Thursday, June 14, 2012



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
June 13, 2012

George Saitoti and Orwa Ojode, like ML King Jr. JF Kennedy, Malcolm X, JM Kariuki, Robert Ouko, Tom Mboya and Pio Gama Pinto are now immortalized. They will never grow older in our memory. That is what tragic and sudden death does to famous personalities.

I knew George Saitoti better than he knew me. He was definitely a more reserved politician than Joshua Orwa Ojode Ja Sirkal. Orwa Ojode was simply warm and a people person. In his company, I enjoyed his jokes and candid views on the politics of Kenya.

Their sudden deaths last Sunday morning stunned the entire nation. Friend and foe came together and genuinely mourned them. The flow of tributes from ordinary Kenyans from every tribe and creed told it all. Yes, Kenyans were in agreement that death had robbed this nation of two able leaders at a most critical moment in our history.

I first came across George Saitoti and actually dealt with him 20 years ago. I was then a young Nation Newspaper executive trying to leverage the Nation Newspaper in the eyes of the public. A year earlier, parliament had banned the Daily Nation from covering parliamentary proceedings because it was viewed as an opposition tool bent on bringing down the government of Daniel arap Moi then.

Incidentally at about the same time, Kenya Football Federation officials had been sent packing for mismanaging football in Kenya. In their stead two assistant ministers had been appointed as part of the caretaker committee to manage football. One of them was the late Mathias Keah from Coast Province.

That same year, Kenya’s Harambee Stars were on a campaign to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations to be held in Dakar Senegal. And as usual, the team’s dismal performance had caused it followers. To compound the problem, the defunct KFF was broke.
These were the mitigating factors that made the Keah team approach the Daily Nation for sponsorship which I quickly embraced and convinced the Nation Management that it was a risk worth taking.

As we continued to finance and manage the team, we started seeing signs of improvement. We could collect cash and put it to good use for the team. We chose to supplement gate collections with a major funds drive.
It was at this funds drive that I chose to invite George Saitoti to officiate at Hotel Intercontinental one evening which he surprisingly accepted.

As it turned out, it would appear like that was the first time in decades that
a top government official had ever associated with the Nation Newspaper. When it was over, Saitoti remarked that he never knew the Nation Newspaper could ever do anything good for the country. He had always believed that the newspaper‘s preoccupation was to fight the government.

Seven years later, I had to invite Saitoti again as the Chief Guest during the 1997 World Conference on Advertising that was held in Nairobi with me as the convener. Through my friend; the late Jonson Makau who was then Minister for Information, Saitoti again accepted to be my guest.

Although my speech on press freedom and poverty in Africa was rather strong by that time’s standards, Saitoti seemed to take everything in his stride. Speeches by Ali Mazrui, the late Prof Atieno Odhiambo and radicals like Prof Anyang’ Nyongo’ did not shake him. He delivered his speech and spent half a day with us, culminating in a luncheon with delegates.

I will remember Orwa Ojode as a jovial and a free spirit that never let his high political office get in the way of his friends. I knew Ojode as a politician and only went to see him whenever he wanted us to meet; which we did either at a spot in Hurlingham area or in his office in Harambee House.

Late last year and early this year, I had two incidents that required that I see Ja Sirkal. A relative had been assaulted by some thugs and the police handling the case were beginning to play games with the case.

As I sat in his office taking tea, he was busy in contact with the relevant authorities trying to find out how investigations were progressing. What was meant to be a 15 minutes date ended up being a two hour session with Ja Sirkal.

Early this year, I and my friend Rosa Buyu met Ja Sirkal upon his request again in his office on a whole range of issues including the politics of the day. Listening to Orwa Ojode, one got the impression that he was a fearless politician who never shied away from criticizing even his own party without compromising his loyalty to it. It was the reason Ojode became a Kenyan who was never a slave to his party and cultivated friendship across all political and ethnic lines. Once he was appointed an assistant minister for Internal Security, national duties became his priority and not narrow parochial party politics.

Now that the two giants are gone; how will Kenyans remember them?
For George Saitoti, Kenyans will remember a Mathematics professor who Moi plucked from the classroom and literally groomed for the top post but abandoned at his hour of need after serving as Moi’s deputy for 14 years. They will also remember him for one of the biggest scandals in Kenya’s history. He was Finance Minister when the Golden Berg scandal took place at the Treasury.

For Joshuah Orwa Ojode, we will remember the political elephant that stayed in politics for 18 years without a major scandal. And while he lasted, he enjoyed his life to the full and made happy whoever he came across.