Tuesday, July 22, 2008



The Standard
July 22, 2008

A day after his death, a thick fog descended on western Kenya, signalling the passing of a legend. There was no sunshine as the country mourned the father of Opposition politics in Kenya.

His burial was as emotive as it was historic. Kenya had lost the doyen of Opposition politics and the Luo had lost a political messiah. No one, they wept, would ever fit in his shoes again.

Fourteen years later, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is still calling political shots from his grave. Besides passing the political baton to his son Raila, who has weathered the storm to become the country’s second Prime Minister, the political beacons Jaramogi erected remain deeply rooted in Luo-Nyanza.

His ‘Oteku’ (absolute power) penetrated Luoland with the potency of venom. From his native home of Sakwa in Bondo to Muhuru on the Kenya-Tanzania border, Jaramogi was viewed as no ordinary human being. He was a ‘hono’ (mystery man).

‘Odingaism’, the mythical political dynasty he left in his wake has winched many a politician to stardom and also ruined several others. Those who waged war against him slipped into political abyss. No politician in independent Kenya wrapped his community into a solid voting block like Jaramogi. Even the founding father of the nation, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, did not match him when it came to political mobilisation.

father and son

It’s this political legacy that cemented Odingaism in Nyanza and later shoved one of his equally controversial sons, Raila, into the limelight. So powerful and feared was Jaramogi that his word was law. Under the rallying call of ‘Piny Owacho’ (the people have decided), he turned Luoland into an opposition zone. He made Luoland impenetrable for Kenyatta and Moi.At his home in Kango Ka Jaramogi, where he was buried, a museum, stacked with his political paraphernalia and instruments of power, illuminates his long political path.

But none of the instruments of power evokes fond memories like his trademark red car. The Peugeot 505- KYY 555, now grounded, sits on four stones at the furthest corner of the vast compound. This was his favourite car, which he used to traverse Kenya during the multi-party campaigns from 1990, until his death in 1994.

Understanding the man

But who was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and what magic wand did he wave on the Luo? His peers and some political scientists say Jaramogi, whose baptism names were Obadia Adonija, successfully turned himself into a religion.

His grip on Luo politics began long before independence when he resigned as a teacher at Maseno School to lead the political and economic emancipation of the Luo. He formed the Luo Thrift Company and ventured into politics.

He used the company to transform himself into a formidable leader, as aptly captured by political scientist Adams Oloo in a recent book: "From Ford-K to NDP: Political Moblization in Luoland."

"Odinga started identifying with the masses long before independence. He would go to markets to preach Luo unity and economic empowerment.

"He would travel to address people even without knowing where he would sleep. He was a missionary. In most cases, he would be given mats to sleep by well wishers," says Dr Oloo.

The Luo Thrift Company boosted his image. He was also a charismatic personality who won many hearts with his knowledge on Luo and national politics.

Jaramogi tightened his grip on Luo politics after many of his supporters started viewing him as the ‘messiah’ who will eventually help them overcome their economic and political problems. His mastery of parables and simple life endeared him to the masses. The support grew bigger and engulfed the entire Luoland when the Government started treating him as a dissident.

Generous to a fault

"Many people wanted to know why the Government did not want Jaramogi. In a way, both Kenyatta and Moi made Jaramogi a hero by mistreating him," Mzee Odungi Randa, who knew Jaramogi for many years, says.

"He had unique leadership qualities and was extremely generous. No one would visit his home and leave without being fed. But he had no time for lazy people," adds Randa, now a Luo elder.