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So Help Me God: Is Raila Odinga Afflicted By Cognitive Dissonance?

Updated on February 3, 2018

So Help Me God!

When I was doing my catechism many years ago, I learnt that the second commandment was, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." I'm cognizant of the fact that not every religion subscribes to the Ten Commandments to the extent that different religions might adhere to different sets of values and beliefs. Ecumenically, however, what reconciles our values and beliefs is the orthodox view that if any politician holds the Bible, the Quran or any other holy book, for that matter, in his right hand and invokes God's name for illegitimate reasons or after stealing an election, that politician is guilty of blaspheming God’s name. On January 30 2018, I woke up to the disturbing news of the swearing in ceremony of Raila, Amolo Odinga (Kenya's opposition politician) as the people's president of the Republic of Kenya. I did not believe the rumor at first, but after gathering enough information from social media and from television news, I confirmed that it was not rumor after all: Odinga had indeed taken the oath of office, despite the fact that Kenya has a seating president--duly elected and sworn in--by the names of Uhuru Kenyatta.

Here is what we know about Raila Odinga's election saga: In 2017, he run for Kenyan president and lost to his archrival Kenyatta. Alleging that the election was marred by irregularities, he vehemently repudiated the results. This led to the intervention of the Kenyan High Court to issue a landmark ruling that invalidated Kenyatta's victory and decreed a re-run election. Citing the failure by the Kenyan Electoral Commission to implement the reforms he believed would pave way for a free and fair election, Odinga boycotted the re-run election. Kenyatta was wise; he participated in the repeat election and scored a landslide victory. Kenyatta was then duly sworn in as the fourth president of the Republic of Kenya.

Continuing to be agitated by what he perceived to be the fraudulent Kenyan electoral system, and his unfair loss of the 2017 presidential election, Odinga declained to concede defeat to Kenyatta. He then threatened to declare himself president and organize a private swearing in ceremony if the Kenyan Electoral Commissioner did not declare him the rightful winner of the 2017 presidential election. Give the man some credit. He did not disappoint his supporters. He kept his promise. And on January 30 2018, he hand-picked one Kenyan lawmaker who presided over his unsanctioned swearing in ceremony and administered to him an unauthorized oath of office amidst cheers and jubilations from his supporters. But as it was expected, the lawmaker who administered the illegal oath of office to Odinga was later apprehended by the Kenyan police.

When Raila Odinga, an educated man and a savvy politician; a man who has been on the international political stage for decades; and a man who knows that he did not win the 2017 Kenyan presidential election outright, holds the Bible in his right hand and concludes his illegitimate swearing in with the words "so help me God," it is not unprecedented to attempt to understand whether or not he was invoking the name of God to find a remedy for his mental discomfort. And in order to understand his motives for taking an illicit oath of office when Kenya has a duly elected president, it is imperative that we attempt to find answers to the following intriguing question:

a) Is Raila Odinga afflicted by cognitive dissonance?

b) How does existential reality help us understand Odinga's state of mind?

c) How differently could Odinga have handled his loss of election?

d) How can the understanding of the five stages of grief help Odinga cope with his losses?

e) Where is Odinga going from here?

Raila Odinga and Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is not a mental illness, psychiatric illness or mental disorder. In psychology, cognitive dissonance refers to mental discomfort or psychological stress experienced by someone who holds two or more contradicting values, beliefs or ideas. People experiencing cognitive dissonance tend to adjust the correspondences of their mental attitude and their personal actions by avoiding situations and contradictions that exacerbate their psychological distress. Since I'm not an expert on mental health, I'm not qualified to conclude that Odinga's actions are a manifestation of mental illness. What I can unequivocally say, however, is that Odinga's behaviors present symptoms of someone experiencing cognitive dissonance. These symptoms make him come across as a miserable, unhappy, grief-stricken and heartbroken politician. His conduct reveal three major relationships characteristic of people experiencing psychological stress:

Consonant relationship: In this first relationship there are two consistent cognitions or actions--Odinga repudiating the results of the presidential election then appealing to the Kenyan Supreme Court.

Unrelated relationship: In this second relationship, there are two unrelated cognitions--Odinga wanting to become Kenyan president but traveling abroad to do his personal business.

Dissonant relationship: In the third relationship, there are two competing cognitions or actions, inconsistent with each other--Odinga boycotting the presidential election then declaring himself president.

