What you need to know:
- The reasons for Jaramogi Oginga Odinga's influence, I think, are misunderstood.
- Many people believed that Jaramogi enjoyed a fanatical political and even cultural following in Luo Nyanza.
Even when Mzee was in political limbo, he still wielded great political influence, especially, but not exclusively, in Luo Nyanza. We hosted delegations from all parts of the country. On one occasion, a delegation of Maasai elders came wearing their traditional costumes, which we children found very interesting.
I witnessed many occasions, just before the elections, when delegations from different constituencies in western Kenya would come to seek his guidance as to which parliamentary candidate they should vote for.
These delegations were usually well-received and well-fed. Jaramogi would discuss with them a number of issues, but would generally avoid the subject of the prospective candidate until the time the people were leaving.
This is the moment you would sometimes hear him say: “Goodbye people of... (whichever constituency they came from). Kindly relay my greetings to so-and-so when you arrive back home.” He would mention the name of his preferred parliamentary candidate. The people would break out in merriment, often ululating.
Almost always, the candidates would win with a huge margin. Although he himself was never cleared to contest in the elections, his representation was manifest and well-felt. All potential candidates would flock to our home, some arriving as early as 4am, hoping to get Jaramogi’s blessings.
But the reasons for this influence, I think, are misunderstood. Many people believed that Jaramogi enjoyed a fanatical political and even cultural following in Luo Nyanza. I believe this was not necessarily the case.
He had hugely solid approval from the common man because he spoke a language that they understood. He always listened carefully to them and carried out what they wanted. He therefore represented their wishes, not the other way round.
Openly defied him
I witnessed two occasions, however, when the people openly defied him because he said something that was contrary to their wishes and beliefs. The first one was when he took me as a child to one of the rallies he attended at Kisian near Kisumu.
In those days, Nyanza Province only had two districts, South Nyanza which also included Kisii and Kuria, and Central Nyanza. During the debate as to whether or not Central Nyanza should be divided into Siaya and Kisumu Districts, Jaramogi was somehow against this, preaching unity.
However, many people wanted the district to be divided. I was a child when I witnessed him openly being defied at a rally when he tried to defend his position. I was shocked because I had never experienced a situation when people openly rejected his advice. I had up to that time believed that his word was law. (The district was finally divided.)
The second incident was much later, during SM Otieno’s infamous burial case. SM’s widow, Wambui Otieno, wanted him to be buried at their family home in Upper Matasia in Ngong, close to Nairobi. However, this was very far from his place of origin, which was Alego Nyalgunga in Nyanza Province.
The Upper Matasia option was strongly opposed by SM’s clan members, who argued that Luos must be buried at their place of origin. This case provoked deep cultural conflicts between the hard-line traditionalists and the modernists.
The court case dragged on for eighteen months and many people approached Mzee seeking his opinion on the issue. When he eventually did speak out, there was considerable disappointment. They had expected him automatically to support the traditionalists who insisted that SM Otieno be buried in Nyalgunga.
However, he said that a Luo can be buried anywhere, that it was healthy to buy land in areas which are productive and where land was available and to settle there rather than sticking to one place. He cited as an example the Luos who migrated south to Tanzania and were now permanent residents in that country.
This was one time when the majority of Luos openly condemned him and were even angry at the position he took. He had dared to go against their wishes and they resented this. This time round, the people’s wish triumphed when the court ruled in favour of the clan and SM Otieno was buried in Nyalgunga. The people openly celebrated what they saw as their victory.
All the same, Jaramogi and politics were inseparable. As a child I used to long for a ‘normal’ life like other children. On many occasions I had to talk to him in front of strangers, even if I needed money for personal items like underwear.
My sister-in-law, Dr Ida Odinga, and I should have realised that politics was so entrenched in Mzee’s system that advising him to take it easy was useless. If we had understood this, we might not have made the mistake of trying to advise him in 1991, during the fight for the Second Liberation, Kenyans were pushing for the removal from the Constitution of section 2A.
This had been introduced in 1982, and had made Kenya a de jure one-party State. With the proscription of the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) party by President Jomo Kenyatta in 1969, Kenya had actually already become a de facto one-party State. The introduction of Section 2A had produced new heights of dissatisfaction among those who had hoped to be allowed to register political parties and, in my opinion, was directly, or at least indirectly responsible for the 1982 coup attempt.
The fight for the reintroduction of the multi-party political system was a spirited one and Mzee Jaramogi was at the forefront. Ida and I talked at length on the phone. I was in Nakuru where I was still living. We exchanged opinions on how it pained us greatly that Jaramogi, at his age, was still receiving many insults from people we thought should only treat him with reverence and respect.
We really believed it was time for him to take a back seat and leave the fighting war to the Young Turks, a term used to describe the relatively younger politicians, most of whom were in his political camp. Ida and I agreed that I should travel to Nairobi so that we could together work out a diplomatic way of putting our sentiments to Mzee. I travelled to Nairobi the following day and stayed that night at Ida’s house, where we spent the better part of the night discussing our plan.
The following morning we went to meet Mzee at his Agip House office, armed with our speech, which was to be started by Ida while I filled in the gaps as the conversation proceeded, according to our plan. We were not leaving anything to chance. We emphasised that he had already secured a very respectable place in history, both locally and internationally and that he should now play the role of an advisor and statesman.
At the end of our speech, he expressed his happiness, gratitude and pride in us. He explained that many people only told him what they imagined he wanted to hear, and were never honest enough with him in order to tell him the truth. He told us he appreciated our sentiments to which he would give serious thought and consideration.
Ida and I left congratulating ourselves. We were very pleased. It was only a couple of days before Christmas, and as had always been the family tradition, we all travelled to my parent’s village home for the celebrations. On December 26, I returned to Nakuru, as I was supposed to report back on duty the next day. I left father getting ready to travel to a funeral in South Nyanza.
The following day I was shocked to see a newspaper headline, which said very boldly: “I WILL NOT KEEP QUIET, SAYS ODINGA.” The article went on to say how some people had been pressurising him to leave politics, but he would not be subdued into silence while he watched things going wrong.
Ida and I, when we met, were amused by the realisation that our Mzee had chosen to answer us through the Press. To us, this meant that he was trying to pass a message, that as much as he loved and appreciated us, his life and politics were inseparable and that he was in politics for life. Indeed, he continued and died as the official leader of opposition, true to his conviction.