Philip Ochieng: The problem with Raila

Philip Ochieng during the interview at Nation Centre on July 05 2013. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL

What you need to know:

  • Veteran journalist Philip Ochieng’ reveals why he did not get university degree despite being a beneficiary of the 1959 Mboya student Airlifts. And why he rejected God

A Fifth Columnist has been defined as a member of a clandestine subversive organisation who tries to help a potential invader. It is the enemy within who betrays his country by helping opponents in times of war.

This group of people undermines a larger one such as a nation or a besieged city from within.

The expression is traced to the activities of Emilio Mola, a nationalist general during the 1936 Spanish Civil War.

He told a journalist that as his four columns of troops approached Madrid, a “fifth column” of supporters inside the city would support him and undermine the government from within. Over time, the expression has evolved to mean the rebel within, a person walking against the grain or voicing divergent opinion.

That Philip Ochieng’ would choose the ‘Fifth Columnist’ as the name of his Sunday Nation column probably explains the attitude of a man considered one of the gurus of journalism in this region.

Philip Ochieng’ talked to the Saturday Nation:

Q: Since you learnt to read and write, has the sun ever risen and set without you reading?

A: Many days. When playing, gardening or cooking. What I read must be ingested in the head and then transferred to the computer because I read so as to share with fellow human beings.

Q: What body of literature do you find most awakening?

A: I am interested in knowledge on how human societies live and work. This includes history, sociology, anthropology and religion. I read a great deal on comparative religion despite my atheistic leaning.

Q: You were brought up by a Seventh Day Adventist. At what point did you reject God?

A: I can’t point to any particular time because it must have been a very long process. But I can say it could have something to do with that very strict SDA upbringing where you had to go to church twice a day seven days a week. My grounding with Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin also has something to do with my atheism.

Q: You have been writing four books simultaneously for the past 10 years. What are they about and how do you manage to do it?

A: They are actually five. One is the Histories and the Controversies of the Media in Kenya, which I am taking to the publisher this week. The other is How Europe Destroyed the Human Essence of Our Species. Another is History of Religion, where I am showing that Christology (the notion that God sent a messenger (his son) to save mankind) was invented in Africa. There is an intellectual problem. The whole notion of a son implies sex. Can a male God have a son? If it were so, then Christology has been quiet about his female partner.

Q: You lent a literary bent to the econo-political East Africa Journal by publishing your classmate Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other pioneering East African literary greats such as Okot P’Bitek and Taban Lo Liyong’. What do you consider the magazine’s contribution to literary consciousness in the region?

A: I was astonished at the kind of interest the journal evoked as I received contributions from all over the world and races. We published p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino when it had been rejected by all houses. The publishing house that later produced it later apologised for not appreciating the importance of oral tradition. They had never seen anything like it and could not fit it within the Western liberal publishing tradition.

Q: You come out as an admirer of Okot P’Bitek. Do you agree with the postulation that he is East Africa’s foremost “Negritudist?”

A: That is exactly why I would criticize him. Others in the Negritude movement were Léopold Sédar Senghor, (Alioune) Diop of Senegal, Aimé Césaire of the Martinique and Dunduzu Chisisa of Malawi. By arguing that there was something special about blackness, they had unwittingly succumbed to European racism.

Nineteenth century European anthropologists had classified the world into three: The West as the centre of science and technology; the Orient as the centre of mysticism and Africa as the world of magic. By arguing that we should go back to the idyllic past, Negritudists were being reactionary.

Q: In 1992 you wrote ‘I Accuse the Press.’ If you were to rewrite the book now, would you make the same accusations?

A: If I were to make the same accusations, which I am likely to do, I will only do them with better knowledge. I will be more enlightened and thoughtful about it; I will not accuse Europe as a race, but as a class.

Q: You have been at the helm of Kenya’s media for more than four decades. Do you share the blame for the intellectual poverty in today’s newsrooms?

A: When I was the quality control editor at the Nation, I made my contribution. I remember suggesting to one of the editors at the time that Sunday Nation should not compete with the Daily Nation for ordinary news. We wanted to make Sunday Nation what a weekend newspaper should be; a weekend digest.

We wanted many pages devoted to long, thoughtfully written stories on science, technology, religion and so on. Not stupid local headlines. The editor was nearly sacked for making the suggestion. A lot of my stories have been rejected on the ground they were too technical.

