JD Otiende: Culture minister in Kenyatta Cabinet takes final bow

Mr Joseph Otiende, the then Minister for Health, cuts the tape to open the Kenyatta National Hospital’s orthopaedic unit, formerly the British Military Hospital, in Nairobi on February 11, 1966. Beside him is Mrs Otiende and on the right is Dr. M. Majale. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • If JD was in the United Kingdom, he would have been knighted for his work as minister for Culture and Housing.
  • And in the UK, he would not have lived in poverty as he would have either been on pension or in the House of Lords.
  • He is the only minister in that Cabinet with his name on two housing estates in two Kenyan capitals – Nairobi and Kakamega.
  • And it was not for nothing that these Otiende Estates exist.

Very few Kenyans today would remember politician Joseph Daniel Otiende, who died last week aged 100 years.

But his life is a manifestation of what the current crop of politicians could learn from as to what irresponsible utterances can do to harm a political career for the rest of your life.

Otiende, who is being buried  today in Vihiga, was the last minister still alive of the 15-member Cabinet (1963-1969) that founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta formed upon Kenya’s attainment of independence.

Retired presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, and independence Kenya’s Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who later joined the original Cabinet, fondly refer to him simply as JD.

He is most remembered in two portfolios — minister for Culture and Housing; and minister for Health.

If JD was in the United Kingdom, he would have been knighted for his work as minister for Culture and Housing. And in the UK, he would not have lived in poverty as he would have either been on pension or in the House of Lords. He is the only minister in that Cabinet with his name on two housing estates in two Kenyan capitals – Nairobi and Kakamega.

And it was not for nothing that these Otiende Estates exist. At independence, one of the Kenyatta government’s biggest headaches was providing housing for the rising African workers in the city and municipalities. JD embarked on housing development in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu, Eldoret and Kakamega. Many of Estates in Nairobi’s Eastlands were developed by JD. For this, JD became a hero among his Cabinet colleagues who nicknamed him bwana nyumba (Mr Houses).

Former health Minister Joseph Otiende at his home in Kegoe, Mbale, Vihiga County. PHOTO/TOM OTIENO

Perhaps it was his good work in that portfolio that informed President Kenyatta’s decision to transfer JD to the Ministry of Health. There, JD initiated establishment of health centre clinics countrywide on harambee basis, and many today have developed into big health centres. In addition, he extended polio and measles vaccinations in every corner of the country in the young nation.

But it was the same Health Ministry that would consign JD to political oblivion for the rest of his life — the death of Benjamin Shidzugane Ngaira at Kenyatta National Hospital on February 27, 1968.

First, Ngaira is from one of the most powerful families in Luhya land (Kakamega), second only to the Awori family in Busia. Like the Awori family, his children became the “who is who” in Kenya and married in prominent families. They include pioneer research scientist Beneah Majisu, first Director of Muguga Forestry Institute who was first husband of Justice Effie Owuor before they divorced, Prof Norah Olembo, Flora, wife of Busia Senator Amos Wako,  the late Jemimah Kaisha, a long time secretary in State House, lawyers and many others.

Ngaira was appointed by the colonial government Governor Malcolm Macdonald in July 1962 to become the first African deputy chairman of the Public Service Commission.

Upon independence, Kenyatta appointed him the first African chairman of the PSC to replace Allan Ronald Macdonald, a Briton who resigned in a huff in 1964. Ngaira was not only famous but a prominent Kenyan of all time.

His death after he underwent an operation at Kenyatta kicked off the biggest medical controversy in the country, sparking a heated debate in Parliament in which JD, as the minister responsible, was put to task.

It was said that on the operating couch, doctors forgot to remove some gadgets, including cotton, before stitching up, which forced a second operation leading to Ngaira’s death. Ngaira’s became a case study of negligence in medical schools for a long time.

In a widely publicised debate in Parliament, JD denied everything, as was usual with many ministers.

However, only one sentence spelt JD’s death knell. After denying it all, he told Parliament thus: “After all, he (Ngaira) was a dying man!” This was widely broadcast on the then Voice of Kenya radio, and the two newspapers – Nation and Standard — that existed at the time.

An angry former Butere MP, Mr Martin Shikuku, retorted: “You will never see this Parliament again!”

Indeed, it came to pass that in the 1969 General Election, JD was confronted by a hostile electorate in his Vihiga Constituency. Peter Kibisu rode on the Ngaira wave to trounce a Minister in the Kenyatta government, thus consigning him to oblivion in his Kegoye home.

Despite the Ngaira gaffe, JD had an illustrious career in politics and even in academics.

