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"Any kind of leader is always dealing with some sort of crisis," Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told Kellogg students May 20, "whether it is the economic meltdown in the United States or something else."

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga

Leading through crisis

After facing bloodshed, drought and recession, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga vows to create an "equitable society with equal opportunities for all"

By Shannon Sweetnam

5/22/2009 - Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga knows a thing or two about leadership during crisis.


Watch video of Prime Minister Odinga's presentation

Odinga came to power during a disputed 2007 election, and the subsequent turmoil resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 Kenyans and the displacement of 600,000 more. On May 20, he visited the Kellogg School to talk to well over 100 students about leadership during crisis.

“What we went through last year was terrible. Kenyans did not expect it,” the prime minister explained. “We thought Kenya was one united country.” Odinga expressed regret over the loss of life surrounding the post-election ethnic violence and said it was time to begin building a national identity and to unite the 42 communities within Kenya as one people with one shared aspiration.

“The African people are now in a situation where they have to fight against their own leadership,” said Odinga. “This underground fight has required great leadership skills and many people have lost their lives, been put in detention and sent to prison — a sacrifice that had to be made for society to become open to bipartism. During the dictatorship, it was winner take all. Now, the loser takes all. The old political parties are not willing to let go even when they lose a political election.”

Now sharing power with President Mwai Kibaki in a coalition government, Odinga explained that this transitional phase requires leadership to work together to solve the serious problems the country faces, including climate change, environmental degradation and political and economic challenges.

Odinga, who has served as a member of Kenya’s parliament as well as the minister of energy and of roads, public works and housing, feels confident that he can move Kenya forward through its recent turmoil and the myriad national crises the country now faces.

“Any kind of leader is always dealing with some sort of crisis,” Odinga noted, “whether it is the economic meltdown in the United States or something else.” The point, according to Odinga, is to remember that as a leader one must “champion the aspirations of the people.” For Odinga, this requires being able to balance ethnic and religious differences and tailor the competing interests of different groups.

As prime minister, Odinga said he has not shied away from controversial issues, such as the need to relocate thousands of people who settled in forests that can no longer sustain them. He also has continued to focus great effort on revising Kenya’s outdated constitution, a matter he feels is at the core of Africa’s current problems. “These problems all require leadership to make difficult decisions which most are not willing to do,” he said.

“Our economy is going through a very difficult period,” Odinga admitted. “On top of three successive years of devastating drought, Kenya has been severely affected by the world economic crisis.”

Nonetheless, Odinga expressed confidence that the country will overcome its current difficulties. The goal, he said, is to create an “equitable society with equal opportunities for all. It is the only way to unite the country. That is what we are going to do.”