At his law offices in Nairobi’s Lonhro House, Siaya senator James Orengo wears a studious mien that belies the tenacity of one of the most consumate debaters of our time.
This week, the 62-year-old senior counsel regaled us with talk about books that shaped him and why he believes Judas Iscariot, Jezebel and Marrie Antoinette — some of the most maligned figures of Christendom — were misunderstood.
Speaking in a halting, slow, deliberate manner of speech he maintains away from the floor of Parliament and the political rallies, one of the lights of Kenya’s Second Liberation opened up on why he skipped last month’s botched ODM nominations at Kasarani.
He also whispered to us how he got to be circumcised.
Who radicalised you?
Over time I have read a variety of classical writers — Plato, the histories of Cicero, Julius Caesar, Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad and Voltaire.
I think that was my introduction to the politics of reform and change. Others are literature around the French and the American Revolution; The novels of Charles Dickens and much later Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In high school, Shakespeare, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and García Márquez firmed my character in many ways.
Do you still find time to read?
I read a chapter or so when I find time in the morning or in between other tasks.
Sometimes when I get interesting titles, I lock myself in a room and read from cover to cover. I try to read a new book every week and visit a bookshop at least once a month.
What body of literature most fascinates you?
I read about women in history that I think were misunderstood.
Women like Marie Antoinette, who has been painted the dark princess of her time yet there is quite a lot that people don’t know about her. In the Bible, Jezebel is almost portrayed as a villain but people do not know that she came from a different community with a different set of beliefs.
And what is it that has not been understood about Marie Antoinette, she of the ‘let them eat cake’ infamy?
Marie was married at a time France was undergoing a tumultuous period. She was married to a king who was a half-wit and who had biological defaults.
This denied her the opportunity of having a happy marriage. There were also a lot of manipulations and political machinations from nobles and peers who wanted to take advantage of the situation.
These schemes were beyond the capacity of her husband, King Louis XVI. She was therefore trying to make the best out of the situation. In the process, she was seen as the evil power behind the throne. I really doubt that she was that inhuman and obdurate as to tell the rioting masses to eat cake because they couldn’t find bread. She must have been quoted out of context. (Antonia Fraser, the Anglo-Irish historian has insisted Antoinette never really uttered the words Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.)
Listening to you is a lesson in English pronunciation. From where did you pick your clear enunciation?
I studied English and literature and passed with distinction. I was taught to always get it right when reciting poetry.
I liked drama and theatre and in fact when I went to study in Madagascar, I produced a play. But my education was very ordinary. Except for the few years I spent in Nairobi and Nyeri, I did my class four to eight at Ambira Primary School in Ugenya.
Your school leaving certificate at Alliance predicted you would be a leader, but added the rider “… if he could be disciplined.” Why were you incapable of toeing the line?
Ian Campbell, my principal, meant that I could have achieved more if I showed myself in good light. I was not a mainstream student and that is why I never became a prefect. I was suspended from school for all sorts of reasons.
A lot of the time it was about the resistance to have my life over-regulated. I really gave prefects hard time. Sometimes I would not wake up, saying I was sick, but would not go to the hospital insisting a rest would do because I was suffering from mental exhaustion.
At what point did you develop interest in politics?
My first encounter with politics was in Madagascar where students initiated a strike that took a national dimension and led to the overthrow of President Philibert Tsiranna. So when I joined the University of Nairobi, I immediately plunged into student politics.
Your early years in Parliament were tumultuous.
Yes, I successfully contested the Ugenya by-election in 1980 and had a brief period in Parliament before the ‘seven bearded sisters’ — as we were then called — were haunted. I went to Uganda first and they advised me to flee to Dar es Salaam.
After that I went to Zimbabwe where I secured asylum for many Kenyans. But I was also torn between staying there and doing a Master’s degree. So when I returned to Dar es Salaam, our ideological home, I was arrested together with the likes of Ochuka — the group that had tried to overthrow the government in 1982 — and brought back to Kenya.
The move was occasioned by an attempted coup in Tanzania where soldiers there who had tried to overthrow Nyerere had fled to Kenya. We were exchanged with Tanzanian renegade soldiers at the border.
