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Man on a mission: Can CS Eliud Owalo succeed where others met their waterloo?



Man on a mission: Can CS Eliud Owalo succeed where others met their waterloo?

If political tradition is anything to go by, President William Ruto would not have visited Luo Nyanza only a few months after a narrow victory to the presidency, at the expense of his nemesis Raila Odinga, the de facto political kingpin of the bouncy Luo nation.

Once Odinga’s protégé and political hatchet man in the Rift Valley, President Ruto understands Mr Odinga’s stranglehold on the Luo of Kenya. He clearly must have understood that to visit Luo Nyanza at the time was to poke a finger into Odinga’s nostril. 

He must have known it meant risking the begrudged tolerance of the Odinga’s kinspeople, still smarting in the shared feeling of loss at the August 2022 presidential poll. Yet he still went on and, surprisingly, received a hero’s welcome.

Dr Ruto counted on the wily mobilisation of the sole member of Cabinet from the region, Eliud Owalo. Like the president, Mr Owalo is himself a former political bosom buddy of the former Prime Minister. Expectedly, the groundwork by the CS and his team ahead of the president’s visit entailed a blending of bravado and placation to a region that has distinguished itself with a history of speaking unpalatable truths to power in the most eloquent and unbridled fashion.

Does President Ruto’s rousing welcome mean that this has now changed? The answer remains very much a matter of conjecture. But ahead of the widely publicised and eventful visit, Mr Owalo splashed huge billboards, welcoming the Head of State to Luo Nyanza, the bastion of Odinga’s voting bloc.

Jothurwa Orwaki Dala’ (The people of our region welcome you home!),’ screamed billboards in Homa Bay, Kisumu and Siaya Counties. They left no doubt about who the President’s chief host in the region was.

The CS, now spearheading the digital agenda of President Ruto’s government, and one of the most influential men in the current regime, does not shy away from stamping his authority – and taking the credit.

Relief food

Since his appointment as Cabinet Secretary in September, the vibrant politician, hit the road running, personally leading the distribution of government-sponsored relief food in the 23 of the 24 Luo-Nyanza constituencies, shrugging off accusations of showmanship and exhortations that the region was food secure.
Read: Food politics in President Ruto’s plot to win over Raila turf
The CS has also quickly cultivated a rapport with key Nyanza politicians, including former governors Evans Kidero, Jack Ranguma and Okoth Obado; former Senators Fred Outa and Woman Representative Rose Nyamunga.
He has also warmed up to, and been cautiously accepted by former legislators besides vocal political voices yet to secure elective offices, like the maverick Miguna Miguna and Mwalimu Odoyo Owidi.

In a country where money oils the engine of politics, Mr Owalo leaves the blocks with a personal net worth of Sh650 million (according to his declaration to the Parliamentary vetting committee), which he built through his management consultancy firm, Eliud & Associates.

How bright Mr Owalo’s political star shines is going to increasingly depend on what he delivers to the community from the Ruto Government, in a country where voters pay a premium to patronage. This, in turn, hinges on how the President supports him. If he positions himself as a point of power through whom you access the President and, conversely, through whom the President accesses the Luo, that should raise his profile. If not, then both he and the President may need to get back to the drawing board.

From the mid-1960s to the late 80s, when the senior Odinga, Jaramogi, was virtually banished from Kenya’s elective political Siberia, his support base chose to wait. It would reintegrate Jaramogi into national visibility by resoundingly voting for him in Bondo – and his son Raila in Nairobi – in the first multiparty elections, in 1992. The two became only the second pair of father and son to be members of the same Parliament, after the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and his son, the late Peter Muigai Kenyatta (who were elected in 1974 to represent, respectively, in Gatundu and Juja Constituencies).

Read: President Ruto woos Nyanza with Sh3.2bn goodies

When Jaramogi passed on, in January 1994, his son, Raila fought ruthlessly to become the undoubted leader of the Luo. He outmanoeuvred the likes of James Orengo and Prof Anyang Nyong’o, in the ideological space, and Kisumu Mayor, Lawrence Akinyi Oile in battles for control of the streets.  

By manoeuvring politics and mobilizing broad-based support, Raila probably outdid his late father in positioning himself as the regional man to beat. If his father had an army of ideological followers, Raila has had street legions
at his beck and call. This is the man in whose shadow Owalo emerged. But could he also possibly make a grab at Luo supremo status, a task that many before him have dared, with little or no success?

It looks like a tall order. Politics being the art of the possible, however, and given Mr Odinga’s advancing age, on the one hand, and what is emerging to be Mr Ruto’s political mastery on the other, Mr Owalo could be lucky to be the heir to Luo Nyanza leadership.

Yet this will depend on the role the younger generation will play, and whether they will break the longstanding tradition where the community’s leaders are not necessarily chosen from among government appointees.

Perhaps Mr Owalo knows this, hence his aggressive courting of elected leaders from Nyanza, who have accompanied him for his programmes and activities in the region. On Sunday, the CS met MPs Gideon Ochanda (Bondo), Caroli Omondi (Suba South), Elisha Odhiambo (Gem) and Rongo’s Paul Abuor.

“Our agenda is sustainable economic development,” the CS said afterwards. Regardless, that an aggressive political mobilization for the leadership of the region is underway is not lost to analysts.

