Raila Odinga’s homecoming jamboree will be one of the most spectacular events in the multiparty era. It will be quickly compared with Kenneth Matiba’s triumphal return from hospitalisation in Britain just a jump ahead of the first multiparty presidential poll in 1992.
There was also the joint return, also from hospital in the UK, of Mwai Kibaki and the late Michael Kijana Wamalwa in 2002, when they were running mates in that year’s presidential race, a much more triumphant trajectory since, as it turned out, they were headed straight for the first post-Kanu presidency. He will be given a welcome befitting the greatest president that Kenya has yet to have, in the eyes of his base.
However, it has already been announced that he will not be in Kenya long before he zooms off for yet more quality time away from the rough-and-tumble of Kenyan politics — again in America, again in a largely academic setting. At this rate, Raila could yet become Kenya’s first statesman to go on the American lecture circuit, the most lucrative in the world. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair pocketed UK£10 million (Sh1.4bn) in his first year out of office, thanks to the sale of his memoirs, directorships on some of the world’s foremost private firms, and creatively tapping into the vast fees available on the US lecture circuit.
Raila has returned home to a scenario in which the ruling coalition and his own Cord are, separately and for diverse reasons, seriously weakened by all manner of factors. He could well discover that when he is away, everyone fights everyone else but when he is around, he is such a polarising figure that both friend and foe, separately, organise to close ranks and contend, both pro and con, with the Odinga factor. No other figure on the Kenyan political stage enjoys such attentions. The fact that he is doing so without currently holding a position of state underscores the special place the Odinga political brand occupies in our national life.
The more times Raila goes away and comes back, the more he will find that his presence in Kenya provides a focal point for all manner of divergent interests and that things begin to fall apart without his mesmerising polarisation. This time, he will find that Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o’s interim leadership of ODM was little more than a matter of being on automatic pilot, for none of the serious issues and fault lines around the botched delegates’ convention and election have been substantively addressed.
What Raila says today, how he says it, and how his base in ODM/Cord takes it, could well be just what the doctor ordered for an unraveling Jubilee alliance that is solely in need of a rallying point and the political superglue to hold it together. The galvaniser of Kenya politics could well find that he shocks and excites both his base and that of others.
And the next time he travels, the better to energise an even more euphoric homecoming, he could perhaps stay away a bit longer . . .
For Raila to have jetted into the country straight from a presidential studies residency programme in a prestigious US university and face a rally ban on the eve of a national day fete in Kenya would have sent out the craziest political signals to Western powers and their media that are increasingly critical of the Uhuru administration.
The outpouring of indignation and editorialising about the democratic niceties would have gone over the top. And this at precisely the time when President Uhuru is suffering a PR disaster in the West, being more damned with faint praise than condemned outright, but still hurting where it matters.
Whoever entertained the rally ban idea at a time like this would have handed vindication on a silver platter, with all the trimmings, to Raila and his Western boosters. The blunderbuss of banning orders, even in a time of bombing campaigns by the al Shabaab terror militia, should be used only as a genuinely last resort, for instance following serial attacks on political gatherings and mounting casualties. Otherwise it is all too easily misread and misinterpreted and too potentially injurious to Kenya’s nation brand to be of any sensible utility.