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Raila Odinga: Champion of multiparty democracy or tribal chief in Luo Nyanza?

By Mercy Simiyu September 16th, 2023 2 min read

In Kenyan politics, Raila Odinga is often celebrated as a champion of multiparty democracy. However, a closer look at his influence in Luo Nyanza, his political stronghold, raises questions about the extent to which this region truly practices political pluralism.

Mr Odinga, a seasoned politician and leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), has consistently been at the forefront of Kenya’s political landscape. While he hasn’t explicitly forced anyone in Luo Nyanza to follow him, his vice-like grip on the politics of the region leaves few viable alternatives.

History shows a clear trend in Luo Nyanza’s politics. Independent candidates have traditionally struggled to secure political seats. For the longest time, it has almost been a foregone conclusion that to succeed politically in Luo Nyanza, one must align with Odinga’s ODM party.

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Critics argue that while Mr Odinga may not use overt coercion, the lack of a competitive political landscape in Luo Nyanza effectively limits the choices available to aspiring politicians. Independent candidates, even those with strong credentials, often find it challenging to gain traction, let alone win elections in this region.

Azimio la Umoja – One Kenya Coalition party leader Raila Odinga at Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi on December 7, 2022. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Mr Odinga’s supporters, on the other hand, contend that his dominance is a result of genuine popularity and support from the Luo community. They argue that Mr Odinga has earned the trust of the people through years of dedication to their struggles.

“Raila Odinga championed for multiparty democracy. You can’t rebel against him in his party. He has not forced anyone from Luo Nyanza to follow him. Those rebels are spies, they must leave…  Luos knows who their fighter is,” tweeted one The Government Critic.

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Nonetheless, the lack of political alternatives in Luo Nyanza raises important questions about the state of multiparty democracy in the region. The party has just recently suspended five legislators for defying Mr Odinga and pledging to work with President William Ruto

Azimio la Umoja – One Kenya Coalition leader Raila Odinga converses with Homa Bay Governor Gladys Wanga during the Piny Luo cultural festival at Homa Bay High School on July 1, 2023. PHOTO | GEORGE ODIWUOR

The party’s National Executive Committee, on Wednesday after a meeting chaired by party leader Raila Odinga and National Chairman John Mbadi, said the decision was arrived at following the consideration of a report by the disciplinary committee which had been looking into the conduct of some members.

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The five legislators are Elisha Odhiambo (Gem), Gideon Ochanda (Bondo), Phelix Odiwuor ‘Jalang’o’ (Lang’ata), Caroli Omondi (Suba South), and Kisumu Senator Prof Tom Ojienda.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga addressing the demonstrator in Eastleigh Nairobi on Monday, March 20, 2023. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

So is Raila Odinga truly a champion of multiparty democracy, or does his enduring dominance suggest a de facto one-party system in Luo Nyanza?

This is a debate that is likely to continue for as long as Mr Odinga remains politically active.

But one thing is clear. As Kenya heads into the next election cycle, the political landscape in Luo Nyanza remains a microcosm of the broader challenges faced by multiparty democracies – balancing the influence of charismatic leaders with the need for a robust and competitive political environment.