The main culprit is that newspapers in East Africa still go for the graduates of the humanities as editors. Hillary Ng’weno, a graduate of physics and mathematics, was perhaps the first chief editor in East Africa from the scientific background, but he didn’t last. I believe that whatever his specialisation, a good editor must converse intelligently on all subjects.

Q: You are considered the most bookish Kenyan alive. What is the root of your motivation to read?

A: Bookish, no. A book lover, yes. Bookish people are those who cram to pass exams. I became the reader that I am long after I had left Alliance. Perhaps it was at Roosevelt University, but no, it was really Karl Marx but more of Friedrich Engels.

A person who did not finish high school, but could intelligently debate on anything from philosophy, chemistry and physics intelligently. He read and chewed before swallowing. My line was supposed to be literature, but I have educated myself in chemistry, physics and French. Math has been probably my greatest challenge.

Q: How many books do you read at the same time?

A: I read only one book. I don’t want to distract my focus.

Q: So what are you reading now?

Simon Cox’s Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction.

Q: If you were to estimate the amount of money you have used in buying books, how much would it be?

A: I have invested a lot in books. Indeed it is the cause of my poverty. I may not put a figure to it. I spend a third of my monthly earnings in buying books. Some of them are in my home at Awendo, others here in Nairobi.

Q: You were a beneficiary of the Mboya/Kennedy airlift of 1959, yet you came back without a degree. What went wrong?

A: I did not complete my degree in Literature because I married at a dangerous time — only two years after I had landed in Chicago. The result of that union is a daughter who discovered me two years ago. She was brought up in similar circumstances with (President) Obama.

Q. Is your diversity of reading compensation for lack of university degree?

Disciplined reading leads to a degree, I am an undisciplined reader. I have no university degree, but I think I have an educated mind. But I see a lot of PhDs without education. That does not mean I deride academic qualifications.

Q. So what is your definition of education?

When accumulated knowledge is translated into the service of humanity. Most of our academics are not doing that. There are greatly educated people without university degrees. I think Prof Ngugi, for instance, has only a Bachelor of Arts, yet he is one of the most educated people in the world.

Q: In your forthcoming book ‘The Fifth Columnist: A Biography of Philip Ochieng’ by our colleague Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi coming out in two months, you say that you painted Chicago red together with the likes of Barack Obama Senior. Do you regret those moments?

A: Yes, we drank lots of beer with the likes of John Kangethe, who recently retired from Central Bank. I had not graduated into whiskey those days, but drinking wasn’t the cause of my situation. Everybody was drinking. It is the marriage.

Q: You lived with Tom Mboya, who was killed 44 years ago yesterday. What do you think Kenyans don’t know about him?

A: Mboya was a town sophisticate, a dancer, a boxer, a footballer and a woman killer. He loved women like sukari nguru.

Q: Certainly his assassination and the 1969 massacre outside the Russia Hospital three months later in Kisumu reconfigured the course of Kenya’s politics.

A: The two events only hastened the drift between the Luo and the Kikuyu. A lot can be reduced into the feud between the Odinga and the Kenyatta families, but the dispute is really something deep.

It started shortly after Kenyatta took over the reins of power and betrayed the man who fought for his release. It is also the conflict between home guards and everybody else. The tribal stereotypes that are ingrained in our children from birth have not helped matters.

Q: Like Achebe, who lent his voice to the Biafran cause of self-determination, you have been accused of deploying your immense intellect to the political cause of the Luo nation.

A: I have never supported Raila as such, as a matter of principle. I have come only to his defence when I feel he is being unfairly treated. I have criticised him as well. In the same vein, I have criticised and praised Kibaki. I will do the same with President Kenyatta.

Q: You abhor the self-inflating nature of the Luo, but celebrate their intellectual investment and heritage. What, in your view, informs the conduct of the Gor Mahia fan?

A: It goes far back in history to their ancestors’ scoring a string of victories against enemies during their migration to the south. So in the present circumstances, they cannot reconcile their history of victories and conquest to the present reality where Johnnies-come-lately like a “mere” Abaluhyia defeating them in football or a “mere” Kikuyu beating them in elections. They understand the language of conquest, not defeat.

Q: Raila Odinga has twice come a breath away from seizing the levers of power. Is he the quintessential tragic hero caught up in the battle between fate and destiny?

