In July 1970, 25-year-old Raila Odinga called a press conference in Nairobi, begging the government to release his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, from detention. Raila had just joined the University of Nairobi after studying in East Germany. It is not known whether he had been picked as the family spokesman, or offered himself because he was the most courageous. But in the battle for power between the house of Jomo and the house of Jaramogi – the later had been incarcerated and silenced.
Some 52 years later, in a twist of fate, the house of Jomo, through President Uhuru Kenyatta, has thrown its weight behind Raila – as the next President of Kenya. Kenya’s history is coming full circle.
At the time Raila called the press conference, Jaramogi was ailing and the family property was being auctioned because he could not service the loans used to buy the assets. Raila had reached out to then family lawyer, SM Otieno, for help – after all ‘SM’, as he was simply known, was married to Wambui Otieno, whose family was deeply involved in the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) politics.
Jaramogi wanted to lead Kenya. He had a good manifesto, which I recently covered in these pages. The only thing that he lacked was a plot to become President. If he had any, it was a weak one. Chances of getting past Jomo in an election were — to put it mildly — a wild dream.
On Tuesday, Raila will be facing Deputy President William Ruto in an election that might either end the house of Jaramogi’s quest for power or simply end the jinx if Raila is elected. The former Prime Minister claims to have won two elections and the victory was snatched from him. Unlike Raila, Jaramogi never got a chance to face Jomo Kenyatta — and when he was to face Daniel arap Moi during the first multi-party elections in 1992, he was 81 — a shell of his former self. Still, he managed 17 per cent of the total votes while his Ford Kenya party got 31 seats.
When he was young, at 54, Jaramogi had underrated Jomo Kenyatta and thought he could introduce communism through some underhand deals. The Jomo men also played dirty on him – and it is that tit-for-tat that informed a lot of Kenya’s politics. In the propaganda war, Jaramogi had no chance.
On the morning of Easter, 1965, Dr Njoroge Mungai, then Defence minister, sent armed troops to Jogoo House, which housed Jaramogi’s office. The troops were accompanied by journalists who were to witness the “discovery” of a large quantity of arms hidden in the basement of the government building. On the same day, more troops were ordered to Nyanza Province to search for arms.
How these events consolidated to portray Jaramogi as a man who wanted to overthrow the government became the talk of town.
“Suddenly I found myself the so-called evil genius of a plot to overthrow the government,” says Jaramogi in his book, Not Yet Uhuru. He maintained that Jomo and his External Affairs Minister Joseph Murumbi knew “how those arms had come to be stored in the basement of my ministry's building”.
The story that was never told was that the arms, destined for the Prisons Department, had arrived at the then Embakasi Airport and that Jaramogi, whose Ministry of Home Affairs had, with Jomo’s approval, ordered some prison vans to ferry them to the basement of Jogoo House where they would later be “discovered”.
This was the turning point for Jaramogi – for soon he would be edged out of power. Under siege, he dashed back to Nyanza for a series of rallies to shore up support for himself, fearing that his political end was nigh. Newspaper records show that in most of the rallies he asked his supporters to rally behind him — after all, he was the “Ker” of the powerful Luo Union and was just a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Jaramogi was not in Nairobi when the arms were removed and nobody, apart from Nyanza politicians, came to his defence. He found himself attacked by fellow Cabinet ministers: “I reacted as coolly as possible to the provocations. For the most part, I let them slide, watching the manoeuvrings about me as politicians curried favour with (Kenyatta),” he writes in his book.
A few days after the Jogoo House incident, the government announced that a Russian ship, MV Fizik Lebedev, was heading towards Mombasa carrying “small gifts from Russia”. The gifts turned out to be large tanks and armoured personnel carriers, which had been negotiated by Jaramogi on behalf of the government. On board too were several “experts” who were coming to train the military. Some 20 others had already arrived in Nairobi. Again focus and heat was turned on Jaramogi as the President ordered the Russians out and dismissed the gifts as “useless”.
I once asked Charles Njonjo, then Attorney General, about this particular incident and he told me that the tanks were World War II junks: “very heavy, they could not pass on any Kenyan road or bridge.” But was the rejection political. “Of course, it was,” he told me.
And that was not all. They were not done with Jaramogi. In the following week, on May 16, 1965, the government seized a convoy of 11 lorries carrying small arms in Nyanza escorted by Ugandans and Tanzanians.
“During this arms scandal ... General Service Unit troops were sent to Nyanza,” said Jaramogi in his book.
As Jaramogi came under siege, his only salvation were politicians who stood by him: Achieng Oneko,Dennis Akumu and Wasonga Sijjeyo. Those opposed to Jaramogi's brand of politics saw another opportunity to sideline him and his supporters. Even as the arms were finally allowed to reach their Uganda destination, the damage had been done. But did Jaramogi really want to overthrow Mzee Kenyatta by unorthodox means? In his book, he maintains that this was fear spread by his detractors and by British intelligence. Jaramogi never denied that arms were retrieved from his office or that he had been in contact with the ringleaders of the Zanzibar revolution.
But it was his determination to rescue Kanu and train its leadership that was to be used against him. Jaramogi had built a Kanu leaders’ training college in Nairobi, known as the Lumumba Institute, which was a miscalculation. One day in July 1965, at Averes Hotel on Nairobi's Munyu Road, he had met delegates to plan how to take over Kanu leadership via the Lumumba Institute. It is a story that Jaramogi did not tell in his book but it remains hidden in the secret files of Lumumba Institute.
When his henchmen staged a coup at Kanu headquarters, all the ring-readers were arrested after that fateful press conference led by Wanguhu Ng’ang’a. The group had stormed Kanu headquarters, then on Mfangano street, on July 6, 1965, and announced that they had removed all Kanu officials apart from Jaramogi and the President. After the press conference, they found a police lorry blocking the entrance. They were all arrested.
It was the end of Lumumba Institute, and of Jaramogi. Soon, he would be out of Kanu and in KPU. On October 25, 1969 as Mzee Kenyatta visited Kisumu to open the New Nyanza General Hospital, some chaos erupted and Jaramogi was detained – and thus, he would miss the 1969 General Election. Whether the chaos was planned to stop him from running against Jomo was never known. Some people believe that this could be one of those plots. The rest is history and Jaramogi got his chance to run in 1992. In between, after Moi came to power in 1978, it was Raila who would face the wrath of the establishment. Raila would be detained for a total of eight years for his opposition to Kanu’s dictatorship.
On Tuesday, Raila tosses himself into the arena and he will try to get the presidency and perhaps achieve his father’s dream. It will be a long walk from the young man who confronted the Kenyatta state to ask for his father’s release from detention. If he wins, he completes the circle and the drama of Kenya’s politics continues.
May the best man win.
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