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After Disputed Election, Raila Odinga Emerges As Dividing Figure In Kenya


The loser in Kenya's recent presidential election is a singular figure in that country. Raila Odinga is both beloved and hated. He's seen as a founder of the country's democracy. But as he challenges the results of the election in Kenya's Supreme Court, he's also seen as someone who could throw the entire country into chaos. NPR's Eyder Peralta has this profile.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: When you look at Raila Odinga, you don't expect him to have the kind of power he wields on the streets. He's a small man, usually sporting a shy smile. He's soft-spoken and deliberate. But on a recent Sunday in a sprawling Nairobi slum, it takes less than an hour for him to summon thousands of people. When he shows up, it's pandemonium.


RAILA ODINGA: Hello, hello, hello.


PERALTA: Out here, he is baba, father. He is beloved. But another half of this country would describe him using different words.

TOMMY RANDALL: Power-hungry, selfish, self before country.

PERALTA: That's Tommy Randall, a Kenyan political analyst.

RANDALL: I say that because I feel that he stands between the maturation of Kenyan democracy.

PERALTA: Odinga's struggle for power actually begins with his father. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was the country's first vice president, but he ended up in opposition after a falling out with Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta. It set up a conflict that persists today - liberal versus conservative, the Luo tribe versus the Kikuyu tribe. This is 72-year-old Raila Odinga's fourth run for president and the second time he's running against Jomo Kenyatta's son Uhuru Kenyatta. Randall says Odinga's repeated refusals to accept defeat has kept Kenya from moving past that familial feud. And in 2007, it surfaced painful, historical divisions in Kenyan society.

RANDALL: It started this chain of events that ended up with lots of death, violence in Kenya. And since then, we've always been uneasy.

PERALTA: What's not in doubt is Odinga's role in democratizing Kenya. He was jailed for six years by the authoritarian Daniel Arap Moi. But his opposition resulted in multi-party politics in Kenya. Odinga also played a central role in writing Kenya's new constitution which is seen as a democratic model on the continent. Sam Okello, who wrote a biography, says Odinga is Kenya's most progressive politician.

SAM OKELLO: He has stood with Kenyans at every turn when the nation needed to make changes in our social structures.

PERALTA: And he did so, he says, at personal cost. While in jail, he was tortured, and he lost his mom and brother. At one point, Odinga ended up in exile. But he continued to fight, and that perceived moral rectitude, says Okello, has turned Odinga into a sort of mythical figure among his supporters.

OKELLO: It's something I would characterize as an adoration - the fact that people think, we don't understand him; he's the mighty one; he's the great one, you know, almost elevating him to that level of a small god.

PERALTA: Of course there are many Kenyans who can't wait for Odinga and President Kenyatta to step off stage so this family feud that has consumed a whole country can be over. But Wandia Njoya, an English professor and political commentator, says it's not that easy because there is good evidence that Odinga has been wronged, that he's been kept from power not on merit but because he belongs to the wrong tribe. To move on, she says...

WANDIA NJOYA: We would have to go through his history and come to terms with it as a country because what has been done to him has become symbolic of being done to anyone who imagines a different Kenya.

PERALTA: And it's hard to imagine coming to terms, she says, without Odinga becoming president. The Supreme Court of Kenya will decide the fate of the elections tomorrow. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR SONG, "AFRICAN VELVET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.