Kisumu, Kenya — In western Kenya, where thousands hit the streets to block polling in last week’s divisive vote, the re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta means nothing. For them, there can be only one president. "He’s our messiah," nods Gordon Ochyeng sitting in the back row of a church in Nyalenda slum in Kisumu. He is speaking of Raila Odinga.
The city was the epicentre of violent opposition protests against last week’s deeply divisive presidential re-run, called after the country’s supreme court overturned an initial August poll. Over the past three months, Kisumu and the surrounding areas have played a central role in the mass protest movement led by veteran opposition leader, Odinga.
The local businessman-turned-politician had urged his followers to boycott, which was widely observed. Here, Odinga’s word "can be law", says Rev Francis Omondi, who, like most people in the west, comes from the Luo tribe, Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group.
Although his influence over local politics is not what it once was, Odinga’s 20-year fight for the presidency continues to embody the Luo’s quest for the power they have long felt denied since Kenya gained independence in 1964.
From street signs to the name of the local hospital, the entire city seems to reverberate with the echoes of the Odinga dynasty, which began with his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was Kenya’s vice-president before going on to lead the opposition for three decades — but never the country.
Better known as "Baba", Odinga was born in Maseno, a town near Kisumu, the regional capital, where he still has an interest: a huge property perched on a hill overlooking the nearby city which sits on the northern shores of Lake Victoria.
During the first election on August 8, which was overturned by the supreme court in a move that triggered Kenya’s worst political crisis in a decade, more than 90% of Kisumu and the surrounding areas voted for Odinga. And when their leader called on them to boycott the October 26 re-run, western Kenya did it emphatically.
On the day itself, voting didn’t take place in four western counties. Polling staff failed to show up for fear of retaliation and protesters threw up barricades across the city and blocked entry to polling stations, chaining the entrances or, in one case, even welding the gates shut.
When Kenyatta’s widely-expected landslide victory was announced on Monday evening, it stirred little emotion in Kisumu. "We don’t care that he has been declared president. Why would we care, we did not vote," shrugs Alex Onyango, who works in a timber yard. "Our president is Baba," nods Robert Okello.
For the Luo, Odinga is the one who will redress the injustices they feel they have suffered.
Most feel that the Luos have been cheated out of the presidency, and it’s "Raila" who will save them. "For the Luo, Odinga is the one who will redress the injustices they feel they have suffered," said one Kenyan commentator, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity and referring to the murder of a number of Luo politicians.
Odinga has, perhaps, inherited the political misfortune of his father who came within reach of the top but fell out with Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta — father of the current incumbent — who had him jailed. And the family’s run of luck doesn’t appear to have changed.
Over the past two decades, Odinga has made four failed attempts to win the country’s top office, crying foul when he lost, with the 2007 election sparking months of politically-driven ethnic violence that left 1,100 people dead.
Until the end of the autocratic regime of former president Daniel arap Moi in 2002, there were "tangible signs" that the western Nyanza region "had been marginalised ... for decades", says Matthew Carotenuto, professor of Kenyan history at St Lawrence University in New York state. These days, such marginalisation is mainly limited to the presidency, he said.
The main roads in the region and its local airport have all since been improved with moves to decentralise power handing a significant budget to the regional authorities, he noted. And although Odinga himself spent time behind bars for political activity in the 1980s, it has not held back the growth of his family fortune, one of the largest in Kenya.
There are other regions in Kenya that are "far more marginalised than western Kenya", Carotenuto said, referring to the largely pastoral north. "The only comparison that counts is between the Kikuyus and the Kalenjins," the two ethnic groups from central Kenya which has given the country four of its presidents, said an estate agent working in Kisumu’s business district. Such regions "are the richest in Kenya," says the agent, wearing a spotless white shirt and a luxury watch.
It remains to be seen just how far Odinga’s supporters are prepared to go.
Dozens of people who spoke to AFP in Kisumu were unanimous in their support for "Raila". But some said while it was easy to boycott an election organised on a public holiday, it was much harder to walk away from your job to stand up to the police.
Carotenuto pointed out that most of the demonstrators were "disenfranchised youth", saying it would be interesting to see how many people would follow Odinga’s call for action in the coming weeks. "When he called for people to strike on August 14, many people just ignored the call, citing that the need to feed their families trumped presidential politics."