Kenya: The Raila Odinga Story

Most Kenyans can only wish they were as confident about the future as Raila Odinga appears to be. Amid the violent ethnic unrest that has killed more than 600 people in the past three weeks, the 62-year-old opposition leader seems positive that he--not Kenya's incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki--will ultimately prove to have won the country's disputed Dec. 27 elections.

"Part of the vote was for me," Odinga told NEWSWEEK last week over a home-cooked breakfast of steaming porridge and hot tea. "But part of it was against Kibaki, because he failed to unite the country. That is what I am going to do." He left the table and strolled through his sprawling Nairobi house, weighing the errors of Kibaki and his regime: "You know what the Somalis say? 'Never mistake a lion for a cat that's been rained on.' I think they mistook me for a wet cat."

Kenyans are increasingly fearful of the damage a prolonged battle for the presidency might do to their lives and their livelihoods. Odinga has vowed he's in this for "the long haul," and he's a born fighter, descended from a family of great warriors and kings. His great-grandfather became a legend in the Luo tribe for killing an elephant single-handed, and the spear the old man used now hangs proudly in a family collection. Odinga's father, a prosperous businessman and an outspoken leader in Kenya's independence movement, was the country's first vice president until he quit the government and launched an opposition party. "I've been in politics since birth," says Odinga--whose mother, as it happens, belonged to the Alego clan, just like the father of U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama.

But Odinga's formative years gave him another crucial advantage: an ability to think outside the bounds of Kenya's tribal politics. He left home at 15 to attend school in East Germany and eventually returned to Kenya with a master's degree in mechanical engineering and experience of life on both sides of the Berlin Wall. His Kenyan passport allowed him to pass freely through Checkpoint Charlie, and his friends in the communist East would send him to bring back fancy watches, TVs and other forbidden luxuries from the West. He served as a translator when Louis Armstrong visited the country on an Iron Curtain tour in 1965. And yet a speech by Fidel Castro impressed Odinga so much that years later he would name his firstborn son after the Cuban dictator. "I've lived in both sides of the world," says Odinga. "I'm better placed than most people who only hear about these things in books." (Today he owns five cars, including a pearl gray Jaguar and a ruby red Hummer.)

He got to know still other sides of the world after he came back to Kenya in 1970. He shuttled between government posts and the opposition, all the while remaining a close friend to Kibaki. Odinga's life changed again in 1982, when he was jailed for nearly a decade for his alleged role in a coup plot against Kenya's then dictator, Daniel Arap Moi.

Odinga talked about those years at breakfast last week. The government sent him from one prison to another. One was in the middle of a game preserve, where an escapee would have no hope against the predators of the savannah. In another he spent weeks on end in solitary confinement. His mother died in 1984, and his guards didn't tell him until two months later. He went on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration, and at night he yelled, to let his fellow prisoners know he was still alive. "I intended for everyone to hear," he says. "I didn't want to die like a dog in there."

That kaleidoscopic past helps explain Odinga's massive popularity. Unlike many African politicians, he doesn't pander to narrow tribal interests. Instead he has aggressively courted--and won--support among all of Kenya's 40-odd tribes, visiting them, listening to their concerns and working to build a sense of national identity, beyond local and ethnic loyalties. His entourage is filled with bodyguards, drivers, cooks and cleaners across the tribal spectrum. His communications director is a member of Kibaki's dominant Kikuyu tribe, as are several prominent business leaders who have pledged long-term support.

His agenda aside, Odinga has electric charisma. "He's not so eloquent," says Naji Balalla, one of Odinga's senior advisers (a Muslim). "But he doesn't have to be. He just walks into a room and looks at you and people go crazy."

That flexibility was on display recently in Nairobi, where NEWSWEEK caught up with Odinga. It began on a Sunday when Raila appeared at the Jesus is Alive Ministries before a rapturous crowd of about 2,000 worshippers. "Kenyans saw the blatant rigging of an election," he intoned in a rolling cadence that perfectly matched the religious fervor of the crowd. "Somebody has stolen your cow. How are you going to talk to that person?" As the crowd swelled to cheer him on, the bishop draped Odinga in a white shawl, anointed his head with oil to rapturous applause and called him "president."

Still, the ongoing crisis isn't helping Odinga's popularity outside his party. Immediately after the election he attracted a vast wave of support, but U.S. officials in Kenya, unwilling to be named on such a sensitive topic, tell NEWSWEEK that the surge has ebbed since then, and they now believe that the election itself was too close to call. At this point there's considerable skepticism that Odinga can do anything more than work out a feeble power-sharing deal with Kibaki--a far cry from the vehement recount demands of early January. Odinga still visibly believes in Kenya's momentum for change. Somehow he needs to revive Kenya's faith in itself.