Remembering Jaramogi: Inside life and times of the doyen of opposition politics

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga addresses a rally in 1964. [File, Standard]

Thirty years ago on January 20 gloom engulfed the country following the fall of one of the country’s opposition doyens - Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

In Nyanza, where his Oteku “absolute power” swept through with the potency of venom, the weather was dreary; some even said it signaled the fall of a hero.

And as the rotor blades of a Kenyan Airforce plane flying to Kisumu International Airport shook the ground as it landed to pick up Jaramogi’s body from a heavily guarded ambulance, it was clear that a dark moment in history had occurred.

News of his death shocked both friend and foe.

As the country prepares to mark Jaramogi’s 30th anniversary tomorrow, his legacy and influence continue to breathe life into the country’s political architecture.

He is one of the country’s famous sons whose name is etched in the country’s history books as a pillar whose influence in attaining the country’s self-rule, the creation of opposition, and the fight for multiparty, is significant.

A number of his allies and aides say the legacy that Jaramogi built continues to impact the country positively and is a force to reckon with even posthumously.

According to historians, Jaramogi’s contribution to the quest to attain independence was immense and was the force that helped the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, to ascend to power.

Authors David Throup and Charles Hornsby document that Jaramogi even declined to take over the country’s leadership until Kenyatta was released from prison during the build-up of the 1963 independence.

Jaramogi prioritised Kenyatta’s release and maintained that they would go to independence with Kenyatta at the forefront to take the country's leadership mantle.

On Thursday, Jaramogi's inner circle recounted how the news of his death broke their hearts and left a gaping hole in the country, as they waded into his contribution to the country's progress.

Siaya Governor James Orengo, a confidant and former lawyer of the doyen, claimed he was by Jaramogi's side the day he died and watched him breathe his last.

He recounted how a meeting they had planned with the late first vice-president collapsed hours before he was rushed to hospital.

“We had scheduled a meeting the day he died. I went to take a flight to Kisumu to make it for a meeting with him. I got information that he had been whisked to hospital on arrival,” said Orengo.

According to Orengo, Jaramogi could not even recognise him when he went to see him at the hospital.

“The importance of that moment for me was that I was there for the man I believed in and a man I had worked for,” said Orengo.

Orengo says Jaramogi left a strong legacy that will continue to impact the country positively for years to come.

On the national front, he was one of the first people to advocate for the multiparty system when he fell out with Kenyatta to form Kenya's People's Union (KPU).

This is after the cordial relationship Jaramogi had enjoyed with Kenyatta ended on April 14, 1966 when he resigned from his position as the vice president after enduring a wave of frustrations from the government.

Although his resignation attracted ridicule from the same government, Jaramogi set a precedence that would later threaten Kenyatta’s administration and almost brought it down.

And so when former Attorney General Charles Njonjo announced that the life of the government would expire on June 7, 1968 a revolt emerged from some MPs.

The revolt led to the resignation of 27 MPs from Kanu in solidarity with Jaramogi. The move was a major development in Jaramogi’s political life and his quest for domination.

The group of leaders quickly moved to form an opposition party and elected Jaramogi as their leader. He was deputised by freedom fighter Bildad Kaggia.

With the developments, Jaramogi’s base in opposition was formed. The move inked his role in opposition.

In a bid to attract national attention with the new outfit, Jaramogi appointed John Kamau as one of the officials. The move excited his Nyanza backyard and thousands of Luo joined the outfit.

The game-changing move for Jaramogi saw several Kanu stalwarts in Nyanza resign to join KPU and weakened Kanu in Nyanza. Among the notable names that resigned include Achieng Oneko who quit his position as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting to join Jaramogi’s KPU.

In an interview with his former personal assistant and now the current Luo Council of Elders Chairman Odungi Randa, Jaramogi contributed immensely to enhancing democracy in the country.

"His influence was great. He promoted education and rights of Kenyans," said Randa.

According to Randa, even in detention, the visions of Jaramogi jolted other Kenyans to push for political freedom in the country.

Kisumu Governor Anyang Nyong'o, one of Jaramogi's political students, claimed the former vice president wielded power even when he was at his lowest moments and in detention.

“I met Jaramogi through my late father and I started knowing him in the world of politics. We invited Jaramogi to Makerere for a week when I was president of the students guild," said Nyong'o.

During the fight for the second liberation, Nyong'o said he was one of the people who wrote Jaramogi's speeches.

"We became very active in supporting Jaramogi against the authoritarian regimes. We were all involved as the young turks and I became the executive director of Ford and Ford Kenya," said Nyong'o.

In Nyanza, Jaramogi built a political castle of unity that has thrived for several decades.

The journey started in 1946 when Jaramogi and two friends Fanuel Walter Odede and Richard Arina formed the Luo Union and registered it as a welfare organisation. 

With the outfit, its founders had a dream of uniting all Luos in East Africa and presented it as an outfit that would be non-political.

In 1953, he rose through the ranks and was elected the union’s first president after serving briefly as treasurer.

Jaramogi used his mobilisation skills to rally more people to join the outfit and by 1955, a powerful outfit boasting 3,557 registered members had been born. Its influence had even expanded to neighbouring countries.

The union had become the sole voice of the community and people embraced it with open arms.

Jaramogi’s secret entailed organising meetings and cultural celebrations to discuss the matters surrounding the community. With the outfit, Jaramogi was able to directly influence the Luo.

The Luo Union came up with by-laws that guided how the region operated. The by-laws included bans on women operating as prostitutes as well as marrying some foreigners.

Buoyed by a series of cultural events, sports, and educational meetings conducted regularly by the outfit, it became a central force in regard to the affairs of the Luo nation.

Jaramogi relentlessly used the new platforms to address key issues affecting the community. Many started viewing him as the supreme leader. The union had an economic wing called Lutatco that pushed for economic transformation.

According to Orengo, Jaramogi united the region and started several legacy projects that have left a mark in Nyanza.

Tomorrow, the anniversary will take place both in Kisumu and Nairobi counties.

In Kisumu, the celebrations will be held at St Stephen's Cathedral and later at Ofafa Memorial Hall where there will be panel discussions on the life of Jaramogi and how his firebrand politics changed Kenya's political history.