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Uhuru Kenyatta v Raila Odinga: The Final Duel

raila kenyatta Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga on the campaign trail

After a 24-year hiatus beginning in 1978, the virulent duel between the Kenyattas and the Odingas was reignited in 2002 over a familiar dispute; power. The dispute has continued to play itself over the last 15 years, but now, we have come to the penultimate moment in this battle. Raila Odinga is an old man now, and after this election, whether he wins or loses, he will not have the energy to continue the family battle much longer. An interesting prelude to this feud is that the first duel between an Odinga and a Kenyatta lasted for 15 years, the same amount of time the second generation feud will last. The first duel ended suddenly in 1978 when the older Kenyatta checked out, leaving Odinga without a foe to fight. This time, it is the Odinga who will go out first. The campaign pitting NASA’s Odinga and Jubilee’s Kenyatta has been grueling. The presidency is literary up for grabs. Along the way, both Odinga and Kenyatta have tried different methods and both have committed grievous but non-fatal mistakes. Previously, we have looked at Uhuru Kenyatta’s chances of re-election. Read the article here).

Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga During the Inauguration of Tanzania new President John Magufuli. Nov 5, 2016

The greatest foe for Raila Odinga in his quest to become the president of Kenya is time. Not because he is old, but because this time around he simply did not get enough time to pursue his greatest infatuation; the presidency. What would you do if you were given 100 days to set-up and run a campaign to win the presidency? This is not a hypothetical question. That is the amount of time Raila Odinga has had to run his campaign to become the president. He needed to campaign. He needed to raise money. He needed to propagate his message. He needed to litigate and fight IEBC in courts. He needed to strategize. And all that had to be done in 100 days. The man who wants to become the fifth president of Kenya on a fourth try simply ran out of time to achieve the thing he has always wanted to do. How did NASA and Odinga find themselves here? The NASA coalition picked their presidential candidate on April 27, and since then, the coalition has been in a race to set up and run a campaign. In contrast, the Jubilee coalition was formed last year and has had a candidate since September 2016, a full one year before the election. Anyone with knowledge of modern presidential politics knows that setting up a campaign machinery needs time and resources. NASA’s dithering over choosing a candidate may ultimately cost them the election. The uncertainty over the choice of their presidential candidate led to inertia in preparations for the general election.

But there is a precedent for Raila Odinga. Mwai Kibaki. When he was running for re-election in 2007, Kibaki had exactly 107 days to campaign. For nine months in 2007, a panicking Mt. Kenya elite watched in horror as the man they pinned their hopes on sat on his feet while Odinga was gaining momentum. Nobody knew whether Kibaki was going to run for sure and nobody knew what party he will run on. By the time he declared his second bid for the presidency in mid-September, the ODM juggernaut led by an exuberant Odinga had been campaigning for nearly a year. The electoral result was a predictable disaster for Kibaki. Granted, Raila Odinga is a veteran campaigner and political strategist. He has been on the campaign trail every five years since 1992. That kind of experience is an obvious advantage. But can he pull this one off?

In theory, both candidates have roughly equal support. Kenyatta pulls his main support from the populous Gema and Kalenjin tribes. Raila Odinga pulls his support from the Kamba, Luo, Luhya and the Mijikenda Tribes. Three of Kenya’s big five are in favor of Raila Odinga, while two are in favor of Uhuru Kenyatta. The two in favor of Kenyatta are almost equal in number to the four main tribes supporting Odinga. This is an obvious structural advantage for Kenyatta. Kenyatta also has another advantage, voter turnout is high is his strongholds. Traditionally, Kenyatta’s Mt. Kenya region has the highest rate of voter turnout, while Odinga’s Coastal and Western strongholds have among the lowest turnout. Political science theory shows that poor and uneducated people vote less than well-to-do people. This is because poor people feel left out of the system and therefore do not see the need to vote in a system that has forgotten them. It would not surprise anyone that the coastal and the western regions are among the poorest while Mt. Kenya is among the wealthiest regions in Kenya. Without Odinga’s supporters turning out in large numbers, victory will be elusive for him.l

Let us turn to the polls. In Kenya, people support or deride opinion polls depending on whether their candidate is winning in the polls. That notwithstanding, there are enough reasons to suggest that opinion polls are usually an accurate measure of the public mood. The polls were accurate in the last four out of five of the biggest electoral events in Kenya: 2002 (election), 2005 (referendum), 2007 (election), and 2010 (referendum). The polls were wrong in 2013 and people unhappy with opinion polls have never stopped reminding us that the polls got it wrong. If, however you look at the track record, the polls have been accurate more times than they have been wrong.

