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From boda boda rider to MCA

James Obiero Otare rose from being a bicycle operator to politics first as councillor, mayor and now MCA

In 1992, when Kenya became a multi-party democracy, James Obiero Otare had just completed his diploma in Electrical Engineering at Kenya Polytechnic (now Technical University).

Like most of his peers, his mind was on getting a job to fend for himself. To make ends meet, he became a shopkeeper and eventually diversified into the boda boda bicycle business, which he operated for 12 years.

“I was among the first riders of boda boda bicycles in Siaya,” he says adding that many people never saw the opportunity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. From his savings, he bought several bicycles and employed other people as riders.

This, he says, was the start of his political journey that has seen him serve as a councilor, mayor of Siaya town and now MCA of Siaya Township Ward. Otare was first elected councilor in 2002 and then mayor of Siaya town in 2008 after a bruising supremacy battle in the area.

“ When I decided to vie for the mayoral seat for the second time, I knew I was going to win,” he says. Over 100 cyclists and members of the public gathered at the town hall and held the former town clerk Dominic Akugo hostage for over five hours and forced him to conduct the elections.

At some point the clerk was twice whisked to the then Siaya DC Boaz Cherutich’s office by armed APs for more consultations on the mayoral elections. “After endless hours, Akugo called for elections and I was won unopposed,” he says. He says that he was hesitant to vie, but his colleagues nudged him. After winning the seat, he was elected as the chairman of the town planning.

“ I took up this position to ensure that I could offer my best in terms of planning Siaya town,” he says. He says that during his tenure as the chairman of the town planning, he actively participated in the re-organization of the town.

“I really pushed to have boda boda operators allocated a central place from where they could operate from,”he says In 2007 election, Otare beat six other candidates in the nominations for the Orange Democratic party ticket. He was elected back at the council with over 4000 votes.

“ When I was elected, my fellow councilors insisted that I should vie for the mayoral seat and I did,” he says. In the elections, he was contesting against three other candidates from the same party. Now, the former cyclist is emerging as a political maker or breaker in Siaya. Any move Otare makes is considered to have the blessings of Party leader Raila Odinga.

The tough talking Otare is emerging as the power broker in Alego/Usonga Constituency and is calling the shots across the County. He has earned himself the name ‘Koko’ for being ‘tough on people not doing things the right way’. Sometimes he uses force to make his point.

Otare has taken the role of ‘chief defender’ and those facing opposition in their areas only need to invite him to their ward to put off the perceived spoilers. On several occasions he has confronted hecklers. He has on several occasions jumped from a dias to confront unruly supporters.

On whether he uses force to have his way he says: “I don’t like embarrassment. I put aside my MCA coat and put on that of a hooligan,” he says. And on whether he may be a thug on hire to intimidate opponents, he says: “Our party has protocols and rules that should be followed by anyone.”

Despite his ways of settling disputes, Otare is said to be in the good books of ODM’s party echelons and he is seen as a good mobiliser given his background. “I am going to mobilise thousands of young people to take ID cards and register as voters. I know they will listen to me because I have the blessings of the party leader,” he says.

While lifting Otare’s hand in public recently, Raila said he invoked the “powers of the attorney” to allow Otare to transact party business in Siaya He is tasked with the mandate of visiting the national registrar offices every Friday to fast track the issuance and collection of ID cards.

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