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How the opposition is trying to pick up the pieces

Six months after its defeat in national elections, the Azimio coalition hasn't agreed on strategy or a new leader

The news that former president Uhuru Kenyatta will step down in February as the chair of the opposition Azimio la Umoja coalition has prompted fresh speculation that the coalition will collapse.

On the face of it, Azimio's demise should cause only a ripple in Kenyan politics. Formed by the infamous 'handshake' between Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in 2018, Azimio brought together Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and the rump of the Jubilee party formed by Kenyatta and his successor William Ruto, along with a group of smaller parties led by Kalonzo Musyoka's Wiper party (AC Vol 59 No 6, Raila beats rivals to a new deal).

It was never much more than a marriage of convenience. The failure of Kenyatta's wing of Jubilee in the Rift Valley and central Kenya to deliver a significant chunk of votes to Odinga was a main reason for his defeat by William Ruto in presidential elections last August (AC Vol 63 No 17, How the hustlers toppled the dynasties).

Kenyatta's plan is to quit domestic politics was on the cards. Under the constitution, a retired president 'shall not hold office in any political party for more than six months after ceasing to hold [national government] office'. His new role as Kenya's regional envoy, appointed by Ruto as a smart conciliatory move, gives Kenyatta a key role in drawing up the mandate of the Kenya-led East African Community force in eastern Congo-Kinshasa.

Odinga remains the de facto leader of Azimio. But the coalition's future has been complicated by Wiper leader Musyoka's bid to take over the outfit in preparation for the 2027 elections, having been Odinga's running mate in the 2013 and 2017 elections. For now, the 78-year-old Odinga, for whom 2022 was his best and last chance of winning the presidency, shows no sign of retiring from politics.

His latest trip to the Coast for a consultative meeting with ODM leaders reflects his efforts to revive an active opposition following the years of the 'handshake' deal (which was somewhere between co-option and coalition) with the Kenyatta presidency.

Now it seems that Odinga wants to counter President Ruto's forays in the coastal region following the president's warm welcome by ODM-elected governors Abdulswamad Nassir (Mombasa) and Gideon Mung'aro (Kilifi) during his tour of Galana Kulalu, which was a project to boost local food production launched by the Jubilee government. President Ruto presses ahead with his bid to co-opt governors and lawmakers elected on other tickets to expand his governing Kenya Kwanza coalition (Dispatches, 13/9/22, Ahead of his inauguration, Ruto sews up parliament).

Since the August elections, Musyoka, who swept the board in his Kamba region has emerged as the main voice of the opposition to Ruto, particularly on economic and social policy. Musyoka also backs President Ruto's proposal to create an formal position for the opposition leader; a move that requires changing the constitution.

Odinga's response has been lukewarm. Ruto has, however, repeatedly ruled out the prospect of his own 'handshake' deal to cooperate with Odinga or any other opposition leaders.

Should Azimio collapse that would probably result in what remains of Kenyatta's Jubilee party being subsumed by Ruto's United Democratic Alliance (UDA).

'Once Uhuru resigns officially, we shall appoint another chairman. We cannot hold him there and furthermore the law prohibits him from being in active politics after retirement,' says Makueni MP, Daniel Maanzo, a former ODM chairman and close ally to Musyoka. He insists that Odinga should support Musyoka in the 2027 election.

Odinga's ODM pre-dated Azimio and can survive without it. But the prospects for other opposition groups are more problematic. Wiper is a regional party that contested, albeit successfully, a handful of county governorships and holds fewer than 30 seats in the National Assembly. It has neither the financial nor organisational muscle of the ODM.

Such an opposition implosion could gravely weaken political pluralism in Kenya. A fragmented opposition would heighten the sense that one-man rule, this time under Ruto, is back (AC Vol 64 No 1, The return of one-man rule).

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