Reckless Raila?…leadership lessons & losses

Esther A. Armah


Raila Odinga. The People’s President of Kenya?  I watched a video where Mr. Odinga inaugurated himself as a President of a nation that had already elected President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Confused? Aren’t we all! What a wow!

This is an extraordinary series of events.

Kenya ignited global headlines when post 8 August 2017 elections, Kenya’s Supreme Court made an unprecedented ruling to reject the election result citing serious irregularities and illegalities in the process.  That ruling made global headlines. It prompted renewed confidence in the judicial element of the governance process in Kenya where elections are a bloody and brutal business.

The quest for political power jeopardizes lives and the Kenyan people continually take to their streets to push, rally and raise their voices in pursuit of governance that their votes – not the violation of their rights and the violence – determine.

As the Kenyan people counted down to the re-run election in October, their  optimism and celebration of Kenya’s Supreme Court was quickly marred by escalating violence directed at Kenya’s judiciary,

Kenya’s Electoral Commission (EC) came under fire.  Commissioner Roselyn Akombee fled to the US amid death threats.  The Election Commission conceded that the re-run election poll might not be credible. There were calls for the EC irregularities to be resolved before the election re-run. Violence escalated. The October election took place. Mr. Raila Odinga boycotted it.

Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta won a second term.

I was last in Kenya in 2003. I was making a documentary for BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Continents exploring the prospects of education after the 2002 election of Kenya’s new National Rainbow Coalition government. This election ended the dominance of the Kenya African National Union which had governed Kenya since independence in 1963. That included 23 years as the only legal party. The new president was Mwai Kibaki of the National Rainbow Coalition. Primary education was now compulsory and free – just as Ghana now has Free SHS.

My feet would touch down in Nairobi as Kenya grappled with governance and democracy.  I think about my interview in Nairobi with Africa’s first Nobel Peace prize winner, the environmentalist and activist turned Minister – Wangari Maathai. She founded the Green Belt movement; a poor people’s environmental movement that empowered women and was about land, leadership and democracy. I remembered our discussion with her exploring leadership in Kenya in May 2003, and I think about it again now as I ponder Raila Odinga’s actions on January 30th 2018.

Mr. Odinga boycotted the October election, citing an unlikelihood of transparency. The death threats, fleeing Commissioners and the words of the EC Chief himself seemed to validate Mr. Odinga’s concerns.

So yes, Mr. Odinga may indeed be right that the Kenya election was a mess; that there was brutality and violence that quelled the judicial and governmental structures who have oversight of this process.

Those realities do not justify this action; nor does this action serve to resolve any of the issues that created the farce of process.

So, what action does a leader then take in pursuit of his goal to honor the Kenyan people’s democratic process in voting for their president – and having that vote respected? Because frankly, it is unclear how self-declaration as president honors governance and voting process.

There are instructive lessons in leadership here.

A primary lesson in leadership is to make failure instructive. It is to recognize when we lose, we can learn why we lost and then get up, strategize, organize, rally, control our egos and stand again. We are strengthened through understanding that the loss was not the issue; the issue is the lesson from the loss.

So, what lesson does Raila Odinga teach Kenya – and by extension Africa – by this inauguration? Raila Odinga’s bid is reckless, not revolutionary. It is the worst indulgence of ego. It sets up the Kenyan people to face continued violence from a government and a president they already oppose.

Odinga’s actions did not make him the People’s President. They were the actions of a dictator; a man imposing his will on a flawed process, rather than correcting the process and strategizing to fight more smartly and win on another day.

Defeat is bitter. Loss is difficult to swallow in the face of apparently clear evidence that you won. Ghana faced that same dilemma in 2012.

Leadership is process and practice – it is not performance. And Raila Odinga’s actions were about the performance of leadership.  They were about the seduction of a cheering crowd; the infectious cancer of hearing your name screamed by the thousands gathered. What happens on January 31st and February 2nd? Who do you practically lead? And how do you actually lead them? What alliances are you able to court and create through this action?  What opportunity do you create to run – legitimately in the eyes of the Kenyan people – on another day?

Leadership as performance promises trouble for the people. And that is what Mr. Odinga’s inauguration represents. It pays a particularly brutal price for ordinary Kenyans. Some may now believe that his performance of leadership may mean actual power. Can the People’s President pass legislation to effect change? Can his inauguration usher in a jobs programme to transform the working challenges Kenyans face?  Do Kenyan women face fresh opportunity and access to corridors of power due to this action? Can the People’s President actually take action on behalf of the people?

Since he can do none of the above, his inauguration – while celebrated and cheered – becomes a recipe for frustration for the very people who may  have cheered him in delusional optimism that he may stand for change they can believe in and benefit from.

The illusion of power is deadly. It is the notion that your action may ignite change, but is actually political impotence.

Mr. Odinga has done to the Kenya people what the NDC has done to the Ghanaian people with the Gitmo 2. He has made some kind of deal that he claims serves the people, but actually ignites fresh questions and leads to suspicion about the basis of such a move and the consequences for the people. This has become about political wrangling between political parties – not the leadership and needs of a people.

Turmoil is bad for business, but devastation always offers opportunity for the unscrupulous. Such has been the history of politics across African nations.

Kenya’s history of the Mau Mau who fought the British in pursuit of their freedom and independence is also instructive. Kenya’s three big ethnic groups of Kikuyu, Luhya and Luo mean unity is a dream deferred. However, just as Kenya united for a necessary independence of a nation, so these huge groups may consider that the interests of a people need not be idealistic wahala, but prompt a momentary lull in tribal political warfare in pursuit of a people focused on peace.

Tribe is to Africa, what race is to America. It is complex, powerful and it informs policy and politics.

Mr. People’s President, this is not what leadership looks like. Become smarter, more strategic, more self-aware and respectful of a governance process. Reject performance, engage practice and honour the people of Kenya.

Let loss be a lesson for a reimagined leadership that gets up, humbled and willing to engage anew.

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