He had it coming: Intrigues that cost Kenya’s Raila top AU job

Sunday February 26 2023
Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga. He is no longer the High Representative for Infrastructure Development at the African Union. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG


Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga is no longer the High Representative for Infrastructure Development at the African Union.

This week, the AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said Mr Odinga’s job has come to a “happy conclusion.”

Mr Odinga’s role will now be handled by the African Union Development Agency - Nepad (Auda-Nepad) which now has the “full mandate to implement the continental agenda on infrastructure” and is headed by Ethiopian economist Nardos Bekele-Thomas.

It is the second time since 2011 that his assignment at the continental body has come to abrupt end.

Mr Odinga, an enthusiastic pan-Africanist, was always going to go against the grain of most African leaders at some point, a great sin in the continent.

Pressure from Nairobi


This week, sources told The EastAfrican that pressure from Nairobi forced the hand of Mr Mahamat to drop Odinga due to “continued politicking.” Odinga has said he does not recognise the presidency of William Ruto. But he also claimed he asked to leave job, something sources refuted, however.

Under the AU’s age-old tradition, however, special envoys or senior government officials at the African Union serve with blessings of their home government. Mr Odinga has both profited and been punished based on this before. In 2017, then President Uhuru Kenyatta endorsed his nomination as High Representative saying it “means well for the country.”

But in 2011, Odinga faced Nairobi’s objections to his role as a mediator. The then African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping named Odinga as a mediator in the Ivory Coast, where a post-election violence was threatening to tear apart the country.

By the time Odinga arrived on scene, some 200 people had died and more than 14,000 displaced.

Spirited resistance

Allasane Ouattara had won the elections, and endorsed by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). His rival Laurent Gbagbo, however, refused to leave office, leading to a bloodbath.

Soon after he landed in Abidjan, however, Odinga was met with resistance. Gbagbo’s team refused him. But that only added fuel as Nairobi did not endorse his nomination.

A senior diplomat who served at the time indicated Nairobi was not backing Odinga because he supported Ouattara.

“Kenya had said it was not taking sides in the conflict. We agreed with the AU position to have a peaceful solution. We didn’t agree with taking sides,” the official who is now posted abroad indicated.

Odinga would fail his mediation role three days later.

“I regret to announce that the breakthrough that was needed, did not materialise,” Odinga told reporters at the airport in Abidjan. During his brief stay, he threatened Gbagbo with sanctions “which would require additional punishing financial sanctions, and possibly the use of force.”

Leaked emails from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had revealed that Americans offered to ferry Mr Odinga to the Ivorian capital, as long as the continental body accepted.

Airlifted from Nigeria

Mr Odinga was airlifted from Nigeria to the Ivorian capital but the information on the owner or type of aircraft is redacted from the emails published by the State Department.

Mr Odinga had become the first such mediator to issue a strong statement, plainly siding with a party to the conflict. But it was disowned by the government of Mwai Kibaki under which Odinga was Prime Minister in a coalition arrangement.

“Mr Odinga has failed in his mission and we are no longer prepared to receive him,” Gbagbo’s foreign minister Alcide Djedje told journalists at the time. “He took the side of Mr Ouattara.”

Hounded out of office

Gbagbo would later be hounded out of office and to the International Criminal Court where he survived the charges of crimes against humanity. They have since signed a truce with Ouattara.

This week, a spokesperson for Mr Faki declined to comment on Odinga’s ejection as High Representative, referring The EastAfrican to Nairobi as “the Foreign Affairs Ministry can comment on its communication.”

The revelations had been publicised on Thursday by Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Korir Sing’oei calling it an “end of tenure notification.” “We thank the Rt Hon Raila Odinga for his service to the continental body.” In common protocol, however, it should have been the African Union to notify the public of changes in the position. The letter, addressed to Mr Odinga was also published, four days after its actual date.

Odinga says he had grown frustrated with the way AU leaders weren’t moving to implement the vision for infrastructure. When he took the job, he outlined a campaign for the Trans-African Highway project that was launched in 1971 but which had only been partially built.

Nine highways

The Trans-African project would be a network of nine highways which, when connected, will cover a combined total of 60,000 km across the continent and would need money and political will.

Odinga said the AU members had become victims of foreign interference with leaders’ inaction also helping to “keep Africa in its present condition”.

“Hopefully, the continent will overcome these,” he wrote in a letter to the AU on Thursday, indicating he was now free to concentrate on other issues.

“During our meeting on the side-lines of the second Dakar African Infrastructure Financing Summit in Dakar, Senegal three weeks ago, I indicated the challenges to my continued availability for the role of AU High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa.

High-level access

Faki’s letter of ending his service did not refer to any of Odinga’s requests to leave, something that could indicate no official request was received.

Odinga’s two stints at the AU in an envoy role had granted him access to high-level panels including presidents. The AU also paid for his travel, accommodation and an allowance, remitted to the National Treasury.

But in the run-up to the sacking, politicians in Kenya claimed he had overreached his politicking.

“Raila cannot use the international platform as AU envoy, and still criticise the Kenya Kwanza government. It was a matter of when, not if, he would exit the international stage,” said Zaheer Jhanda, a legislator for Nyaribari Chache constituency on the United Democratic Alliance party, party of the ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition.

“He should have resigned immediately we took over government, and if, indeed he wrote a letter to the AU, let him show that letter was received.”

Owen Baya, another MP in the ruling coalition argued Odinga violated common practice where special envoys stay apolitical. “He should have taken roles like Uhuru’s instead of engaging in divisive politics in the country.”

Mr Baya also claimed that pressure from President Ruto forced the AU to drop Odinga.