Final salute to humble giant who treated everyone with high regard

President William Ruto pays his last respects to General Francis Ogolla at Ulinzi Sports Complex in Nairobi. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

It was his humility that stood out in the glowing tributes that flowed in as President William Ruto led the nation in mourning Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) General Francis Ogolla in an elaborate military ceremony yesterday.

The General was firm and decisive, all those who spoke at the memorial service at Ulinzi Sports Complex said in their eulogy. He was clear-minded and professional. He was organised. Gen Ogolla was brave. But it was his humility that drew in everyone he encountered in the four decades he devoted his life to keeping the nation secure.

Under a friendly Nairobi sky, they gathered to share their encounters with Kenya's 11th military chief and what he had meant to them. The respect that he commanded was evident in the faces of everyone gathered to say their goodbyes.

Aboard a military gun carriage, Gen Ogolla's body, lying in a coffin adorned in the colours of the nation he spent his life protecting, trailed a military band into the complex. And on a familiar course where he jogged 10 laps every Tuesday and Friday morning, Gen Ogolla would make a slow lap of honour.

The hundreds of Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) gathered at the stands would stand in salute to their general as the cortege passed by, headed to the altar decorated in the colours of KDF.

A military parade, one of his last, would line the red-carpeted aisle in respect for their commander as pallbearers, all Major Generals, wheeled Gen Ogolla to lay before his crestfallen family. And his military hat, shiny boots, ceremonial sword, orders and epaulettes that freighted his full-dress blue uniform would be placed atop his casket, now flanked by the Kenyan and KDF flags.

The service's programme dictated that all guests must be seated by 11 am, but the loyal soldiers he led were there much earlier and sat upright as though in formation. His illustrious career had brought them there. It had earned him the nation's admiration and the hero's send-off that he received.

In his honour, the national, KDF and East African flags flew at half-mast, with only the president's standard, which must never be lowered, flying at full mast.

The sombreness of the moment was palpable in the mournful faces his comrades wore. But a grieving family, still coming to terms with the death of their father, would offer comfort to the gathered mourners.

With a calming tone that almost concealed all the sadness he bore, Gen Ogolla's son, Joel Rabuku, shared the most endearing details of his father's life, a man who despite his accolades and titles, was drawn to life's simplicities. 

His father did not see his "ofisi kubwa" (big office) as a big deal, Rabuku would say, and neither did he believe that his medals and orders made him more important than the next person.

"He would treat a cleaner the same way he treated his children - with respect," said Ogolla's son.

Gen Ogolla's simplicity would be evident in the basic flag-draped casket that only cost Sh6,800, a casket inside which he will not be buried today as per his wishes.

The gathered soldiers, donning combat regalia in honour of their commander who died in service, would also find comfort in learning that he was indeed a gallant soldier, a gallant general, as the concept of death had never shaken him.

That owed a lot to his Christian faith and his belief in the promise of life after death. It was a message that the KDF's chaplaincy also shared, highlighting one of his favourite Bible verses -- John 11:25. The general had recently spoken about death, with his son revealing that he had a premonition of his own.

"In my military life, I have come to learn the reality of human mortality. I have appreciated that life is finite, humans are mortal and life is short. One morning you are with a healthy colleague, the next minute he is ashes and gone," Gen Ogolla had said in one of the clips played during the ceremony.

And Rabuku, who for the better part of his speech broke the gloom with happier stories, would urge his father's comrades not to despair and focus on their sacred duty of keeping the nation safe.

He did not seem to dig deep, always finding the right words to say. But there was some grief on his face, evident whenever he stared at his father's pictures and then gazed into the air. It was a look that his mother, Aileen Ogolla, and sister, Lorna Ogolla, wore whenever they broke from smiling.

President Ruto, a man who always sat next to the CDF during State functions, had no doubt his CDF meant the best for the country, delivering a heart-wrenching tribute to the fallen hero.

Describing him as a man who "represented the best of what Kenya has to offer", the commander-in-chief reflected on the difficult decision of making him CDF. Once again, he would recount the 2022 presidential election controversy that thrust Gen Ogolla into the limelight.