Educated at Alliance High School and having taught there after studying at the then Makerere College, he plunged into politics in early 1950s along with luminary politicians Moi, Ronald Ngala, Masinde Muliro and James Gichuru, among others, to agitate for Kenyatta’s release from prison.

They travelled across the country campaigning for Kenyatta’s and the Kapenguria Six’s release. While JD stuck with Kenya African National Union (KANU), his colleagues formed the Kenya African Democratic Union, but all remained on course, fighting for independence.

JD was among the freedom fighters who opposed the Kadu-driven majimbo (federal system of government) which was experimented in eight provinces at independence but failed.

It was, perhaps, by sticking with Kanu that when Kenyatta became Prime Minister in the transition government of 1963 he briefly made Otiende the Minister for Education.

Even at his advanced age, JD still had a sharp mind when this writer interviewed him in 2013 on his thoughts about the 15-member Cabinet.

He recalled Tom Mboya as a workaholic, Njonjo as a no-nonsense AG and the late Jeremiah Nyagah Sr as a committed Minister of Education. He recalled that Kenyatta was a hands-off  leader“who left us to run ministries on our own” like company executives.

Born in 1917, the sunset year of World War 1, JD lived a bright life that was nothing compared to the pale shadow of his later days.

For like in the annals of the past football greats such as George Best (Britain) and Rashid Yekini of Nigeria, he was part of the first super team in Kenya’s political history that has brought the country to where it is today.


Former minister played key role in education reform

by John Kibet

By the time the sun goes down today, an era of sorts will have been ended in Kenya’s historical discourse.

It is this day that an illustrious educator, politician and pioneer minister for Education, Joseph Daniel Otiende, is being laid to rest in his Kegoye village home in Vihiga County.

Mr Otiende, who died 10 days ago aged 100 years, is the last surviving member of Kenya’s first Cabinet. He was appointed minister for Education at independence in 1963 and played a key role in the early education reforms from a Eurocentric curriculum system to a more Africanised one.

In its reports, The Kenya Year Book credits him for the robust post-independent educational policy and legal framework.

“It was a grim situation. Everywhere one looked, one saw that only Europeans had the qualifications to run Government ministries, departments and State corporations. Schools were not enough,” Otiende says in the Year Book.

The minister and Makere-trained teacher drew the initial Education Act to power the country’s development agenda. In 1964, he formed the Kenya Education Commission and appointed Prof Simeon Ominde to chair it. 

Housing estate

As the Ominde Commission got down to its work, Otiende was moved to the ministry of Health and Housing. Several health facilities were established in various places as did housing projects. One such housing estate in Nairobi bears his name to date; Otiende Estate in Langata, Nairobi.

Otiende also held other dockets including Agriculture and Culture before quitting active politics after the 1969 general elections. After losing his Vihiga Parliamentary seat to Peter Kibisu in the 1969 polls, Otiende described the loss thus: “Between independence and 1969, Kenya changed very fast. No longer were leaders considered for their experience and dedication to national ideals. A new culture had crept in where money became the yardstick for political capability.”

In an interview with the Sunday Standard on Mashujaa Day last year, Otiende drew a sharp contrast between this Parliament and the one he served in after independence saying they earned Sh30 as sitting allowance and that their role those days was to champion wananchi issues in Parliament.

“Today,” he lamented, “it’s a sorrowful situation, because leaders put their interests first. Parliament was not a place for corruption at the time.”

Otiende developed political consciousness right from formative days at Maseno School where he met Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. “Even though we were still young, Jaramogi and I discussed politics and had our sights focused on future leadership,” he recalled. 

Their nationalist tendencies would propel them through Alliance Secondary and into the independence Cabinet, Otiende as minister and Odinga as the first Vice-President of Kenya.

After Alliance, Otiende went to Makerere College with the sole aim of studying medicine. But his people asked him to pursue education so as to enable more children in the community “to acquire the white man’s education.” He gave in to their demands.

It was a decision he never regretted.


More information on JD Otiende

He wasthe son of Mzee Daniel Akel and Abigail Irangi and was born on September 21, 1917.

He was educated at Maseno School, Alliance High School and Makerere University

He was arrested in 1952 and locked up for agitating for independence.

He hosted Jomo Kenyatta for several days at his home in Kegoye, Vihiga county in 1961.

He was a member of the Kenya African Study Union (KAU) in the 1940s.

He later became a member of Kenya’s first independence Cabinet as minister for Education.

He was last in Parliament in 1969 when he lost the Vihiga Constituency seat to Peter Kibisu.