General Francis Ogolla's death: Unanswered questions

President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto lay a wreath on the grave of the late General Francis Ogolla at Ngi'ya village, Siaya County. [PCS]

Generals know wars and rise through the ranks by surviving battles and hardships. “The object of war,” US General George Patton reportedly asserted, “is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”

Surviving hardships in war or peace while colleagues (known as ‘intakes’) are weeded out, is thus a criterion for becoming a general. The weeding out may be due to death or incapacitation in battle, failure to measure up to military expectations, or political mischief at the top.

Political mischief interfering with rank progression is corruption and negatively affects national interests. Corruption under-develops and makes a country insecure because policymakers abhor competence and lack the capacity to think big, strategically, and futuristically.

Among the far-sighted Kenyan generals was Daudi Tonje who, as Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) between 1996 and 2000 revolutionised military policies and practice. Tonje, the ‘Grand Strategist’ trying to project roughly 50 years into the future, changed military attitude by stressing training in critical thinking for policymakers and created the National Defence College (NDC) for that purpose.

Since he did not want officers to stagnate in one rank simply because their seniors held critical offices and refused to retire, he introduced officer retirement policies, especially for CDF and service commanders. He also made the position of CDF rotational among the three services of Army, Navy, and Air Force. Not willing to break his own rules, he opened the way for his juniors, irrespective of the service, to rise to the top.

All the subsequent CDF officeholders were associated with NDC as commandant or participant. Francis Ogolla was the latest beneficiary of Tonje’s far-sightedness, thereby joining an exclusive club of four-star generals comprising Raymond Kibwana, Jeremiah Kianga, Julius Karangi, Samson Mwathethe, and Robert Kibochi.

Ordinarily, generals become Douglas MacArthur’s ‘old soldiers’ who never die in battle but ‘fade away’ into eternal oblivion. If they have to die, many would rather do it in battle. Ogolla was unfortunately denied the opportunity to become an ‘old soldier’ and ‘fade away’ or even die in ‘battle’. He died, along with other officers, using an overaged or ‘retired’ US military helicopter in West Pokot.

Subsequently, many questions arose over decision-making and operations in the government.

These included, first, why the government buys overused military helicopters probably at exorbitant prices. Was the maintenance crew competent?

Second, is the CDF so idle that he goes inspecting the construction of primary and secondary classrooms instead of concentrating on security policies? It is one thing for the CDF to visit and inspect a military operation zone, it is another matter to say that he went to inspect classrooms.

Third, did the Western Command commander know that his boss was visiting his area and if not, why not?

Fourth, did Ogolla’s previous involvement at Bomas in August 2022 or utterances by well-placed politicians have anything to do with the accident? Was there some tampering with the helicopter or procedure?

Political rumblings around Ogolla’s death damaged the general’s image and reflected widespread uneasiness because senior security officers like Internal Security Minister George Saitoti and his deputy, Orwa Ojode alias ‘Serkal’, had previously died in similar helicopter accidents.

Although Ogolla received good military honours, the funeral arrangement was shambolic. Organisers virtually ignored Mzee Joel Okech, Ogolla’s 100-year-old father, while finding space for the ‘First Daughter’ Charlene, to ignore and publicly defy her father President William Ruto in order to speak for the Kenyan youth.

In ignoring her baffled father’s wishes, she probably had encouragement from Joel Ogolla, the general’s son, who also raised eyebrows. When Joel appeared enthusiastic to exonerate the government from possible liability, Oburu Odinga advised him to let investigations unearth the truth.

General Ogolla did not fade away or die in battle; he mysteriously died in an old helicopter, not the way ‘old soldiers’ should go to eternal oblivion.

-Prof Macharia is a historian