Understanding the Kenyan Opposition


Much has been written about the Kenya elections — the rigging and the violence that has ensued, and the way to peace.  But next to nothing has been written regarding the nature of Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement.

To struggle for peace, which in turn calls for engaging with the political leadership, demands that we think about nature of the competing political interests, what motivates them, and how they function and to what effect.  It is a sign of how little we have come to expect of ourselves and of African political processes that we forgo even the most basic of analysis.

Ask some of the people commentating on Kenya about the differences within ODM, whether it’s a coalition or a party with a single vision, who are the main players, and the implications for peace, and the answers will be on the surface.

Ask the same people about the internal workings of the US Democratic Party, and they will tell you the differences between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, how Bill Clinton is influencing the race, the intersections of class, race, and gender, and how each candidate might relate to Africa or the Middle East.

How can we agitate for peace when we do not understand the nature of the parties involved?  This question is becoming increasingly urgent.  The violence has started to perpetuate itself through the logic of counter killings and revenge.  The solution to ethnic cleansing is becoming counter-ethnic cleansing.

The myth that the violence is a spontaneous reaction to the rigged elections has to be debunked because its persistence only gives cover to the cleansers and counter-cleansers.  A January 21st New York Times article argues that the massacres “may have been premeditated and organized.”

Human Rights Watch has said that it has “evidence that ODM [the Orange Democratic Movement] politicians and local leaders actively fomented some post-election violence.”  And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for an independent investigation while the International Criminal Court has said it is following the violence closely.

These concerns are coming at time when the government response to ODM protests — using a police force that from the time of British colonialism to the present has kept peace at the expense of innocent Kenyans — is racking up a high body count of its own.

A closer analysis of the two political parties finds that they are mirror image of each other.  They both represent the elite of their different ethnicities, and they manipulate ethnicity to hide their bankruptcy.  The prevailing ideology is ethnocracy.  The state, already seen as the bad ogre, is expected to stomach a high number of deaths without blinking.  In this regard the state remains predictable.  But that the ODM is prepared to do the same has been unexpected — and also unexplored.


Within the opposition leadership (or the Pentagon as they refer to themselves), there are at least three competing elements — the activist-intellectual left, the Moi-ist retrogressives, and the populists.

The first camp is exemplified by Prof. Anyang Nyong’o, an intellectual activist, and Salim Lone, a former editor of the UN Africa Recovery magazine and spokesperson for the United Nations Mission in Iraq.  They speak a language that the international media understands — and that anti-establishment friends of Africa like to hear.  It is this group that has marketed ODM as a people power movement, in the process glossing over the ethnic killings.

The intellectual activists favor boycotts, smart sanctions, and peaceful civil disobedience — tactics that gather sympathy and support from the international community while calling attention to the government.  Had their strategies been followed without bending to the Moi-ist retrogressives, ODM could very well have solidified international support.

The Moi-ist retrogressives are represented by William Ruto, a former treasurer for the thuggish Youth for KANU (known as YK 1992).  This group is widely seen as having been responsible for ethnic violence that in 1992 and 1997 left hundreds dead and thousands displaced in the Rift Valley.  The recent Eldoret church burning and cleansing took place in Ruto’s constituency.  William Ruto is leading the ODM delegation in the Kofi Annan mediated talks.

Surrogates of the Moi regime (the same dictator who was embraced by the ruling party, hence the mirror image), the retrogressives lack political finesse.  They are crude in their methods.  They prefer a historically tested, albeit failed, solution: ethnic cleansing — that is, drive them out, or kill them.

The Moi-ist retrogressives have cost ODM a lot of political mileage.  After the Eldoret church burning, the support shifted from getting Raila back the disputed presidency to bringing him and Kibaki to a negotiated solution.  If the ODM is to survive into the future, it must rid itself these element.

In the populist camp you find the Pentagon leader — Raila Odinga, the immovable centerpiece.  Raila has solid activist credentials, having been imprisoned by Moi for six years and having spent most of his life agitating for democracy in Kenya.  The irony is that he later joined forces with Moi, even serving as his minister of energy as he positioned himself to be anointed successor.

Raila has a solid Luo support base and youth appeal across ethnicity.  Had ODM not run a campaign along ethnic fault lines, his support amongst the poor would have been solidified.  Raila has all the contradictions that come with populism.

Populists prefer loud rallies and protests.  They want to draw violence from the state because the consequent anger unites the people and earns then international political mileage.  Populists also like to “shock and awe.”  Flamboyant and a millionaire, Raila drives a red Hummer and at one point hired Dick Morris, the discredited former Bill Clinton adviser, as ODM’s political consultant.  Dick Morris, a political mercenary who services despots, Democrats and Republicans alike, he is also infamous for being called (or led) by his first name in red-light districts.

When the populist agenda leads the day, ODM calls for mass protests.  However, mass protests that are ethnically driven are a contradiction, and they inevitably end with ethnic violence.  Raila’s populism therefore gives fuel to the Moi-retrogressives while isolating the intellectual-activist left.


Understanding these three elements explains why ODM has since the beginning of the political crisis sent mixed calls — one day it calls for mass rallies, the other worker strikes; it wants to form a parallel or coalition government, it will accept only a recount or rerun of the elections while calling for Kibaki’s resignation or for power sharing.  At the same time, there was a refusal during the first month of the violence to seriously call for peace amongst ODM supporters.

ODM totters in different directions depending on which element leads the day.  Because each of the three elements are mutually dependent (but with Raila needing everyone less), it is not certain which element will eventually triumph — which makes Kenya’s future also uncertain.

At the very least both the government and the opposition need to let their respective Moi-ist retrogressives go.   When both sides are not swayed by the extremists, a return to the center where sanity prevails will be possible, and a political solution within grasp.

Ultimately any solution, be it a recount, re-election, or coalition government, must be one that has the Kenyan people at the center.  And if the cycle of cleansing and counter-cleansing is to be broken, those responsible for organizing the cleansing and counter cleansing must also be brought to justice.  A political solution must bring with it much needed justice. 

Mukoma wa Ngugi is editor of Pambazuka News (www.pambazuka.org), author of Hurling Words at Consciousness and a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.

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