The burden of being an Odinga
KENYA: Out of the drama generated by perhaps the country’s most controversial party nominations, few events came close to the riveting gubernatorial contests involving Oburu Oginga in Siaya and Ruth Odinga in Kisumu counties.
It appeared everyone had an opinion about whether these siblings of Raila Odinga, the CORD presidential candidate, should get the tickets.
Not for the first time in Kenyan politics, the name Odinga was again dominating the political airwaves.
What followed, however, was new in every way. The sight of agitated voters chanting anti-Raila slogans amid claims of poll rigging in the Orange party primaries in Nyanza was a rare sight. So, too, was that of protestors threatening to decamp to rival Uhuru Kenyatta’s coalition.
Speaking at length about these events for the first time, members of the Odinga family have spoken about how stunned they were by the public reaction, especially in their home region of Nyanza.
“I am unable to comprehend our people’s rage,” said Ruth in an interview this weekend. “I chose not to “to ride on my brother’s fame by asking for a nomination slot. Instead I chose to fight it out on the ballot, giving residents of Kisumu chance to elect or reject me,” Ruth told The Standard On Sunday. Even more stunned was Oburu, the Finance Assistant minister, who was subjected to hostility by voters apprehensive that he would be favoured at the ballot because of his filial connection to party leader and presidential candidate of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy.
Indeed, some voters in the rural backyard of Raila did not even want to see the names of the PM’s kin on the ballot. It was annoying enough they had offered themselves for possible election.
Regarding the controversial Siaya polls, Oburu maintained he won against challenger, William Oduol: “But I must admit he is smart.
Knowing too well how polarised the ground was, he wrong footed me by declaring himself winner. That was poisonous enough and it did not what any other poll official was going to announce.”
Like the sister, Oburu is totally at a loss with regard to the hostility directed at him. Saying he has previously fought it out and been elected as MP, Oburu is irked by suggestions that he was riding on Raila’s back.
“Biologically I am Raila’s elder brother, and even in the understanding of African culture, it is not anything I would be willing do, including ruining my brother’s presidential campaign, as suggested by some,” he stressed.
To Oburu and Ruth, the violent protests rekindled sad memories of yesteryears when they suffered similar mistreatment and discrimination first at the hands of the British colonial government and later the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, believably for being the Odingas. Hounded by the colonial Government, pursued and jailed by the successive Kenyatta and Moi governments and now being targeted by their own, the changing fortunes of the Odingas have remained true to the original script.
Their father, Kenya’s first Vice- President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, enjoyed a fanatical in his home base. In spite of putting his life and career on the line through political agitation, including declining appointment as Prime Minister by colonial Government, his reward was persecution. His more politically active second born son, Raila, has over the years emerged to become a top presidential contender. He is not there, just yet, and his supporters maintain his victory was stolen in 2007.
Sent to jail
Although a lot has been told of Raila, including his struggle for political freedoms, that got him jailed for a decade, little is known about his siblings. Owing to his father’s political activities, the Odinga children each paid a price.
Oburu, for instance, scored straight “A” grades in national primary examinations of 1960, but was denied admission at the prestigious Alliance High School because, “like his father, he would poison the student body”
These sentiments were made by colonial schoolmaster Carry Francis, a former principal of Maseno School and mentor of Jaramogi. The youthful Jaramogi was a favourite of Francis as a student at Maseno, because of his academic brilliance.
However, Francis was disturbed by the student’s agitation for rights and advised him against joining politics, which he regarded as a wasteful dirty game. Jaramogi initially heeded the advice, proceeding to Alliance High School and later to Makerere University in Uganda graduating with a diploma in Education.
Curiously, he was posted to his former Maseno School where he reunited with Francis. But soon, Jaramogi found the political bug irresistible and opted out of the noble profession. His mentor was furious.
This signalled the beginning of the painful struggles of the Odinga children. Oburu was the first casualty after passing the Kenya Preliminary Examination, the equivalent of today’s Class Eight. But he failed to secure admission in his dream school, even as two former classmates whom he had outperformed were admitted to Alliance.
Reading politics in the exercise, Jaramogi, then a leading political agitator, stormed the school with his son and demanded to know the fate of Oburu. As fate would have it, Francis was the new principal here having been transferred from Maseno.
Mentor turned enemy conceded to having declined to admit the politician’s son for fear that he would poison the minds of other students. Worse still, Francis had communicated the same to British principals of leading schools, dissuading them against touching the Odinga son.
“I remember my father banging the table in Francis’s office and telling him that although he had a problem with him, the same anger should not be transferred to an innocent child. But the principal would hear none of it and my father stormed out of the office, vowing to teach the British a lesson,” recalls Oburu.