Existential Reality and Odinga's actions

Why do human beings exist and why do they behave the way they do? Existentialism deals with the state of things in the world as they should be. Some existentialists maintain that human beings are by nature intellectual animals. And that it is that animalism in them that makes them haunted, flawed, desperate, too angry, too busy, too corrupt and too afraid. Some existentialists have suggested that human beings simply live without knowing why they exist--they are born crying, they live grumbling and they die unsatisfied.

During the biblical times, God used to send prophets to remind people why they existed and the meaning of their existence. Likewise, today we go to places of worship to be reminded of the reasons for our existence and how we ought to live our lives. For instance, if we want to be in good terms with God, we need to keep his commandments. If we want to be in good standing with the government, we need to be law-abiding citizens. One existential reality is that all human beings will at one time die; therefore, what is important in human existence is not what we make out of life, but how we live our lives and how we prepare ourselves for the life after death.

Existential reality gives us an enormous challenge. Since it is difficult to examine Odinga's state of mind with microscopic exactness, all we can say is that he needs to be given time to heal from his psychological stress caused by his loss of the presidential election. His being conflicted about his failure to win a presidential election after many trials, and his continued struggle to meet his expectation of becoming Kenya president by all means necessary is understandable. It is symptomatic of someone trying to adjust his internal mental inconsistencies to meet his personal expectations. I don't want to sound patronizing, but Odinga would benefit from accepting reality that in every contest, there are winners and losers, and that losing is part of the political equation.

In my estimation, it is important for Odinga to understand that the way one lives his or her life after a loss matters. With his large following, political prowess and experience in international relations, this should be a time for him to help change policy by advocating for social, economic and political reforms in Kenya in particular and in African at large in a dignified manner. Swearing himself in when he didn't win the election truncates his ability to advocate for the necessary political reforms in Kenya in the future; it suggests that he is temperamentally unfit and dangerously unqualified to be president; and it makes him come across as a disgruntled, desperate, haunted, flawed and angry old man. More importantly, his conduct has potential for diminishing his chances of ever becoming a president of Kenya. Odinga should befit from the acknowledgement that politics in not all about winning an election, but about service and advocacy for good governance and improved standard of living for all.

Other possible ways Odinga could have handled his loss of election

There are many ways Odinga could have handled his loss of election. First of all, the landmark ruling by the Kenyan high court was unparalleled in court rulings in post-independence African. In the history of African judicial systems, evidence about courts nullifying the results of a presidential election, especially when an incumbent was involved, is hard to come by. Rescinding the results of a presidential election in Kenya was a groundbreaking accomplishment for Odinga and it should have given him reason to participate in the re-run election, and if there was evidence of irregularities, he could have again gone to court to plead his case. But like any person experiencing cognitive dissonance, contesting and losing again would have exacerbated his psychological distress. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid the potentially stressful situation, he decided to boycott the election.

Secondly, since this was Kenyatta's last five-year term, Odinga should have waited and run again in five years, and hopefully he could have won. However, waiting to run again in five years contradicts his expectations of being a president now; therefore, he had to prove that he can be president by all means necessary.

Thirdly, at his advanced age of 73 years old, Odinga could have opted to retire from active politics and go home to look after his grandchildren; alternatively, he could have decided to become an advocate for change and good governance in Kenya and Africa as a whole during his retirement.This could have made him a role model for the young and upcoming politicians in Kenya and beyond. But like any person afflicted by cognitive dissonance, this was all about him. As long as proclaiming himself president reduced his mental inconsistencies, he had to do it.

Stages of grief and Odinga's cognitive dissonance

I would like to underscore the fact that cognitive dissonance is not a mental illness, mental disorder or psychiatric illness. It is a psychological condition in which an individual experiences mental discomfort derived from having two or more contradictory beliefs or values. And in order to reduce their dissonance, some people engage in irrational behaviors to run way from a mentally stressing situation. Elizabeth Kublur-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying postulates that when one is faced with a loss, he or she goes through five stages of the healing process. These stages include denial or shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.


It is normal to feel a sense of denial when one receives shocking news including untimely death of his or her dear ones, a terminal illness, and in the case of politicians, the loss of an election. As a person who has ever lost a dear one and experienced a loss of an election, I share Odinga's pain; Hillary Clinton, Algore and Kizza Besigye share Odinga's pain. As a matter of fact, Kizza Besigye, one of the renowned Ugandan opposition politicians, at one time illegally swore himself in as Ugandan president after losing an election and ended up serving some jail time. Denial is a stage in the healing process because it neutralizes the severity of reality.


