By OTIENO OTIENO
Kenya’s former prime minister Raila Odinga will on January 15 formally roll out his campaign for the August 9 General Election in Thika town, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s backyard.
The choice of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s hometown for the campaign launch, is symbolic, with the president keen on rallying his supporters behind Mr Odinga’s Azimio La Umoja coalition following their March 2018 Handshake deal.
President Kenyatta has signalled his impending endorsement of the former prime minister’s candidacy at a number of public meetings and some of the president’s key allies were recently named on Mr Odinga’s campaign team.
On Thursday, he hosted friendly members of the National Assembly and the Senate to a State House luncheon, to thank them for passing amendments to the political parties law, which seeks to remove legal barriers to the participation of the Azimio coalition in this year’s election.
He also used the event to lobby Senators to approve the Political Parties (Amendment) Bill before it can be enacted into law.
The passage of the Bill in the National Assembly was delayed by a filibuster by MPs affiliated to Deputy President William Ruto’s breakaway United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party, who see it as part of a scheme by President Kenyatta to manage his succession.
The formal launch of Mr Odinga’s campaign this weekend is likely to raise the political temperatures a notch, capping a busy week during which anti-hate and the prosecution agencies moved to clamp down on political hate speech at public rallies across the country.
Two Senators and an MP have in recent days been arrested, arraigned or summoned for questioning over incitement or use of ethnic slurs at public rallies.
The senators spoke at a campaign rally addressed by Dr Ruto, considered a front runner together with Raila in the race to succeed President Kenyatta, in his hometown of Eldoret on January 8.
The Eldoret rally was one of three public meetings Dr Ruto addressed during his campaign tour of Uasin Gishu, Bomet and Kericho – three counties in the Rift Valley region considered his political strongholds.
But the Deputy President’s homecoming rallies meant to re-energise his base ahead of mass voter enrolment beginning January 17 have been marred by media reports of use of politically offensive words, blamed for fanning the 2007/08 post-election violence especially in the Rift Valley, by Meru Senator Mithika Linturi in Eldoret.
The use of the term madoadoa (Swahili for blemishes, and used in hateful political talk to mean strangers among us) on political platforms in Kenya often evokes sensitivities about past politically-instigated violence in the Rift Valley, targeting ethnic communities deemed ‘outsiders’.
The Waki Commission, which investigated the country’s worst election-related violence of 2007 and 2008, found the term was widely used for ethnic profiling of victims of the attacks that killed about 1,300 people and displaced more than 600,000.
Dr Ruto, who was one of the six Kenyans charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court before their cases collapsed, has since apologised publicly over Mr Linturi’s remarks.
But that has done little to deflect barbs thrown his way by Mr Odinga, who has seized on the hate speech probe of the Deputy President’s allies to try to portray his opponent as violent and polarising.
This Saturday, the former prime minister’s rally in Thika will come under scrutiny as well, as he seeks to gain a foothold in a region where the National Cohesion and Integration Commission in the past warned about the rise of class-based hate speech.