Prof Ezekiel Okemwa: Should we correct untruths in death notices?

Prof Ezekiel Okemwa, who died on November 19, used every opportunity to say he was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Two years ago, he told KDRTV, an online television channel: “In the year 2006, I won the Nobel Peace Prize, which I shared with the former Vice-President of United States Al Gore, on climate change.”

He explained that his involvement came about when he was a deputy president of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of Unesco in Paris. Al Gore was doing similar work on climate change and pollution.

Prof Okemwa kept repeating the claim on other online TV stations, sometimes changing the year of the award to 2007. And in a story eight days ago by Eric Abuga, after his death, The Standard legitimised his claim. The paper described him as “a Nobel Laureate on environmental matter” (“Biological Oceanographer Prof Okemwa to be buried next week”).

Prof Okemwa, a former director of the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and lecturer at Technical University of Mombasa, will be buried today, according to a death and funeral announcement published in the Daily Nation on Monday this week. God rest him in peace.

The Nation announcement tends to legitimise Prof Okemwa’s claim, that he was, indeed, a Nobel Prize laureate that the nation had ignored. The announcement, which occupied a quarter of a page of the newspaper, carried the words “Nobel Prize Laureate” below his portrait.


The second sentence in the body of the announcement emphasizes the statement: “The late Professor, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who held a PhD in Biological Oceanography from the University of Brussels....”

The statement, no longer just a claim by Prof Okemwa but a statement by the family, jolted some readers. NMG librarian Anniel Njoka was quick to say: “This is erroneous. [Prof] Wangari Maathai was the only Kenyan to with the Nobel Prize.”

Githuku Mungai says: “I have checked online but his name does not feature among the Nobel Peace laureates. Probably, an organisation he was associated with was at one time named the Nobel Peace winner in a specific year. Please check what the position is and if his family ought to honour him thus.”

Families pay to have the death and funeral announcements of their loved ones published. And they have the right to say whatever they want, so long as it not offensive or forbidden by law. Besides, the announcements are not news stories. The editor can ignore their content—even when they contain exaggerations or falsehoods meant to memorialiae their loved one in a fond manner.

The question, however, is: What if the false or misleading statements impact our public discourse, truth and history? If Prof Okemwa was not a Nobel Prize laureate, should the editor allow the announcement to go uncorrected?

The answer is ‘No’; readers should be told the truth. Just like when the Nation published an untruthful death and funeral announcement on February 7, 2018, which stated: “It is with deep sorrow that we announce the death of James Richard Wanjagi on 30th January 2018 which occurred after a failed armed robbery in Nairobi’s Karen estate.” The announcement carried the image of businessman Jimi Wanjigi. Nation had to expose the announcement, which had been placed in the paper by a paying customer, as fake.

A search of “Prof Okemwa” in the official website of the Nobel Prize returned “0 results”. I also manually viewed the full list of Nobel Prizes and laureates since 1901. His name was nowhere.

In his lecture (acceptance speech) on December 10, 2007 at the Oslo City Hall, Norway, Al Gore makes no reference to Prof Okemwa as a co-winner. In his lecture chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), R. K. Pachauri, pays tribute to the thousands of experts who contributed to the work of IPCC. He did not mention Prof Okemwa. IPCC is the organisation that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

It is safe to conclude that Prof Okemwa did not win any Nobel Prize except in his own imagination. And there is one last question: The prize consists of a medal, a personal diploma and a cash award. Where is Prof Ezekiel Okemwa’s medal or personal diploma? And proof of cash award?

The death and funeral announcement stands corrected.

- The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected]. Call or text 0721989264.