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Kenya's outsider keeps fighting for a way in

Long a government critic, Raila Odinga is determined to lead the nation. 'Surrender is not an option,' he says.

January 18, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — Raila Odinga built a career as a political outsider.

As a young man, he watched as his father, a fighter for independence and Kenya's first vice president, was outmaneuvered by political opponents and eventually jailed.

Odinga pursued his own path of dissent, spending much of the 1980s in jail or under house arrest for his alleged role in plotting a 1982 coup.

Later, as an outspoken government critic, he masterminded a 2002 opposition coalition that put Mwai Kibaki into the presidency. But their partnership disintegrated, and Odinga found himself locked out of government again.

In an interview Thursday, Odinga said his credentials as an outsider are exactly what Kenya needs and pledged not to abandon his decades-old dream of leading this East African nation.

"I represent change," the politician said at his party headquarters in the capital, Nairobi, appearing bleary-eyed and tired from fighting a political war that began with the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election. "People voted for me because they want change."

Seven more demonstrators died in clashes with police around the country Thursday, the second day of a three-day "mass action" called by Odinga to protest the election, which he denounces as fraudulent. Odinga said that as many as 500 people had been killed by police during the last three weeks, many shot in the head.

Government officials have defended their handling of postelection riots and ethnic clashes, saying many of those shot were looting or killing innocent people.

Kibaki, who was declared the victor and inaugurated Dec. 30, says the protests are illegal and has called upon Odinga to cancel them.

Undeterred, Odinga said he would expand his campaign next week to disrupt the government and economy by calling for boycotts of banks, bus companies, milk factories and other businesses that are supporting the Kibaki administration. He said he also would attempt to organize strikes among sympathetic unions in the hotel and security industries.

Postelection chaos has tarnished Kenya's reputation as a model for African democracy and cost the economy more than $1 billion. Tourism, a key industry, has screeched to a halt.

But Odinga scoffed at the notion of giving up his pursuit and spending "another five years sitting outside the fence."

"To say we will surrender is not an option," he said. "It's not for me. It's for this country. It's for prosperity. If we just give up because we are doing things that destroy the economy, then change will never come."

Just two years ago, Odinga's political rise in Kenya would have been hard to imagine. Though he was well-known and part of a prominent family, few viewed him as presidential material. Polls showed his support at 2%.

"He wasn't electable," said Babafemi A. Badejo, a political analyst in Liberia who recently published a biography of Odinga.

Voters saw him as rough-edged and combative, perhaps someone who would be tempted to use power to take revenge against his enemies. A former communist who was educated in East Germany, Odinga has a demeanor that at times can seem both folksy and intimidating.

But over the last year, Badejo said, Odinga reinvented himself as the "people's president" and an advocate for the poor, exposing government corruption and erasing "Raila-phobia."

Since fall, presidential polls had given Odinga a consistent, but slim lead over Kibaki.

"He's our savior," said David Sapsapi, 40, a farmer in western Kenya.

Some critics, however, questioned whether Odinga could work as well inside the government as outside.

"He is fearless when it comes to criticizing the government, so I think he fits better in the opposition," said Stephen Mwangi, 44, a government employee in Nairobi.

Unlike most Kenyan politicians, Odinga has proved that he can draw support across tribal lines. Even based on the government's disputed election tallies, Odinga won in six of Kenya's eight provinces. Kibaki won only one province, in his tribal stronghold. Another candidate prevailed in the eighth province.

Odinga's continued quest for the presidency looks like a long shot.

"He's running out of options," said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity. Kibaki already has named his vice president and a partial Cabinet.

But supporters warned against underestimating Odinga's skills as a political strategist. In addition to helping elect Kibaki in 2002, Odinga led the campaign in 2005 to defeat a government-proposed constitutional referendum. This week, he rallied his supporters to appoint a new parliament speaker, beating Kibaki's candidate.

Next week's mediation talks with former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan probably will focus on pursuing a power-sharing agreement or coalition government. Such a compromise appears unlikely, given each side's rhetoric. Kibaki has accused Odinga of "genocide" by supporting some of the savage ethnic attacks in recent weeks, and Odinga said police shootings had turned Kenya into the "killing fields."

But in the 1990s, Odinga surprised his supporters by accepting a government post in the administration of Daniel Arap Moi, the same man who had accused him of involvement in a coup plot and sent him to Nairobi's notorious Nyayo House torture chamber. At the time, Odinga responded to accusations of political opportunism by contending that it was best to forgive Moi and move on for the good of Kenya.

Odinga said Thursday that a reconciliation with Kibaki won't be as easy. He said he would accept a co-presidency or vice presidency, if powers were clearly delineated and both sides agreed to a schedule of reforms.

"You need to fix the mess that was created by this election," he said. "You can't wish it away. If you don't try to prevent a reoccurrence, in another five years, someone will do the same thing."

--

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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