Anger is the second stage of grief. After a loss, people tend to express their anger toward everyone and everything they come across. They get angry at God, doctors, friends, relatives--basically anything and everybody standing in their way. During the healing process, it is okay to express our anger as long as we don't become a danger to ourselves and to others. Some people express their anger by sobbing, and yet others scream and yell. Once that anger has been expressed, the stressful situation begins to disintegrate. In the case of Odinga, his anger is expressed toward the president, the electoral commission and the Kenyan courts. I believe that if he is given enough time and a chance to express his anger, provided he doesn't incite violence, he will begin to heal from the loss, and life will start to become normal again for him.


Bargaining is the third stage of grief in which one does everything possible to avoid stressful feelings. One wishes he or she could have done things differently and promises to do things differently in the future if his or her stressful situation were abrogated. For example, some prisoners plead with the judge to release them, commute their sentence or reduce their jail time in exchange for good behavior. In the case of Odinga, he tried to bargain with the court to revoke his opponent's victory and declare him winner. He also tried to bargain with the electoral commission to implement electoral reforms that he believed would create a free and fair election that would in the end increase his chances of winning the election.


Depression, like anger, is a necessary condition for the one grieving to go through because at a certain point, going through depression diminishes the painful feelings. When the loss is very depressing, some people withdraw and go into seclusion to think through ways to overcome it. Examples of causes of depression may include the cost of healthcare in case of an illness; the cost of funeral service in the case of death of loved ones; and the cost of repeating an election in the case of politicians. I believe depression had a part to play in Odinga's withdraw from participating in the re-run of the Kenyan presidential election. I also believe that the feeling of having to wait five more years to run for president again as he advanced in age must have understandably depressed him exceedingly.


Acceptance doesn't mean that everything is okay. It means that one should acknowledge reality. For instance, it is important to acknowledge that death is a permanent reality and that when we lose someone, that person is gone forever. However, more often than not this might create more internal mental inconsistencies. This might be because by accepting the reality that our dear one is dead and is not coming back, and by us trying to move on with our lives, this might be more depression as one might feel as though he or she is betraying his or her loved ones by forgetting them. What one can do is not to erase his or her deceased dear ones from his or her memory. Reaching closure requires that one listens to his or her needs and the needs of others. This might include growing emotionally and spiritually, becoming involved in family and community activities, and investing in relationships that build confidence and help one return to normal life. Based on his recent actions, Odinga has not reached this final stage of grief yet, and when he does, he will accept that the election is over and the rightful president of Kenya for the next five years is Uhuru Kenyatta. Furthermore, once he reaches this stage, he will see a need to reach out to Kenyatta and concede defeat and pledge to work with him for the betterment of his country.

Where does Odinga go from here?

Based on Odinga's actions after the 2017 Kenyan presidential election, it is fair to say that he is experiencing symptoms of cognitive dissonance. For instance, after losing the election, he appealed to the Kenyan high court. Then the high court annulled Kenyatta's victory and ordered fresh election. Afterwards, Odinga decided to boycott the re-run election. Kenyatta participated and won the re-run election and was duly sworn in as Kenya's fourth president. Boycotting the re-run election notwithstanding, Odinga organized his own unsanctioned swearing in ceremony.

There are many ways Odinga could have handled his loss, including participating in the re-run election; building on his successes by waiting to run again in five years; and retiring from active politics to go home and look after his grandchildren or continue with his political activism to change policy and advocate for good governance during his retirement.This in the end could have benefit him and Kenyans immensely. It could have also set a good example for the young and upcoming politicians who would look to him for political guidance. Like any person afflicted by cognitive dissonance, his mental discomfort makes him fail to accept reality and keeps him in denial. But hope is not lost for Odinga. In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kublur-Ross outlines five stages of grief. These stages including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance apply to everyone who has experienced a loss. However, more research needs to be done to find out whether or not the five stages of grief are a remedy for cognitive dissonance.

I reasonably believe that after all his trials and tribulations emanating from his loss of election have dissipated; when all anger, depression and self denials have subsided; when Odinga has achieved cognitive restructuring; when he is ready and willing to join hands with Kenyatta for the purposes of nation building; when he decides that it's high time he became a role model for the young and upcoming politicians; when he is prepared to acknowledge existential reality that there is always one head of state at a time; when he is ready, willing and able to put the interests of his country above his own, then he will be able to invoke God's name and say--and mean it this time--that, "SO HELP ME GOD." It is then that God will listen to his grievances and answer his prayers. Can someone say AMEN?


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