Raila Odinga is the leading opposition politician in the East African nation of Kenya. A longtime member of the national parliament, he was cast into international prominence when he ran for president in the extremely controversial 2007 elections. Odinga's claims that the vote was rigged in favor of the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, have been largely substantiated by international observers, and he enjoys widespread popularity throughout Kenya and abroad.
Born Raila Amolo Odinga on January 7, 1945, in the western Kenyan town of Maseno, Odinga is a member of one of Kenya's most prominent political families. His father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, would later serve as the first vice president of independent Kenya, and one of Odinga's brothers, Oburu Odinga, serves with him in the nation's parliament. Raila Odinga attended primary and secondary schools in his home province of Nyanza before completing his education at two institutions in Germany, Leipzig's Herder Institute and Magdeburg's Technical University; the latter, now part of the Otto von Guericke University of Magdeburg, awarded him a master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1970. After returning home Odinga taught engineering for four years as an assistant lecturer at the University of Nairobi, co-founded one engineering firm, and started another. He then moved into government service, accepting a position in 1974 as group standards manager for the Kenya Bureau of Standards. Within a year he had risen to become the bureau's deputy director.
Odinga's comfortable, quiet existence as a high-level bureaucrat was shattered, however, when the government of President Daniel arap Moi accused him in 1982 of involvement in an unsuccessful coup. Arrested and charged with treason, he was held for six years without trial, often in solitary confinement. Released in February of 1988, he was arrested again in September of that year, this time for his involvement in an outlawed political party, the Kenya Revolutionary Movement (KRM). Despite its name, KRM was a relatively moderate movement. Under President Moi's administration, however, Kenya was a one-party state, and all opposition groups were banned. After roughly nine months in detention, Odinga was released in June of 1989, only to be arrested again less than a month later. His third detention would last nearly a year, and when it was over he would flee to Norway, asserting with some justification that his life was in danger. By February of 1992 Moi had agreed under international pressure to a restoration of multiparty democracy and to new elections, and Odinga returned to Kenya to join the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), a new reform movement founded by his father. Campaign pressures and internal disagreements soon split FORD into two groups: FORD-Kenya, run by the elder Odinga, and FORD-Asili. Raila Odinga ran successfully for parliament on the FORD-Kenya ticket, winning the Langata constituency seat. Langata is a suburban district of Nairobi that contains some of the country's wealthiest districts as well as Kibera, one of its largest slums. He still held the seat in early 2008, more than fifteen years after first winning it, and Langata remains the base of his political power.
Odinga's father's death in January of 1994 sparked a major conflict within FORD-Kenya, as Odinga vied with Michael Kijana for the leadership role. Odinga lost, and he left FORD-Kenya to join the National Development Party (NDP). In the 1997 general elections, he ran for president on the NDP ticket, finishing third behind Moi, the incumbent, and Mwai Kibaki, who would succeed Moi as president at the end of 2002. The defeat seemed to prompt a gradual shift in Odinga's political strategy, as he began moving closer to Moi's KANU (Kenya African National Union) party.
Finally, in June of 2001, he accepted the role of energy minister in Moi's cabinet. Any reconciliation between the two men was short-lived, however, as a dispute erupted in the election year of 2002 over the selection of KANU's presidential candidate. Moi, barred by the constitution from seeking another term, favored Uhuru Kenyatta, a son of the nation's first president. Odinga and several others rejected Moi's decision and broke away from KANU to form another group, the Rainbow Movement, which soon merged with several small groups to form the National Rainbow Coalition, or NARC. Kabaki, winner of the 2002 presidential race, belonged to one of NARC's members, the National Alliance Party; when he took office, therefore, he faced the difficult task of allocating jobs in his administration between his own party and the other coalition members.
Odinga himself received a cabinet post (minister of roads, public works, and housing), but there was lingering unhappiness and resentment within the coalition. When Kibaki's allies submitted a draft constitution that would have strengthened presidential powers, Odinga led the opposition to it. On November 21, 2005, Kenyan voters decisively rejected Kibaki's draft constitution. Two days later Kibaki fired everyone in his cabinet, including Odinga, who responded by forming a new party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), and announcing his opposition to Kibaki on almost every major issue. Despite the defection of a sizeable faction (known as ODM-Kenya or ODM-K) from the ODM in the summer of 2007, Odinga and the ODM grew noticeably more powerful as the presidential elections scheduled for December 27 approached.
Few Kenyans will soon forget December 27, 2007, and its aftermath. Voting was heavy, and, despite the presence of international observers meant to ensure a fair election, there were widespread reports of irregularities—including vote tampering—almost immediately. When the nation's electoral commission declared Kibaki the winner three days later, Odinga accused the incumbent of systematic fraud. Mass protests, strikes, and riots broke out across the country, and more than one thousand people are believed to have died. One of the most worrisome aspects of the violence, which had not yet fully subsided two months later, was its potential to erupt into full-blown ethnic conflict. Because Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu tribe and Odinga a member of the Luo, the election crisis has reinvigorated long-standing tribal tensions.
At a Glance …
Born Raila Amolo Odinga on January 7, 1945, in Maseno, Kenya; son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (Kenya's first vice president) and Mary Juma Odinga; married; wife's name, Ida Betty Odinga; children: Fidel, Rosemary, Raila Jr., Winnie. Education: Attended Herder Institute, Leipzig, Germany; Otto von Guericke University, Magdeburg, Germany, MS, mechanical engineering, 1970.
Career: University of Nairobi, Department of Mechanical Engineering, assistant lecturer, 1970-74; Franz Schineis and Partners (engineering firm), co-founder, 1971; Standard Processing Equipment Construction & Erection (engineering firm; also known as Spectre or East Africa Spectre, Ltd.), founder, 1971; Kenya Bureau of Standards, group standards manager, 1974, deputy director, 1975-82; Government of Kenya, member of parliament, 1992—, minister of energy, 2001-02, and minister of roads, public works, and housing, 2003-05.
Addresses: c/o Orange Democratic Movement, PO Box 2478-00202, Nairobi, Kenya.
After intense negotiations mediated by Kofi Annan, former secretary of the United Nations, in February 2008 both sides agreed to a solution in which President Kibaki would appoint Odinga to be his prime minister. Serious difficulties remained, however, in large part because the country has never had a prime minister, and it was therefore unclear just what Odinga's powers and responsibilities would be. Kenyans and interna- tional observers anxiously watched the first Parliamentary session under the new coalition on March 6, 2008. Stated Kenneth Marende, the Parliament speaker, as quoted by Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times, "The recent events have exposed the fault lines in our system of governance…. "If Parliament descends into anarchy, the Kenyan nation will not just sink, it will drown."
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—R. Anthony Kugler