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One Sunday morning in 1946 or perhaps 1947, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, with his wife, took their young sons to be baptised at a Church in Maseno. As Jaramogi made his way there from Bondo, he was determined to commit an act of rebellion. He was dead set on not giving his sons ‘muzungu’ names like ‘Obadiah Adonijah’, the name he himself was given upon baptism. As he probably expected, the morning ended in drama, and his boys were not baptised. 

In his book ‘Not Yet Uhuru’, Oginga tells us that his wife, Mary Juma, fled the scene embarrassed, and left her ‘obnoxious’ husband arguing publicly at the altar with a revered man of God. In the end, the Odinga family was kicked out of the ‘Colonised House of Worship.’

If Oginga had been a man of less conviction, we would probably now know our former Prime Minister as Habakkuk Zebedee Amolo Odinga, or something as enchanted as that. Who knows? The baptism spectacle at the Maseno church is just one of many demonstrations of Jaramogi’s conviction. Another, is Oginga declining the offer from the British coloniser, to be first Prime Minister of independent Kenya. He instead demanded for the release of Jomo Kenyatta.

Across the continent, many leaders of the post-independence era were driven by belief. Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, even Mobutu Sese Seko and Robert Mugabe. It does not matter that some were eventually overtaken by excesses and engaged in actions that contradicted their ideals. Jaramogi, for instance, as a founder of the Luo Thrift and Trading Company, a regional formation, was regarded by some as a capitalist dressed in socialist clothing.

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But at least the ‘Ideological DNA’ was there. These early African leaders had beliefs and intentions that would inspire, and be further built upon by subsequent generations of African thinkers, and ‘philosophy kings and queens.’ If politics were a religion, political partieswould be the denominations. The sects would represent the strain of politics that the followers believe in. And because they would be based on ideology, even the name of the denomination would be representative of what the adherents subscribe to. 

What is Jubilee Party? What are we jubilating? What are we conceptually jubilant about? Where is the Republicanism in the United Republican Party? The National Alliance Party sounds vague, and as ideologically indefinite as mashed potatoes. These and other party manifestos are premised on the construction of roads and dams. Any suggestions of ideals are merely unstructured proposals. 

Interestingly, about two months ago, The Communist Party of Kenya was registered, complete with a Leninist manifesto. This to me, is a welcome addition to the Kenyan party-scape. It infers that at least there is one group of politicians with a conceptual framework, out of many that believe in nothing. Not even themselves. 

This is a sharp contrast to the Jaramogi years, when African nationalism caused global ripples. When African Scientific Socialism for instance, was studied, thought over and debated. Not just by university departments, but by sitting presidents like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Back then, political parties shaped conversation, shaped policy, and even shaped international discourse and outcomes. It was conviction that precipitated the Cold War. Just a few years before Jaramogi was born, Vladimir Lenin made a global interpretation of Karl Marx’s communist logic, and the ideology was exported worldwide. Ideas drove politics. Those days, leadership of a country was for the visionary. Leaders were like pastors- they delivered sermons not speeches. They spoke to the hearts not minds. People were moved not convinced.

Will subsequent Kenyan and African generations only read about those days, or one day experience them?

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- The writer is a PhD candidate in political economy at SMC University. [email protected]

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Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Patrice Lumumba Nelson Mandela
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