Perhaps, Odinga’s best bet in this election should not be an outright victory, rather, it should be holding Kenyatta to less than 50% of the vote. Most of the polls since June have predicted a victory for Kenyatta, but also most polls show him falling short of the 50% threshold required to win an outright mandate. Mr. Kenyatta had an earlier start to the campaign compared to Odinga and was also able to deploy a lot of resources to underwrite his bid, but Odinga has been catching up slowly in the last few weeks. Still, there has not been enough time for Odinga to overtake and triumph over Kenyatta. An often-repeated narrative by Kenyatta and his cohorts is that Odinga has been trying to find ways for the election to be postponed. Actually, this could be true and it makes sense for Odinga, seeing as it would have given him more time to campaign. The polls show that given time, Odinga could easily overtake Kenyatta whose support has stagnated at 48-49% while that of Odinga has been climbing from a low of 39% in May to a high of 49 in July (Infotrak). For Kenyatta, pushing the election any further would be a fatal mistake.

An often overlooked number in the polls is the percentage of undecided voters. Since there are no undecided voters in the actual election, then it is likely that one of the candidates will win a +50% mandate. The undecided voters provide a statistical advantage for Odinga. The highest percentage of undecided voters are in western, eastern, and the coastal region, places where Odinga is doing well, so a bigger percentage of undecided voters are likely to break for Odinga. On average, 13% of voters in those three areas were undecided in July. In comparison, only 3.5% of the voters in Kenyatta’s strongholds of Central Kenya and Rift Valley were undecided.

There are only 4 possible outcomes in this election.
1. Raila Odinga wins but doesn’t get to the 50% threshold.
2. Raila Odinga wins with over 50% of the vote.
3. Uhuru Kenyatta wins but doesn’t get to the 50% threshold.
4. Uhuru Kenyatta wins with over 50% of the vote.

If you take an average of the polls in the last two months, outcome 3 and 4 are the most likely. That is the conventional wisdom. That’s how polls work.

Outcome 2 is also likely given the current political climate in the world where masses have expressed great dissatisfaction with incumbents. If you look at what is happening in the rest of the world right now, this is a good time to be an underdog. It is a rough terrain for incumbents. From the UK (twice) to Nigeria, France, Ghana, the USA, and even in the Gambia, incumbents and front-runners have fallen short. There yet may be a significant backlash against Uhuru Kenyatta that will push Odinga over the finish line. This is probably what Raila Odinga is counting on. In countries like the USA and the UK where opinion poll underdogs have triumphed, the backlash was not apparent until after the actual election. In Ghana, opinion polls consistently showed that John Mahama the incumbent president would beat his rival Nana Akufo Ado in the December 2016 polls. A poll released two days before the election showed the incumbent leading by 54% to his rival’s 43%. In the actual election, the opposition candidate beat the incumbent by a margin of 53% to 44%. This is Kenyatta’s nightmare and a potential blind spot that the jubilee must be aware of. For Uhuru Kenyatta, the best strategy is to win the election in round one. If Uhuru Kenyatta fails to clinch a round one victory, it’s over for him. Raila Odinga will win the runoff.

The next best bet for Raila Odinga would be to hold Kenyatta to below 50%. This is a very difficult task given that we are already in run-off territory. There is no strong third party candidate. In fact, the other six candidates combined cannot even get 1% of the total vote. However, the polls indicate the election is a dead heat race, so it’s possible for both of the two candidates to get just slightly over 49% and fail to clinch the seat in round one by a razor thin margin, thereby forcing a runoff. Still a long shot. Given the two-horse nature of this race, we are likely to have a round one winner who will just marginally go past the 50% mark. Either Odinga or Kenyatta can pass that mark.


Seems like you like politics. You can check our latest piece: A Presidency Under Siege: Can Uhuru Kenyatta Win Re-election

In addition to being a political history aficionado, Paul K Njuru is the chief editor here at  He tweets here and has a Facebook here

If you loved this article, you can check these other articles by the same author

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Did President Moi Want Ouko Dead? 

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