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Don who saved South Africa from political mayhem, lone in life and death

By Isaiah Gwengi | Published Sun, November 13th 2016 at 00:00, Updated November 12th 2016 at 22:55 GMT +3
Prof Jalango Okumu with former South African President, Nelson Mandela. He is the man who brokered a peace deal between Nelson Mandela and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi in 1994 when the nation was on the brink of political mayhem. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

Professor Washington Okumu lived his life with so much caution, it was like he was shielding himself from an unseen enemy. Perhaps death. The don always kept his gates and doors closed and it was rare to see him in social gatherings at night. But death finally caught up with him.

The good professor died a few weeks ago at his home in Bondo. Prof Okumu was not just another don.

He is the man who brokered a peace deal between Nelson Mandela and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi in 1994 when the nation was on the brink of political mayhem.

With a deal in place, he paved the way for South Africa independence elections that brought the African National Congress to power. Before he came into the scene, all efforts by world leaders to reconcile the two South African leaders had failed and civil war was looming.

But he saved the day earning himself a special place in the global diplomacy circles.

Seasoned negotiator

“It was an act of God... I told Buthelezi to think of the bigger picture and how history would treat him harshly if South Africa imploded into a slaughterhouse because of his intransigence. It was the year of Rwanda genocide that I told him would look like a picnic in comparison to a failed South Africa...,” Okumu told The Standard in an August interview in 2014.

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After making that mark in history, the Harvard educated economist slowly faded into oblivion.

He chose a peaceful and quiet life at his rural home in Nyan’goma village, popularly known as ‘Dala Kwe’ (Home of peace). His wife Rispa Achieng’’s death in 2011, further drove him to a life of solitude.

Sources say he was almost paranoid with fear especially after the 2007/08 elections and dreaded leaving the house.

“During the 2007 post-election violence, some of his property including vehicles were destroyed in Nairobi. This made him develop some fear. A leaf dropping on the roof would send shivers down his spine,” Francis Okumu, the professor’s younger brother told The Standard on Sunday.

Josephine Atieno, the late scholar’s personal nurse for six years says in his last days, he sought company of Anglican Church of Kenya choir who would come to sing at his home in the evenings.

“Baba Amondi would stay long after dinner telling us stories and educating us. He feared being lonely,” Atieno says adding that he loved to have his dinner at exactly 6pm.

Always alert

Atieno says Okumu was always alert. If you called him once, even if he was in deep sleep, he would respond, she says.

 “Mzee was strict on time and an avid reader. He sent for newspapers every morning. If you wanted to annoy him, just fail to bring him a newspaper,” Atieno says.

His love for books saw him read and write articles on leadership, Africa, economics and politics.

Any news on corruption would anger Okumu, a father of eight children all living outside the country.

“Most of the times, he would tell us that if he had a chance, he would have chosen not to be born in Kenya. He hated corruption and dishonesty,” reveals Atieno.

William Okello, Okumu’s uncle remembers him as an honest and polished man who was born a leader.

“He was not only my nephew but a personal friend. His grandfather and great grandfather (Jairo Okello and Anam Ulwa) were paramount chiefs and I can proudly say he inherited the leadership skills from the two old men,” says Okello.

Okumu was a personal friend to the late Jaramogi Oginga and even vied for the Bondo parliamentary seat in a by-election after the demise of Jaramogi in 1994 on a Ford-Kenya ticket, but lost.

“Their friendship with Mzee Jaramogi started long time ago and he even hosted Raila Odinga in his house in London. Jaramogi at one time told his son Raila to work closely with Okumu but this did not happen,” Okumu’s sister-in-law, Jane Ataro, 81, discloses.

Jaramogi’s friend

During the burial of Jaramogi, Okumu was not given a chance to speak and this angered him.

This Ataro says, may have created animosity between him and the Odinga family.

It appears this unsung hero was sidelined in life and even in death, it appears so. When The Standard on Sunday visited the home as burial preparations go on, no key political figures from the county had visited the home or offered support towards the burial arrangements.

“We have not seen the local leaders here despite Okumu being a senior person not only in the society but beyond,” says a close relative.

Okumu attended Ng’iya Primary School before proceeding to Maseno School. He was the second born in a family of five.

According to the family, the late Professor of Economics will be buried at his home in Nyan’goma on November 19. The ceremony will be presided over by Anglican Church of Kenya, Bondo Diocese Archbishop Johannes Angela.


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