How Raila’s bid for top AU job is realigning Kenya’s political landscape


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Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s bid for the African Union (AU) Commission chairperson has caused a major shift in Kenya’s national politics and introduced a new dynamic into regional geopolitics.

President William Ruto’s recent state visit to the US showed clearly how the two leaders whose deep-rooted links date back over three decades remain prime movers of local politics.

They are now equally poised to shape Kenya’s foreign policy jointly. These pillars are Peace, Economics, Diaspora, climate change, and culture, which define our bilateral and multilateral engagement with countries.

The recent US visit appears to have strengthened Ruto’s extraordinary rapprochement with his political nemesis and former Prime Minister Raila, signaling a significant realignment in Kenya’s political landscape since their fiercely contested presidential election in August 2022.

In Ruto’s delegation to the US that ruffled the feathers of hawks in his Kenya Kwanza coalition were prominent Azimio la Umoja leader Raila’s allies – Minority Leader in Parliament Opiyo Wandayi and Homa Bay Governor Gladys Wanga, who were obviously in the entourage with the opposition chief’s blessing.

Foes turn friends

Ruto caused Kenya’s biggest presidential election in August 2022 to upset Raila who was backed by the then President Uhuru Kenyatta and the State apparatus commonly referred to in political parlance as the “Deep State”.

Raila challenged the then Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati reported controversial announcement of Ruto’s win as four commissioners dissented, terming it unconstitutional.

However, the Supreme Court dismissed Raila’s petition. Discontent at the ruling led to mass protests that threatened a national political and economic quagmire.

Fast forward to May 2024 and the acrimony of early 2023 has been replaced by an uneasy calm mooted by the fledgling National Dialogue Committee (NADCO) report.

The NADCO report was jointly compiled by the two rivals’ political formations to calm the national political and socio-economic turbulence caused by the rift and protests.

The committee reached a consensus on several key issues, including electoral reforms, although they failed to agree on the most critical one, the high cost of living.

Despite “hot air” rhetoric from loud-mouthed elements, especially in Ruto’s camp, the two old allies-cum-rivals have reached a compromise, puzzling but equally not surprising their supporters, critics, and observers alike.

Ruto must have realized that Raila, the formidable quintessential politician, is better in his corner than on the opposite side, even if it means unsettling his key constituency in the Mt Kenya region.

The two still dominate the national political terrain rooted in the narrow margin of the 2022 presidential election result.

Their close ties matured when Ruto was a key player with Raila in ODM before the disputed 2007 presidential election in which it was widely claimed Raila defeated Mwai Kibaki.

 The poll dispute triggered deadly post-election violence. It required the intervention of the international community, development partners and a Panel of Eminent African Personalities chaired by the late former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Graca Machel, and the late Benjamin Mkapa to mediate a negotiated settlement and the formation of a coalition government in 2008.

Ruto and Kenyatta who were on opposite sides of the election (Ruto with Raila) were both later charged before the International Criminal Court (ICC) with the violence that left about 1,200 people killed and 360,000 displaced.

The ICC later acquitted them of the charges, Kenyatta in 2014 and Ruto in 2016 after they had formed an alliance that won the 2013 presidential election against Raila, which was again disputed but the petition was dismissed in the Supreme Court. A similar situation of dispute prevailed in the 2017 and 2022 elections.

Ruto and Raila’s rekindled covert and overt political camaraderie, though not akin to the famous Uhuru and Raila “handshake” of 2018, bears the hallmark of that mutually beneficial political bond.

Raila calls for six piece voting
Raila Odinga

Another Raila rebirth

Now fate seems to have conspired to hand them another opportunity to extend their control of national politics into the realm of foreign policy – courtesy of the upcoming election of the AU Commission’s new chairperson.

For Raila, it offers a chance to assert his national stature on the continental and global stage as he guns for the coveted AU job. This without abandoning his revered role as a firebrand opposition leader, albeit in a toned-down, diplomatic manner.

Before Ruto visited the US, Raila hosted US Ambassador Meg Whitman at his Karen residence. This was a remarkable diplomatic thaw considering allegations surrounding Washington and the controversial 2022 presidential election.