Tragic heroes are victims of circumstances, but they also have their tragic flaws. Raila’s Achilles’ heel is his inadvisability. This he probably inherited from his father Jaramogi, who could say unsayable things. Jaramogi, though, was the better human being than his son, though as a political tactician, he was poorer.

But Mboya towers above both. He was the first Luo politician in the cosmopolitan Nairobi to win a parliamentary seat by beating such political heavyweights as Njoroge Mungai and Munyua Waiyaki. Mboya also gave airlifts to all Kenyans without regard to where they came from.

Q: Do you think the conduct of Raila’s Luo tribesmen has hurt his political cause?

A: Yes, certainly. How can he allow ragamuffins to do things in his name? He is the leader. He has to teach them or cane them. How can you be courting the Kikuyu, for instance, then allow ragamuffins to disrupt their businesses?

Q: Tom Mboya was assassinated. Jaramogi withered away with unfulfilled ambition. Time does not appear to be on Raila’s side. Do you see the Luo nation producing a person who can be embraced by the whole country in the near future?

A: There is a man who is very intelligent, mature, and highly educated. He has served in government. His name is Dalmas Otieno. One of the first Kenyans to go to Makerere, I think he is best suited to take over from Raila. I have also thought of (Nairobi Governor Evans) Kidero, but the job he has now will kill him. If it were Mboya, he would have used the position to transform himself into a key presidential contender.

Q: Your reportage of the murder of Tom Mboya on July 5 1969 is considered the height of your journalistic career. Is it true you wrote the story under the influence of alcohol?

A: Well, it could have only enhanced it. But Brian Tetley, with whom I wrote the story, was never known to write a sentence without knocking down a few bottles. He was typical Fleet Street.

Q: Many consider your writing sophisticated. Do you, like Christopher Okigbo, write for the poets?

A: I don’t spend much time thinking of which word to use, though there was once an outcry that I should lower language, whatever that means. I answered that it is not my job to come down to your level. It is your job to rise to my level.

However, sometimes I write a column specifically for literature students, like when recently I talked of Amos Tutuola and Ayi Kwei Armah. When I quote such people as Lewis Carol, I don’t pretend to write for everybody.

Q: Some say you have this contempt for those you consider less intellectually aware.

A: I don’t think I have the intellectual arrogance of, say, Miguna Miguna.

Q: For decades you have assigned yourself a higher pedestal from which you have been moralising and talking at society. From which Mount Ararat, if we may borrow your metaphor, do you draw moral authority?

A: I don’t know that I have any Ararat. I just think that something is wrong or right and I write about it for social consciousness. I don’t say I am Shakespeare’s be all and end all. Others don’t write because they are not privileged to have columns.

Q: Gitobu Imanyara has accused you of being the ugly face of journalism, the intellectual prop of the oppressive Nyayo regime when you edited ‘Kenya Times.’ What was the motivation behind the Kanu briefs which you published?

A: I don’t know why you have not accepted when I tell you that I didn’t write those things. I was sacked from Kenya Times in 1991 perhaps to pave way for the writing of those briefs in the election year of 1992. Well, I said many things those years which were not popular, like telling off then American ambassador Smith Hempstone for interfering with our politics and talking at our politicians as if they were children.

The same politicians who pilloried me then celebrated me for telling Edward Clay the same thing. My values have not changed. Things change. Maybe I was ahead of my time.

Q: Dar es Salaam, where you once worked, was the melting pot of intellectual expression during which you were debating with the likes of the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney. What killed the debate?

A: Walter Rodney was my friend and I even edited his seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Dar es Salaam was the world headquarters of intellectual debate those days.

All liberation movements in Africa and around the world had missions in Dar es Salaam and provided literature to teach about conditions in their part the world. There were Rightists, Far leftists, far Rightists. The Tupamaros, Angela Levis, Polisario, PLO, Ireland and ANC.

All these had come because of the Ujamaa philosophy, but the more and more we read about it, we dug out its shortcomings. Ujamaa was just the old extended family, which Nyerere wanted to make a national habit. He was genuine, but it did not help. Disillusionment with Ujamaa saw the debate dissipating.

Q: You worked under Ben Mkapa at the Daily News of Tanzania in the 1970s yet you don’t seem to have kind words for the man who later became Tanzania’s third president.

A: Mkapa was a good civil servant, highly intelligent, but very right wing. As president, he didn’t encourage me to have kind words for him. He reintroduced what Nyerere had fought hard to annihilate — corruption.