Prof Ouma Muga

Prof Ouma Muga during an interview in Nairobi on September 12, 2013. Muga was once the chairman of the Department of Geography at the University of Zambia.

| File | Nation Media Group

How Moi brought down ‘climate change’ don Ouma Muga

What you need to know:

  • Prof Muga boasted of being the brains behind Moi’s ozone layer speech.
  • Besides the Ozone layer brag, Prof Muga would tell everyone who cared to listen that Moi had created Rangwe constituency specifically for him.

When President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi left the country to present the keynote address on the ozone layer on March 5, 1989, he was with Prof Ouma Muga – then an assistant minister in the Ministry of National Guidance and Political Affairs.

Prof Muga pioneered climate change discourse in Kenya – but like Icarus in Greek mythology, he flew too close to the Sun.

Though President William Ruto was the star performer during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi this week, he was following in the footsteps of Moi, who used Ozone layer conferences in the 1980s to prop up himself in the international arena.

The only difference is that President Ruto is a scientist and understands the subject.

Moi addressed two major meetings on a topic that was too complicated for him. The first was in London and the second in Rio de Janeiro.

The London meeting was a scientific congress on “Chlorofluorocarbons (known as CFCs) and the Ozone layer,” and Prof Muga’s mission was to break it down for the president, who was to be the keynote speaker, thanks to his dalliance with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Behind this success was Prof Muga – a man once jailed for eight years for plotting to overthrow the Jomo Kenyatta government in 1971.

 The problem was that Prof Muga would not remain quiet. He boasted of being the brains behind Moi’s ozone layer speech.

Prof Ouma Muga

Prof Ouma Muga (centre) after pleading 'guilty' to charges of conspiring with others to overthrow the government of Kenya on 31 May 1971. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The president got wind of it, or perhaps the professor’s enemies manufactured other narratives and sold them to Moi. The ruling party Kanu had a thriving rumour mill.

Besides the Ozone layer brag, Prof Muga would tell everyone who cared to listen that Moi had created Rangwe constituency specifically for him.

A brilliant scholar, Muga was Kenya’s only professor of environment in the late 1980s and founded Moi University’s School of Environmental Studies – a pet project of president Moi.

He was also a one-time Dean of Arts at Makerere University in Uganda and chairman of the Department of Geography at the University of Zambia.

His entry into politics was part of an ambition that had seen the professor leave Makerere after Cabinet minister Tom Mboya’s assassination in 1969.

But Muga was a man in a hurry. He joined cadet officer Joseph Daniel Owino to plan a coup against Jomo Kenyatta.

Even the magistrate – SK Sachdeva – described him as a “man of brilliant academic standing and nobody’s fool”.

That is the reason he was sent to prison after the court found that it was “impossible to believe he would have been so blinded by the arguments and persuasions of a semi-educated Owino that he unwillingly and unwittingly took the decision to take part in the anti-government conspiracy”.

The coup was planned for April 8, 1971 and Prof Muga had accompanied former Uganda minister Sam Odaka to seek the support of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere.

Odaka was Milton Obote’s Minister for Foreign Affairs before Idi Amin took power on January 25, 1971, forcing the two men to seek asylum in neighbouring Tanzania.

When President Kenyatta learnt that the Obote men were behind the plot, he decreed that they should never step in Kenya.

Prof Muga was lucky because the group was not charged with treason.

The magistrate said that on the facts as they stood, the accused could have been charged with treason, which attracted capital punishment.

Prof Ouma Muga

Prof Ouma Muga (centre) after pleading 'guilty' to charges of conspiring with others to overthrow the government of Kenya on 31 May 1971.  

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Deputy public prosecutor, James Karugu, argued that failure of the conspiracy could not be credited to the accused persons.

“The credit must go to the other forces,” he said.

Though other senior personalities were mentioned in the 1971 attempted coup, including Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa – whose wife, Nyiva, housed the Obote family in Kenya after the army takeover in Kampala – the axe fell on the nine conspirators led by Owino and Prof Muga.

The Chief Justice and army commander, Joseph Ndolo, were relieved of their positions but not prosecuted.

British secret documents indicate the High Commission in Nairobi had learnt about the coup plot earlier, and viewed Chief of Defence Staff Ndolo as a potential putschist.

A paper written by Norris, the High Commissioner, said “an attempt at an army coup in the near future with Kenyatta still alive and the country not ripe for a coup would probably end in failure (and) almost certainly damaging to our interests”.

The official recommended that “discreet advice be given to the Kenya government to institute reforming measures to make a coup less likely”.

Britain was building a cadre of officers it could trust in case of a coup similar to the one in Uganda.

Norris suggested Brig Jackson Mulinge or Col Peter Kakenyi as possible leaders since they were pro-British.

While Brig Mulinge had roots in the King’s African Rifles, Kakenyi had attended training in Britain.

Historians believe that the British High Commissioner did not have the correct intelligence on Prof Muga and Owino’s plot.

“British diplomats thought that with their “secret sources”, they knew and understood Kenya, but in fact continued to misunderstand and make inaccurate predictions without full comprehension or awareness of Kenya’s internal politics,” argues Poppy Cullen in her book Kenya and Britain after Independence.

The anger on Tom Mboya’s killing and continued detention of former vice-president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had led to discontent. Prof Muga, a radical in his own right, left Makerere University to plot the coup.

It was a big gamble, and as Prof Yash Tandon once told Prof Muga: “You shouldn’t have left Makerere.”

This was in 2000 and Prof Muga had lost the academic lustre.

Muga was first elected to Parliament in 1988, becoming Rangwe’s founding MP.

Due to his closeness to the then-powerful permanent secretary in the Office of the President Hezekiah Oyugi, he rose fast and was made an assistant minister for National Guidance and Political Affairs.

But by May 15, 1989 – just two months after the London Ozone layer summit – he was facing the South Nyanza Kanu branch chaired by then-Minister for Industry Dalmas Otieno.

To bring Prof Muga down was little-known South Nyanza County Council chairman Elisha Akech Chieng, who claimed that the MP was bragging about his new status and closeness to the president.

On May 2, 1989, in the reshuffle that followed the fall of Dr Josephat Karanja and the appointment of George Saitoti as Vice President, Prof Muga was taken to the new Ministry of Reclamation of Arid, semi-Arid and Wastelands.

But in just nine days, he was dismissed as an assistant minister.

He was out of Parliament by July, to be replaced by Raymond Ndong.

That was the end of Prof Muga’s phase one in politics. He was expelled from Kanu and his star as a scientist dimmed.

“In 10 years,” Muga told a press conference as pressure mounted, “the money they are using to destabilise Rangwe will be gone and Kenyans will know the truth…I have never said with these two lips of mine, that I am the government adviser.”

With the resumption of multi-party politics, Prof Muga reclaimed his seat but lost to Dr Shem Ochuodho in 1997. The downward political spiral continued.

Occasionally, one could bump into a haggard, unkempt and physically worn out Prof Muga with a small bag on the streets of Nairobi.

By the time he died in September 2018, images of a forlorn-looking, gloomy, and haggard professor of environment shocked many.

The professor was a shadow of his past. Politicians had brought down a brilliant man – one of the first Kenyans to be interested in the ozone layer debate. He dragged Moi into it while Moi dragged him into oblivion.

[email protected] Twitter: @johnkamau1