In campaigning for Raila for the AU position, Ruto portrays himself as a pragmatic leader, stating his national political credentials before the international community.

Yet this image does not afford him the luxury of avoiding political shenanigans in his turf, and harsh criticism against unpopular policies amid perceptions of autocracy.

Ruto also faces accusations of tribalism and nepotism in key State and public appointments and official corruption.

Raila’s declared interest in becoming the next AUC chairperson after the election by member states in February 2025 to replace Chadian Moussa Faki who has held the seat since 2017, is now fully backed by the State.

Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi who holds the foreign affairs portfolio, recently laid out an elaborate red-carpet reception for Raila to unveil a joint State campaign strategy with his team.

The big question, however, remains whether or not the support of Ruto’s

administration could significantly impact Raila’s chances of clinching the AU job.

Raila has his own established and nurtured close links with prominent current and past leaders across the African continent.

Remarkably, his bid for the top AU Commission seat was revealed in the presence of 86-year-old retired President of Nigeria Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a respected statesman globally and a special envoy of the AU and the United Nations.

Despite his high-profile endorsements, both local and wider political alliances can shift rapidly and Raila must therefore tread carefully and stay focused on the continental prize. He must also delicately balance his diplomatic agenda against his traditional stature as the doyen of opposition politics in Kenya.

President Ruto’s allies want him to tone down his hard-hitting criticism of the State and the ruling elite now supporting his campaign.

They allege an underlying conditionality that Raila refrains from attacking the government marketing his bid.

In creating close links with Ruto, the former Prime Minister knows that campaigning for the continental position is capital-intensive. It also requires vast networks, goodwill from Kenya’s and African governments and cross-cutting support.

That is why he must be cautious in handling opposition politics with a measure of humility to draw much-needed support from the State and the continent.

However, Raila’s allies in Azimio led by Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka assert that he has the right to fully express his views on any matter of national, regional, or international relevance, especially when they directly concern suffering citizens.

Raila is gunning for the coveted continental prize to elevate his stature after years of being “let down” at the ballot, a situation he has constantly attributed to alleged “vote rigging and extra-judicial political manipulation.”

It will be difficult for him to be defrocked from his role as an avowed veteran opposition crusader and political messiah.

This is a mantle he has carried even when serving in various government positions as Minister for Roads and Public Works and Energy, Leader of Opposition, and Langata Member of Parliament.

Raila also has a head start having worked as the AU special envoy for infrastructure hence leveraging him as an insider within AU files and ranks.

His candidacy for the AU job projects a broader effort to enhance African unity and development. He portrays a different image cultivated as a prominent advocate for Pan-Africanism, regional integration, and cooperation. He has started to traverse the continent now with the latest being a visit to Malawi, where drummed up the pan-Africanism agenda.

Raila’s involvement in peace negotiations across Africa pampers his commitment to fostering unity and resolving conflicts. These roles have honed his diplomatic skills, negotiation abilities, and understanding of governance structures.

Raila’s engagement in coalition-building and power-sharing agreements during Kenya’s political transitions highlights his capability to navigate complex negotiations, a crucial skill for AU leadership.

All eyes now on AU

Perhaps the most notable credential serving his bid is his recent position as the AU High Representative for Infrastructure. He has also been involved with the East African Community (EAC) and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)

These engagements have given him insights into regional dynamics, challenges, and opportunities. He has also championed environmental causes, recognizing the impact of climate change on Africa.

His focus on inclusive, equitable resource distribution within Kenya as a champion of devolution in the widely acclaimed Constitution of Kenya, 2010 aligns with the AU’s goal of promoting sustainable development, climate resilience, and green initiatives.

Raila’s stature and experience position him as the most formidable candidate against Somalia’s former Foreign Minister Fawzia Adam, Djibouti’s Foreign Affairs Mahmoud Ali Youssouf and Seychelle’s former Vice-President Vincent Meriton.

If elected, Raila would serve as the AU’s chief executive officer, legal representative, and accounting officer.

The AUC chairperson oversees the AU’s activities, including promoting development, resolving conflicts, and advancing continental goals.

The writer is a senior reporter and political analyst based in Western Kenya.


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