"We had a one-on-one, man-to-man, come-to Jesus meeting," Ruto said of a meeting about the late soldier's visit to the Bomas of Kenya among other State officials to allegedly alter the presidential election results. "He told me, 'Mr President, I have no defence. It was wrong."

The Head of State said that upon reflecting on his International Criminal Court experience and advice on the sensitivity of the position, he made the decision that Gen Ogolla "deserved to be CDF".

"I am proud to bear witness that General Francis Ogolla stood head and shoulders among the finest of these exemplary public servants. It has been an extraordinary privilege to work closely with him, to benefit from his wisdom, experience and insights, and to witness him in action, serving his nation with admirable commitment and providing excellent command leadership of the Kenya Defence Forces," said Ruto, who divulged that the CDF had plans to transform the KDF.

"My only regret is that he won't see his plans in action."

Earlier, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga had urged that the Bomas matter be put to rest, vouching for Gen Ogolla's professionalism.

"I knew this man very well. Gen Ogolla would never have contemplated or thought about going to Bomas of Kenya to force Mr (Wafula) Chebukati to alter the results of the general election. We want this (stigma) to be removed as we lay him to rest," said the former premier.

He also restated his call for thorough investigations into the helicopter crash that claimed Gen Ogolla's life and nine other soldiers to avert rumours surrounding the incident, and also urged for a relook into the military's equipment. Ruto would announce plans to modernise military equipment and make them safer.

In eulogising the career soldier, Raila termed him "one of the most heroic sons of our nation" and that he exemplified a true nationalist, with his principles reflecting in the children he had raised.

"From his own conduct, he showed that he loved the country," he added, commending Gen Ogolla's simplicity, evident in the kind of sendoff he wanted that he said was in line with African traditions.

Many more speakers would point this out. Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua recalled him as "humble, pleasant and amiable", but it was Gen Ogolla's soft side that struck Gachagua.

"I was a beneficiary of his kindness. One day in February, I was informed that the CDF was waiting outside my office. When you get such news you panic and so I ended my meeting to attend to him... he would tell me that he had come to wish me a happy birthday," said Gachagua, amid soft laughter. 

The DP would also share some humourous moments they had.

"He was full of very many jokes and in tense situations, he would make everyone feel comfortable. Many a time as we waited at the airport to welcome you into the country or to see you off... he would keep us entertained. On one such day when you (Ruto) left and we were in a hurry to leave, he told me, 'Mr Deputy President... when you are in a military facility and the Commander-in-Chief is away, I am the senior-most military officer and all of you take orders from me and you only leave when I tell you so," Gachagua added.

Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi, too, had kind words.

"The general who has fallen was the symbol of humility," Mudavadi underscored Gen Ogolla's most observable trait.

Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale, who worked closely with the military man, credited him for his "exceptional leadership and steadfast devotion to duty".

"As we mourn his passing on, we also celebrate his legacy - a legacy attached in the annals of history... His passing has left a void in our hearts and a profound sense of loss in our nation," said Duale.

Indeed, the void was equally felt in the KDF, where Gen Ogolla has served for four decades. But KDF's Vice-CDF Lt Gen Charles Kahariri would assure that their former boss' leadership had ensured that the forces would remain steadfast.

"The Kenya Defence Forces remains strong despite the loss. We are continuing with our duties of securing the country just like the General would have wanted us to," said Lt Gen Kahariri, who also described his former boss as firm and fair.

Assistant CDF David Keter had eulogised Gen Ogolla as a mentor as he read the resting patriot's biography. Indeed, Gen Ogolla had been a mentor to many. In the Kenya Air Force where he had served, he trained young fighter pilots into the finest the region has to offer.

And on his final journey, Air Force officers would honour the man whose love for speed lives even in death with a missing-man formation fly-past, in which one fighter jet breaks away from the formation into the sunset, into the far beyond.

Before that, a 19-gun salute had rang out in respect of the soft-spoken soldier set to be laid to rest in his Siaya home today.