Hearing Kenyans on the street referring to the country’s former prime minister by his first name, an outsider could be forgiven for assuming an air of genial friendliness pervades political-public relationships here. The fact of the matter, however, is that Raila Odinga is one of several politicians in Kenya who bear the mantle of political dynasties, and “Raila” is so called because he was an MP at the same time as his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga – Kenya’s first vice-president.
A former university lecturer turned wealthy politician, Raila is a father of four and has interests in the energy sector. The 69-year-old (Born Jan 7, 1945) opposition leader’s followers also know him as Agwambo, meaning “difficult to predict”.
Odinga – a member of the Luo tribe, the third largest ethnic group in Kenya – was charged with treason and held without trial for six years for his alleged role in a failed 1982 coup attempt against President Daniel arap Moi. He was re-arrested months after his 1988 release for working with pro-democracy and human rights activists calling for multi-party democracy in Kenya, then a one-party state.
After a third period of incarceration, the born-again Christian fled the country for Norway, claiming government officials were conspiring to have him assassinated. He returned in 1992, and navigated divisions between opposition parties to be elected as MP for the Nairobi suburb of Langata, a seat he has held three times since, each time getting elected under the banner of a different party.
As prime minister Odinga, who trained as an engineer in East Germany, gave tax breaks on fuel and food ostensibly to benefit the poor. But he has also come under fire for anti-gay comments, and for claiming to be a cousin of US President Barack Obama.
Wildly popular in the lead-up to the 2007 vote, with a record-breaking 50,000 attending one campaign rally, Odinga alleged fraud when officials named incumbent President Mwai Kibaki the winner. As protests turned violent, and escalated along largely tribal divides, more than 1,400 were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced before a deal brokered by Kofi Annan saw Kibaki retain power, with Odinga filling the newly created position of prime minister.
Under his tenure as a prime minister Kenya enacted a new constitution, the first since the country gained independence from Britain in 1963.
Odinga was also appointed by the African Union to mediate the 2010-2011 Ivorian crisis between President Alassane Ouattara and the then Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo.
Raila – the only Kenyan politician to change parties each time he vied for parliamentary seat – supported the ongoing trials at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of suspects of Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. Current president Uhuru Kenya and his deputy William Ruto are both facing charges in the Hague for masterminding the bloodshed that followed the disputed election results.
An avid football fan and supporter of the English premier league team Arsenal – Raila had a brief stint as a semi-professional football player with Luo Union now renamed team Gor Mahia in the Kenya football league.