The pain in Raila’s back

He is not an impressive physical specimen. He doesn’t have former President Daniel arap Moi’s kingly, ramrod posture, or Jomo Kenyatta’s blazing eyes. Or even Uhuru Kenyatta’s craggly-faced bonhomie; not even Mwai Kibaki’s disconcerting glare.He is a slightly built guy, no more than 5 ‘6 in height, but a bundle of energy and light on his feet. Even his voice is not exactly Barrack Obama’s booming, Southern-preacher baritone.So why does former Prime Minister Raila Odinga command attention easily and win such adoration from those who like him and so easily persuade the folk he meets?

Mr Odinga is the man who knows everything about this country; an obsessive collector of facts and circumstances whose recall is almost inch-perfect. I still don’t think it is the 1000tb of data in his brain that wins them over. I think it is the logical and persuasive way he thinks.

I know that Miguna Miguna has said Mr Odinga is a lab technician and not an engineer, but to the attentive listener, Mr Odinga handles information with incredible, simple precision and stacks his arguments like well-cut wood. Just like an engineer.

Even when he is parrying with a weak argument, he does so with great aplomb and self-assuredness, no doubt born of decades of experience arguing up and down the world. He was explaining one of his pet examples: how South Korea, which was at the same stage as Kenya and Ghana in 1963, today has an economy 40 times the size of Kenya’s.

Agrarian revolution

He explained how South Korea invested in an agrarian revolution, in skills and created a great labour force, opened its economy to foreign investment and had little tolerance for corruption. I thought, along with all that, the X factor in the South Korean experience is the support of the US, which deliberately developed the country – by giving it, among others, Most Favoured Nation status – as a bulwark against the Communist North Korea, the South being the front line in the Cold War.

“The Cold War was everywhere. It was here in Africa, how come we did not develop?” he countered. “African countries have no excuse.”

No one can argue with that. On top of his beautiful arguments, Mr Odinga also owes his popularity to the simple fact that he is a consummate politician. Politics is woven in the tapestry of his life and family, the walls of his home are soaked in it. Politics is to the Odinga family – not purely in the financial sense – what the hardware store, vet clinic or the farms is to other families: everyone in the family grew up with it, is part of it and is good at it.

I was looking forward to my encounter with Mr Odinga, so as I got lost on Kerarapon Drive and ended up in distant places, it was with a light heart. I am not a popular figure in Odinga circles – his press people Salim Lone, Sarah Elderkin and lately Dennis Onyango, I suspect, have always detested me, having no doubt written me off as a Kikuyu reactionary, never mind that my tribe ceased being Kikuyu, by colonial ordinance, no less, in 1956 or thereabouts. Being disliked is an important part of journalism and, in any case, Mr Onyango and I have for the moment hit it off like a house on fire.

Good journalism is like a proper African dinner, it is served in two parts: the ugali and the soup. The ugali is the hard, factual news part, the soup is the colour. My MoU with Sunday Nation editor Mike Owuor is that I would, reluctantly, ask the questions, he would do the serious journalism and I would provide the soup.

Public discourse

When we pulled up at the former Prime Minister’s big outdoor garage, for me it was not to write about brinkmanship, riots, election disputes and all the other things about which Mr Odinga has been questioned and crucified endless about. It was to beat a new path and get a fresh perspective on one of Africa’s most interesting and controversial statesmen.

Public discourse in Kenya is negative and unhealthy. In the 1960s, being Marxist was a mark of intellectual distinction. Today, being shallowly negative and critical is mistaken for cleverness and we are creating a sick society that has no faith in itself and whose children are just giving up and killing themselves.

Kenya is an aggregate of 50 million individuals, wallowing in a swamp of vicious, primitive, corrosive vibe and that’s not a good foundation for the brilliant, sunny future we want for future generations. Mr Odinga’s compound is not quite presidential (movement is relatively free and you can keep your phone) but it has aspirations: it is lovely and the house impressive. The security is serious, a lead car with a siren commands attention and the equipment in the garage is generally top-hole.

When you visit a parent with grown children, there is always an air of loneliness about the home, no matter how many attendants and servants there are. Mr Odinga’s children were deeply involved in the proceedings, Raila Junior a little from the background and Winnie fully in charge of the father’s welfare. She managed him with a daughter’s unmistakable authority and with touchingly genuine love and affection.

She noticed the discomfort in his ailing back and quickly moved to make him more comfortable, and when he misplaced his little notes, she unobtrusively fished them out and put them in his hands.

Looked exhausted

Mr Odinga is a brave man, but he is in pain on his back from the trouble there and the subsequent surgery. He also looked really exhausted, like a man who was not getting enough rest either from his seemingly endless calendar of political events or discomfort.

None of the rather dramatic descriptions of illness on social media were in evidence. His mind is solid and he expresses himself with the same outspoken fearlessness that the public has come to associate him with.

Even when he does not wish to comment, he says so with the same frankness: “I don’t want to answer that question,” he will say and no matter how many times you rephrase the question, the answer is the same. He will not comment on the 2022 election and he will not comment on President John Pombe Magufuli’s unique approach in the management of Covid-19.

If you spent 40 years in politics trying to win power, through elections and allegedly a coup and not succeeding – or having the elections stolen thereof – and seeing how we have turned out – a sometimes deeply divided, tribal, politically unstable and very corrupt country – wouldn’t you be disappointed and wonder why you rioted and suffered in prison and exile?

Mr Odinga remains optimistic and proud of Kenya’s standing in the region and believes our biggest issue is poor leadership and corruption, including corruption among MPs and the mindless love of money among young people. His fanatical base might be in one part of the country, but he is a solid nationalist with the same, simple faith in Kenya’s destiny common among the older generations.

Good leaders

Mr Odinga’s appreciation of regional geopolitics is also quite sophisticated and unemotional, dismissing frequent tiffs between Kenya and Tanzania as a “storm in a tea cup” and wholly accepting that nations act in their best interests not out of sentimental affinity to their neighbours.

He would not say what specific plans he and President Kenyatta have made to ensure that we have the right leaders – “we are not going to pick leaders” – and talks generally about creating a conducive environment for good leaders to emerge, but obviously if poor leadership is the reason the country is where it is, shouldn’t that be a bigger priority?

But it is when discussing his role as African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development that Mr Odinga becomes fully animated, the Pan-Africanist dreamer grasping the nettle of the continent’s malaise.

He excitedly talks about an infrastructure fund for the continent, an open skies regime, the Inga Dam in Congo and building a land bridge linking the Indian and Atlantic oceans from Lamu to Cameroon.

Driving out of the compound, I couldn’t help thinking: Kenya sure has some clever people. I don’t know whether Mr Odinga should be on the ballot in 2022 or not.

Even though he says he is back to jogging, he is still a septuagenarian who has lived a hard life and is having issues with his health. What I do know for sure is that we are stronger and better off as a country if he is part of the solution.

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