Oburu was compelled to join a local school in the neighbourhood, Maranda High School, which had just been established. Dejected, he soon abandoned school.
Jaramogi quickly organised an overseas solution. Oburu’s passport application was however rejected. On inquiry, then Governor, Sir Everlyn Baring, told Jaramogi the decision was made on security grounds.
A furious Jaramogi was so determined to ensure that Oburu got an education that he swore to Governor Baring that his son would travel out of the country no matter what.
Barring reportedly laughed sarcastically at the remark.
The two were set to attend the third phase of the famed constitutional and pre-independence Lancaster House talks in 1962 but Jaramogi set off the journey earlier than the rest of the Kenyan delegation, since he was attending a Panafrican Freedom Movement for Eastern and Southern Africa in Addis Ababa.
Jaramogi arrived at the airport late just when the plane was about to take off. Amid the excitement and confusion, Oburu was handed a Ghanaian passport and quickly boarded the Ethiopian Airlines flight as a member of his father’s entourage.
Oburu was to learn that the arrangement was courtesy of his father’s friend, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkurumah. But Oburu’s celebration was short lived. Two days later, colonial authority discovered he had escaped from Kenya. The Governor immediately put a call through to Ethiopian emperor Haile Sellasie, asking him to arrest the 18-year-old boy and deport him back to Kenya.
Oburu was arrested in an ugly episode that unfolded right before his father and other African leaders in Ethiopia. Jaramogi protested demanding to talk to the monarch who backed down and the Odingas proceeded to London.
Here, the young Odinga spent lonely moments in his father’s hotel room as business went on at Lancaster House. Oburu proceeded to Russia for secondary, undergraduate and postgraduate university studies.
Back home, the rest of the family enjoyed the sweet fruits of liberation, power and attention, following Jaramogi’s appointment as Kenya’s first VP. But the joy only lasted three years as Jaramogi differed with his boss, Kenyatta. By 1969, and only aged five years, Ruth, was already playing the role of aide cum messenger of his father, now a Kenya People’s Union (KPU) party leader.
“I remember carrying Mzee’s microphone to a rally in Ugunja as he popularised his new party. Even during the infamous Kisumu massacre during the opening of Russia Hospital by President Kenyatta, I was there with my father, and witnessed very terrifying scenes,” recalls Ruth.
The worst was to follow when his father was detained. Jaramogi’s bank accounts were frozen and his businesses shut. The Odingas were accordingly pushed out of school.
“I remember climbing a mango tree to pluck and sell the fruit in Milimani area to raise some money for fees. Later, when I excitedly announced my achievement to mum, she sadly remarked (the amount) was barely enough,” says Ruth. Oburu and Raila returned from overseas to find their father in detention: “We left him struggling and on return, he was in detention. Raila and I never enjoyed our father’s vice-presidency,” says Jaramogi’s eldest son. The Odinga sons could not secure employment as there were rumours they had undertaken military and communist studies in Russia. And despite being among the few holders of a PhD in the 1970s, Oburu was couldn’t get a good job in Government, largely because he was an Odinga. He ended up serving as councillor in Kisumu between 1974 and 1979.
Much later, former Finance minister, Francis Masakhalia, assisted him to secure employment as senior planning officer. Then Masakhalia was serving as Permanent Secretary in the ministry. The system was harsher on Oburu as compared to his younger brother Raila, because he was the elder son and intelligence agents believed he was the one being prepared to join his father in politics. Nobody gave Raila much thought because he was considered a harmless “technical person” having studied engineering and that is how he even got a job at University of Nairobi as lecturer and later as director at Kenya Bureau of Standards. Focus was more on the “dangerous” Oburu, the social scientist and economist.
A few years down the line, Raila would become the establishment’s biggest headache, leading to his arrest and dismissal from KBS. Family instability quickly spread to Raila’s homestead as his wife, Ida would also later be hounded out of her teaching job at Kenya High School.
Before Ida’s predicament, Ruth became instrumental in delivering his father’s political messages. It was a dangerous undertaking, which she carried out with the connivance of police officers guarding Jaramogi, who had been placed under house arrest. Another sister, Berryl, was equally preoccupied with assignments that were political in nature. In the heat of the moment, she had to abandon school and flee out of the country. Under instructions from Jaramogi, she left one morning as if to purchase something at a kiosk, but ended up in Zimbabwe with help from the father’s friends.
While in detention, Jaramogi’s business ventures and an effort to inject money into the business through a bank loan proved disastrous. Midway, through what the Odingas claim was politically sanctioned, the loan was recalled and the Odinga property attached, including the fleet of Lolwe buses, business premises, households and family cars.
Chained in all corners and denied of employment opportunities, the only avenue for the Odingas was to fight the system for political space. That is how the Odingas, more than most families, found politics to be their natural habitat.