Philip Ochieng’s pen was sharp, lethal and true to readers
By Barrack Muluka | April 30th 2021
Tracing back the columnist’s journey in journalism where he took on former President Daniel Moi in a clash of ideologies and class debates.
I knew of Philip Ochieng when I was a young man in high school in the 1970s. He had become the focus of public conversations, having recently fled the country. He had kicked up a storm by publishing an opinion piece titled “Moi and Mao.”
It was the heyday of global Cold War debates. Ideological conversations raged in political and scholarly circles. Ideas were floated and debated, about the ideological path that Africa’s new nations should take, in the wake of independence from European powers.
Vice President Daniel arap Moi had rebuked left-leaning politicians and scholars in Kenya.
Journalist Philip Ochieng, who died on Tuesday, aged 83, took exception to the vice president’s broadside. He considered himself a member of that radical class. Chairman Mao Tse Tung of the Chinese Communist Party had come in for special beating by the vice president.
Ochieng believed that Moi belonged to the class that should not discuss Mao, leave alone ideas. Never mind that many years later his path and Moi’s would cross.
After a troubled stint in Kenya, hitting hard at the government in his editorials, Ochieng found himself in Uganda, working for the Sunday Weekly. The Ugandans were not very welcoming to him, however, and he soon fled to Tanzania.
In Tanzania he found kindred company in such scholars as Issa Shivji, Walter Rodney and other intellectuals. Julius Nyerere’s Dar es Salaam was the hub of African liberation and the nursery of African experimentation with free thinking. Free-thinking meant socialist leaning thought. Ochieng enjoyed good fellowship with people like Benjamin Mkapa, who was then the Editor-in-Chief of the state-owned Daily News.
Ochieng worked for Daily News for some time, before leaving Tanzania for Europe. His relocation was a factor of what has sometimes been ultra-nationalism among Tanzanians; often laced with a sense of xenophobia, especially against Kenyans. It will be recalled that Tanzania had by then closed the border with Kenya after the collapse of the East African Community the same year (1977).
President Nyerere was recurrently throwing broadsides at Kenya in his regular “Roosevelt fireside talks,” on Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam, christened “Mazungumzo Baada Ya Habari.” The antipathy spread to include everyone and everything Kenyan. Ochieng had to look for a safer haven elsewhere.
In those travels, he found himself doing a stint with the United Nations, before returning home, after things had thawed. He got a job with the Daily Nation as a sub-editor and later grew to be the chief sub-editor and eventually managing editor.
His colleagues remember him as a soft-spoken elegantly attired intellectual. They recall him as a gentleman in word and deed. His pen, was sharp and lethal. But it was also an honest pen. It, however, took a new turn during the period 1988-91, when he served as the managing editor of the Kanu-owned Kenya Times. The paper adopted a brazen editorial policy of apologising for an overbearing State.
Ochieng would later, in a write-up published on December 29, 2002, tell his side of the story, explaining the environment under which he operated and the political pressures of the day. The jury on who did what in those years is still out. In fairness to him, Ochieng did not falsify the facts.
He was rather an apologist who went to great lengths to intellectualise and justify the one-party State. He went all the way back to ancient antiquity to explain why the kind of democracy that Kenyans wanted could not work. To date, it is not clear whether it is working or not. The true story of our age will be told by a different generation.
Ochieng will be remembered as a stickler for precision of expression. His felicity of diction was second to none. His knowledge of the Indo-European etymological roots of the English idiom was exquisite. His grasp of history and world literature stood head and shoulder above the rest. This was especially so in his later years, after he found his way back to the Daily Nation.
He will be remembered as a great thinker and an elegant writer. His sumpsimus writing troubled some minds. For he insisted on using strictly the correct term, despite the existence of a more common term whose meaning approximated to what he intended to say.
His philosophy will outlive him in the thousands of columns that he wrote, as well as his books that include The Kenyatta Succession (co-authored with Joseph Karimi) and I Accuse the Press. His contribution to journalism in East Africa is forever indelible.
The writer is a strategic communications advisor.
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