for Uhuru Kenyatta, the current and fourth Kenyan president.
Toward the end of 2002, Odinga utilized his mobilization skills and political acumen to rally supporters toward supporting Mwai Kibaki’s candidacy for the presidency.
His famous Kibaki Tosha (Kibaki is enough) declaration saw the late accomplished economist clinch the presidency in December 2002, under the giant National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) political outfit.
Odinga was appointed Minister for Roads by Kibaki but the duo fell out politically shortly over alleged Kibaki and allies’ refusal to honour a pre-election deal where Odinga was to become the country’s prime minister.
Odinga later mobilized political allies to campaign against a constitutional draft championed by Kibaki, who later sacked Odinga and his allies amid disruptions in government and divisive national politics that followed.
In 2007, Odinga made his second stab at the presidency, competing against the incumbent Kibaki in polls that were marred by violence and accusations of irregularities.
The 2007-2008 post-election chaos that captured global attention forced Kibaki and Odinga to agree on a power-sharing deal, with the latter becoming the Prime Minister until 2013 when he again ran for presidency under the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD).
Odinga lost to the current President Kenyatta during the March 2013 general elections, though he remained a formidable player in Kenya’s opposition politics until 2017 when he made his fourth stab at the presidency under the giant National Super Alliance (NASA) political outfit.
Though Kenyatta’s victory was quashed by the country’s Supreme Court over irregularities, Odinga refused to run again for the top seat, giving Kenyatta an easy win during the second round of voting.
As political divisions escalated in Kenya in the first quarter of 2018, Odinga stunned friends and foes when he made a truce with Kenyatta under the well-known handshake between the duo on March 9, 2018.
The handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga became a watershed moment for Kenyan politics, as it restored peace, stability, cohesion and optimism, earning accolades from the international community.
Odinga is running neck to neck with William Ruto, his former rival for the presidency and the sitting deputy president, and has already launched a manifesto outlining his agenda for social justice, economic reforms, women and youth empowerment.
Currently, Odinga is the African Union (AU) Special Envoy for Infrastructure Development, a position that has seen him engage the continent’s bilateral partners to promote the implementation of mega infrastructure projects like roads, ports, railways and bridges.