Friday, November 30, 2007

Football, Religion and Politics

Strategies do not win elections. Votes do. Issues do not determine the outcome of the balloting. Votes do. These are truths that politicians would choose to ignore to their own peril.

It has been often held that there are just three things that can gather a crowd and drive the whole crowd wild in inexplicable excitement: football, religion and politics. For whilst football is a feast for the eyes and religion is a feast for the soul, politics is a feast of the ears.

No one knows this better than Raila Odinga.

Whilst some cynical highbrow politicians think that association with the game of football does not suit their status, Raila is there to utilize the opportunities that football presents in moving crowds. During the World Cup Finals held in Germany in 2006, Kenyans who had access to the South African DSTV pay channel, were not surprised to hear a familiar voice during half-time breaks in the televised matches. Clad in an orange-coloured outfit, Raila announced to the whole continent that he was going to vie for the Presidency of Kenya in 2007. Raila went ahead to wish all African teams success at the Finals. From where I sat in the pub, the second halves of the matches were spent discussing Raila.

Apart from advertising, Raila has also been involved in various aspects of the game of football. His brother Oburu Odinga is on record as stating that even at early age, Raila loved to watch the game of football. He has also been seen at major continental matches involving Harambee Stars and his entry into the stadium always elicits cheers from the gathered crowds. The only other politician who made efforts to bond with multitudes of fans at stadia during football matches was retired President Moi. Raila has also been involved in fundraising activities for self supporting teams like Gor Mahia which has, with AFC Leopards, the largest following in the country and still attract a bigger crowd at their matches than any of the so called institutional clubs.

During political rallies, Raila has been known to give commentaries of football featuring political sides with an analogy on the ‘State House Finals’. Ordinarily, one player slips the ball to him and he scores the goal to gripping roars from the crowd.

Aside from the advertising, the watching and the giving commentaries to football matches, Raila also plays the game! During a football tournament in Busia a few years back, Raila turned out in a Real Madrid kit complete with his name at the back. In August this year, he also graced a football match in which he scored.

This association with football has led to an organization being born to support his candidature. The Soccer Veterans for Raila (Sovera) were received at Orange House and included Kenyan soccer legends like Mahmoud Abbas, Dan Shikanda, Peter Dawo, Henry Motego, Bobby Ogolla, Aggrey Evayo, Paul Onyiera amongst others. During the ‘Thunder’ rally at Uhuru Park recently, Dan Shikanda (who lost subsequent ODM nominations for the Makadara seat and has since moved to the NARC party that still supports Raila) made an entry kicking a football.

Raila’s rivals have had no such keen interest in the world’s most watched sport. Kalonzo Musyoka came within passive association with football with a kit donation to AFC Leopards with the Kalonzo Musyoka Foundation inscription prominent on the shirts. President Kibaki recently attended a cash reward event for athletes in Eldoret. The irony of course is that whilst Kenya has been successful at many world events in Athletics, no enthusiasm is shown by crowds in attending events. A recent example was the ‘Tusker Night of Champions’ at Nyayo Stadium that was given a wide berth by the populace the night before Kibaki launched his campaign at the same Stadium.

Kibaki is an avid golfer with ‘the holy walk’ still seen by many as an elitist game. A report by the People newspaper in 2006 showed that half the cabinet including ministers Martha Karua, Njeru Ndwiga, Amos Kimunya, Mukhisa Kituyi amongst others enjoyed playing golf.

On the religion front, the country is awash with crusades and other similar religious functions that are usually well attended. Parliamentary aspirants all over the country are well known to attend church functions and conduct fund raising activities before elections are called. With the growth of the Muslim faithful, it has been known that to get a religious following is crucial to win any votes.

Again Raila was quick to woo some of the Muslim leaders that were disillusioned with the government whilst the Government side played ignorant. By the time the pronouncements came that Raila had met the Muslims and sealed some form of a deal, a panic-stricken Government started playing catch-up on this front. The Memorandum of Understanding with the Muslims has been the talk of political circles for the past few months and has elicited a lot of controversy.

On the other hand, church leaders like Pastor Brawan of Nakuru and Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus Is Alive Ministries have both been prominent in the rallies of Raila and are nominated to vie for parliamentary seats on the party’s ticket. During the Thunder Rally, Pastor Brawan had a band that entertained the gathered crowd contrasting with the P-Unit and DNA team that had been assembled to play at the Nyayo Stadium rally of President Kibaki a week earlier.

That said, both sides have made religion a strong force during the campaigns opening the rallies with prayers. Kibaki’s rally at Nyayo Stadium featured Muslim, Hindu, Christian and traditional African prayers.

Presidential Candidates Mwai Kibaki hasn’t used his Christian names prominently. In fact, if one was to call the Roman Catholic Kibaki using the names Emilio Stanley, few people will acknowledge him. Raila Odinga has had to fight off claims that he is not a Christian by people who believe that not having a Western name, he is an atheist. Kalonzo Musyoka has made the name Stephen more prominent and trumpeted the fact that he is a born again Christian. His rally at Uhuru Park was reportedly preceded with a Church Service. He has insisted that he speaks prophetically. He has promised us a miracle. Kalonzo has chaired the Prayer Group of the national Assembly and was involved in the first National Prayer Breakfast.

When TD Jakes visited the country in October 2005, Raila was amongst the leaders who attended the crusade at Uhuru Park.

Finally, on the political front, whereas some pundits have tried to sanitize the election platform and make it about issues, the truth of the matter is that crowds get bored when they go to a rally and listen to politicians talk about policy. It would amaze some of these armchair pundits who never attend these rallies and mix with the masses what will make them remember a politician’s speech. It will not be about the GDP or the facts. Politics is not about sense, it’s about perception! I recall attending a rally presided over by Mukhisa Kituyi a few years back in which he brought the house down when he mentioned that there was no need to fear the then President Moi as he was just a human being like the rest of us and just farted like the rest of us. The crowd was ecstatic! A few people I spoke with were quick to point out that Kituyi was bold and told it as it is.

Whatever people say about insults at a political rally, that is what most people remember. When Kibaki uses the ‘pumbavu’ word, it scores him more points than when he is all polite and reading a written speech. In fact, most people who attend political rallies are already the converted. You need not convince them why they should vote for you. You simply need to give the ‘pub talk’ which is the sort of talk you would have with them when a bit inebriated. Most of the people even want to be entertained! They want politicians to sing at rallies! Who can forget when Mukhisa Kituyi was belting his tunes about how former President Moi had messed the economy. The song ‘Kweli ndugu sikilizeni niwa-ambie…’ was humorous but it passed a message during the NARC campaigns.

This is the ease with which Raila is able to say his ‘Vitendawili’ (riddles) to the crowd and tell them ‘Hadithi’ (fables).

Is it any wonder then that Raila using the ‘football, religion and politics’ formula is seen as the leading contender of the pack. This could also explain his large following.

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