NAIROBI, Kenya — Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who wants to be Kenya’s next president, says he’ll fight corruption and ethnic divisions. Yet he is also an enigmatic figure who was allegedly involved in an Aug. 1, 1982 coup attempt that exacerbated tensions in a country whose democracy remains vulnerable to ethnic feuding.
The fact that Odinga, in a tight race with President Uhuru Kenyatta ahead of a Tuesday vote, has stayed at the forefront of Kenyan politics despite his association with the botched uprising testifies partly to his political resilience and popularity among many poor people, as well as the loyalty of his Luo ethnic group.
Odinga has seemed ambivalent about his purported role in the revolt, a sensitive subject in Kenya 35 years later. People are concerned that the current election might turn violent, echoing deadly unrest that erupted after the 2007 election, and the 1982 coup attempt is another troubling example of how a country known for its relative stability in a sometimes turbulent region can unravel.
“A lot of people do not want to speak openly about it,” said Gitobu Imanyara, a lawyer who represented accused coup plotters. “It doesn’t receive sufficient scrutiny, even from political historians.”
The coup attempt happened a few years after the ouster of dictator Idi Amin in Uganda, to the east, while Marxist Ethiopia, to the north, was on the verge of famine. The thought that Kenya could spiral into military rule or civil war threatened to deprive the West of a reliable East African ally and scrap a sense of exceptionalism among Kenyans who took pride in their better circumstances.
“Kenyans tend to say: ‘Thank God that didn’t happen,’” said political analyst Abdullah Boru.
Chaos swept through the normally placid capital, Nairobi, in the days after the revolt, which started to fizzle within hours but unleashed a massive looting spree and ethnic-based violence.
It made a lasting impression on me, a teen in Kenya at the time. Memories include bloody footprints in a ransacked shoe shop whose display windows had been smashed; rounding a street corner on foot with my mother and stumbling across government soldiers taking cover as they closed in on a rebel or rebels holed up in a building; and ducking to the backseat car…