Early morning on Sunday, February 14, 2010, I got a call from James Orengo, Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s close confidante, asking that I come to the PM’s office.
Once there, we discussed Raila’s decision to suspend Cabinet ministers William Ruto and Sam Ongeri, who had been adversely mentioned in an official report over corruption in their ministries.
I prepared a draft statement for Raila on this enormously charged political step.
Ruto’s suspension in particular carried a huge political risk since Kalenjinland – his base – was at the heart of Raila’s passionate national support.
In the 2007 election, they had given Raila as many votes as his own Luo Nyanza stronghold did.
Soon after Raila announced the ministerial suspensions (which were later reversed by President Mwai Kibaki), I got a call from a livid Ruto who was in Rome attending a United Nations meeting.
He accused me of having orchestrated Raila’s plans against him, an utterly unfounded accusation.
If anything, I had worried about the political costs of the suspension for Raila, but of course, I did not mention that to Ruto.
Rift Valley MPs’ meeting
Knowing Ruto’s volatility, his anger towards me was worrying, a worry confirmed when at the next Rift Valley Parliamentary Group meeting, he discussed my purported anti-Kalenjin stance within Raila’s team – another baseless claim meant to intimidate me.
I was reminded of this episode when I heard of Ruto’s sensational boast that he had almost slapped President Uhuru Kenyatta when he heard him talk of giving up after the 2017 Supreme Court annulment of the presidential election.
Once this utterance was publicly revealed, the obvious thing to do, to avoid a huge political backlash, was to finesse a sort of apology for this astounding insult to one’s boss, leave alone a president.
His refusal to do so revealed the unbridled arrogance and impunity he has developed from having survived the many revelations and findings of purported wrongdoing and other major political setbacks.
Ironically, I had worked closely with Ruto when he was a key ODM leader in Raila’s team for the 2007 election and after.
I thought he was one of the sharpest, most focused leaders at that time, despite some troubling weaknesses.
I believe it’s absolutely vital for leaders and their aides to maintain contact with opponents in the interest of stable, democratically adversarial politics.
This is especially vital in Kenya’s political culture, in which alliances keep shifting radically at confounding speed amid the maneuvering to achieve political power through the ballot box.
The most dramatic of such unexpected alliances was Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto uniting for the 2013 election, despite the deep ethnic bitterness over the 2007 post-election violence.
In March 2018 came the equally dramatic Uhuru-Raila alliance amidst the rage over the killings of ODM supporters protesting over the 2017 election.
This unique phenomenon of alliances after serious political hostilities is among the core reasons that have kept us together as a nation.
Political analyst John Onyando, a former close colleague, recently summed up this singular Kenyan trait as “the unique ingenuity and crass opportunism of Kenya’s politics.”
Ruto’s almost-delivered slap naturally led to breathless media coverage which missed one pivotal element: Uhuru’s humanity.
In Sagana in February, he had powerfully spelt out why he had reached the agreement on the March 2018 Handshake with Raila.
He said he had wanted to chart a radical new course after the trauma of the 2017 post-election violence.
Kenyans were dying and innocent blood was once again being shed, he explained.
The President recently said, “They told me ‘kaa ngumu, kaa ngumu’ (stay put) but they were not there when hell broke loose in Kawangware.”
In February, that was seen by many as Uhuru defending the Handshake.
But Ruto’s contemptuously confirming that Uhuru had indeed responded to the violence with “weakness”, he unintentionally highlighted Uhuru’s genuine humanity!
Ruto’s comments also showed that he saw himself not as a Deputy President but as a co-equal one – and in the driver’s seat.
Such utterances show he is getting rattled as he sees more of the country coalescing around the safer and less volatile hands of Raila and Martha Karua.
Let me now turn to my friend Karua. I met her and Martha Koome, now Chief Justice, for the first time in the late 1990s in New York when they came home for dinner with Mama Ida Odinga, who was leading Kenya’s delegation to a UN meeting on the Status of Women.
In the energizing dinner discussion that night, I was struck by how many dynamic Kenyan women were now being recognized as leaders since I had fled the country in 1982.
I became sure Kenya would produce a woman president in my lifetime, and I thought that woman could be Martha Karua.
As nearly 40 years passed, the possibility of my seeing a woman president in my lifetime faded.
But Raila’s choosing her as running mate last month has suddenly made that dream much more likely.
My history with Martha also travelled through its own tumultuous journey.
When I returned to Kenya from the US in late 2004, it had been a pleasure to see Martha’s rise in the Mwai Kibaki-Raila coalition and her high public esteem for her hard work in promoting her commitment to the people.
But all those gains fell apart when she became the leading and highly aggressive defender of the rigged 2007 election.
And in the Kofi Annan-led negotiations to end the post-election violence, she demanded that I be removed from being the ODM liaison to the Kofi Annan team since I had worked with Annan at the UN.
Never mind that I had not met him during the negotiations privately. But I agreed readily to be replaced.
A few years later, I met Martha in the US at an event and praised her publicly. I was greeted by a firestorm of protest!
How could I praise someone who had abetted rigging?
My answer, without entering into the rigging issue, was that all of us err, plus Martha had been fighting not for personal gain but for her President and party.
Such unworthy actions should not stop us later from collaborating with leaders who share our current concerns and goals. The national and people’s interests and amity among communities should always take precedence over other considerations.
For me, my lifelong commitment to socialist principles has kept growing stronger, but I recognize the difficulty of putting those into practice in the current global order, and hence believe in “principled pragmatism”.
But opponents have frequently tried to paint me as radical or extremist.
In early June 2017, when I returned from the US to help Raila’s election campaign, a lengthy article by Joe Adama in The Star claimed that as soon as I arrived in Nairobi, Raila began issuing much more radical statements.
It was sheer nonsense intended to undermine Raila and intimidate me.
All this brings me back to Raila Odinga, a lifelong friend and mentor.
He is that rare breed of leader who is committed to certain basic principles while simultaneously being the master pragmatist.
He long ago recognized that politics in societies like ours can only succeed with multiple coalitions under a wide tent.
His enduring popularity and charisma give him the strength to unite with and uplift, not just former opponents such as Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi but even those like President Daniel Moi, who had him detained and tortured.
His union with Karua brings together two strands of reformist politics, both urgently needed to begin the long road to a much better future for all Kenyans.