The optics are clear. Other MPs who have been coalescing around the CS are Mark Nyamita (Uriri) Shakeel Shabir (Kisumu East), Jared Okelo (Nyando), Onyango K’Oyoo (Muhoroni) and Alego Usonga’s Sam Atandi.

“As the only Luo minister in the government, you can’t dismiss him. With MPs coalescing around him, he is slowly building a profile. Remember these MPs too have people. When ordinary wananchi see their MPs going to see him this elevates the CS in their eyes,” says political analyst Herbert Kerre.

But the minister is also a prince in his own right. He is the great-grandson of Nabi Yohana Owalo, the founder of Nomiya Church, one of the African Independent Churches (AICs) that broke away from the Catholic Church in 1904.  

Political destiny

In the end, however, Owalo’s political destiny, or that of anyone else who seeks the political leadership of the Luo community, will depend on what happens outside the region. Thus, any high-handed government reaction, for instance, to Odinga’s renewed agitation could trigger feelings of empathy in his backyard.

Beyond politics, Owalo is also aggressively pursuing the mandate of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Digital Economy, which he heads. His propagation of the Kenya Kwanza Government’s Bottom-Up Economic Agenda makes him one of the most active and visible CS’s.

He has embarked on a rollout of free Wi-Fi hotspots – 17 so far in Nairobi, Nyeri, Kisumu, Siaya, Nandi and Kericho counties, with 25,000 such spots proposed to be in place by 2027. This is an ambitious plan. It amounts to connecting 5,000 hotspots per year.

Owalo insists that this will be done to enable Kenyans to engage in e-commerce and to allow small-scale traders to showcase their products. He believes Kenya can create between 1.5 and 2 million new jobs every year, by leveraging digital technology.

He has extended the launch of government-sponsored free Wi-Fi hotspots to Nyanza, including Bondo and Ahero, which is likely to endear locals to him.

He has also hosted the entire leadership of the Luo Council of Elders led by Ker Nyandiko Ongadi at the latter’s Asembo home, and hosted the popular Gor Mahia FC in Asembo and facilitated a friendly match between Gor Mahia and a combined football team from Rarieda Sub-County. He has steadily given financial and material support to Gor for more than ten years.

Unthinkable gesture

The ODM leadership led by Siaya Governor Orengo and MPs including Ochanda, Omondi, Odhiambo, Nyamita, Abuor and Atandi also graced his homecoming, an unthinkable gesture in years gone by. Uncharacteristically, they were all full of praise for the CS and appreciative of his appointment by Ruto.

Owalo’s apparent gunning for the leadership of one of the most fought for political spaces in the country has echoes of the titanic battle at independence, between nationalists Tom Mboya and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who fought for the soul of the Luo nation and also space at the high table of the national stage.                    
Within five years of independence, in a series of manoeuvres culminating in the Limuru Conference of 1967, which Mboya managed to run Jaramogi out of the national stage but lost the grip of Luo politics after the former played martyrdom. This is a grip he held tightly till his death despite not winning the ultimate prize.

Exit Jaramogi, enter Raila. Anyone from the region who fought him fell by the wayside. It was not until they fell behind Odinga that their political stars shone.

But how does Owalo hope to navigate a difficult political terrain that has made casualties of politicians who tried to chart their own paths outside of the Odinga way?

Pundits point to the timing and political skill on the side of Owalo. While he has not hidden the fact that he is staking a claim to the leadership of the region, he has been strategic about it, avoiding outright challenge against Odinga or his lieutenants in the region.

An economist and management consultant, Owalo is credited with soft power, having worked in strategy at corporate and political levels, including being the head of Raila’s Presidential campaign in 2013. Also, unlike past CSs from the region, who were openly hostile to Odinga, Owalo has steered clear of an open challenge, choosing instead to court the people.

Some ODM leaders also say that unlike past Cabinet appointees from the region, Owalo has “true touch” on the ground. They point to the fact that there was a time when the region had three CSs – Raychelle Omamo, George Magoha and Raphael Tuju – “but the Luo nation did not feel them at all.”

Finest of Siaya

“He is the son of the soil of this region. He has the finest of Siaya, the courage of Rarieda and the dedication of Asembo. You have shared your appointment with the community. You have worked with us and have therefore got our approval,” Siaya County Speaker George Okode.

During Owalo’s homecoming in Rarieda which capped President Ruto’s visit to Nyanza earlier in the month, Orengo also showered praises on the CS saying he could vouch for him as a worker, scholar, writer, thinker and strategist. “I know Asembo and Siaya are the better with Owalo in the Cabinet of William Samoei Ruto,” said Orengo in his characteristic grandiloquence which has, however, in the past been directed at defending Odinga.

The thanksgiving and homecoming ceremony was attended by over 50,000, presided over by Nomiya Church at their Asembo home and attended by the entire Kenya Kwanza Government top leadership led by President Ruto, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi, National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula, Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries, Governors, Senators, 35 members of the National Assembly, businessmen and professionals.

Gem’s Odhiambo assured Owalo of support for the region’s “exponential growth in terms of development as the people of Siaya and the people of Kenya.”

Owalo’s early mobilisation is fraught with risk, but also pregnant with potential reward. The gamble to expose himself early could backfire, or elevate him to the community’s leadership and national prominence. Whatever the case maybe Eliud Okech Owalo is a man to watch. It will be especially interesting to see how the economic blueprint and county chatters that he has spearheaded for Nyanza work – and whether they could do him any good, or just fizzle up in the air.

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