After that we spent time at Kamiti and Naivasha where we were tortured.
Have you forgiven Moi?
Moi belonged to another time, the age when one party state system was believed — erroneously — to be good for Africa. Moi was a populist dictator who tried unsuccessfully to be popular.
The closest I came to Moi as President was when I used the police in Kisumu to ring him that Jaramogi had died so he could provide an aircraft to bring his body to Nairobi, which he did. After he left office, I met him at the American Embassy during a celebration. I had then lost the elections and I went to him and said: “Your Excellency I fought you so hard that when you went home I also followed.” He laughed heartily and asked his private secretary to take my cellphone number. He never called.
Jaramogi once described you as his right hand man, how did you worm your way to his heart?
It is because I was working with him closely at a time many politicians were afraid.
Whenever he wanted something written down I would help. And he reciprocated. When I came out of detention, I had a bad bout of Malaria and he admitted me to hospital for two weeks. I also took the opportunity to get circumcised.
But you would thereafter part ways with Raila. What is the difference between father and son?
The crisis was about Ford-K elections after Jaramogi’s death. Michael Wamalwa was elected chairman while Raila and I contested the vice-chairmanship and thereafter Raila took over NDP.
The differences that came out were all about strategy and tactics. Even when we had problems with cooperation with Kanu, we all agreed there was need to devise mechanism of working with the government of the day.
I was right on the bigger picture that we needed an implosion to break the stranglehold of Kanu and Raila was right on the strategy.
But some say Orengo has never really supported Raila and that you only joined him to shore up your political fortunes.
Read his latest book, Flames of Freedom, and you will see who really among the local politicians does Raila consider a comrade.
Do you believe he should take another stab at the presidency?
Some people say he has one more bullet left, but to me he still has several. Raila is a conviction politician, not a career politician. He is driven by a mission that has to be accomplished.
For such, the bullet can never be one, and if the stock dwindles, he reloads. Just like Mandela walked away when the mission was accomplished, so will he. People like Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln lost several elections.
So why did you skip the ODM convention?
I was not very comfortable with the programme. My view was that the polls didn’t come at the right time and that if badly-managed, they would bring about factionalism.
What happened at Kasarani confirmed my fears. But one must also appreciate that compared to other parties, ODM has always been ready and willing to hold elections. It will emerge stronger from what it has experienced lately.
But one gets the impression of a wind of change sweeping across Luo Nyanza, where the ‘king’ can today be defied because besides you, other notable leaders from the region like Dalmas Otieno and Evans Kidero kept off.
Our detractors and the media are always looking for things that divide us. No one is talking about the Kisumu event that Raila, Kidero and I attended. There is no alternative movement within ODM. People have been talking about formation of an alternative party but I think it is just hot air.
ODM has in the last two elections cried foul, saying, State machinery was used to give opponents victory. What stops this from happening again?
Certain fundamentals must be in place to level the playground. For a free and fair election to take place, we must have a proper IEBC.
Can you trust such an institution with the ongoing procurement cases? Remember, also, that I was kicked out of the tallying centre last year.
How do you rate Jubilee’s performance?
It is a government supposedly made of young people, but the scandals you hear about are so devastating. There is a lot of despair and cynicism among the people. There is too much noise.
But is Cord any better? Can we expect you people to meaningfully check this government?
To be honest with you, with the tyranny of numbers it is difficult to check this government’s excesses.
What the Constitution sought to achieve through the doctrine of separation of powers was not only to remove the imperial presidency, but to also make the Executive answerable to Parliament. The House has now, in all but name, become a mere appendage of the Executive.
What ails this Parliament?
Under the old system, debates were more serious. I remember there is a time I addressed Parliament for two weeks continuously. If you became irrelevant or repeated yourself, people like Martin Shikuku were always ready to stop you.
Even the Speaker was firm on rules of debate. Right now, it is possible for a bill to go through the House without a proper debate. The National Assembly is too big and cannot work effectively.
Critics contend your performance at the Lands ministry did not match your superlative reform credentials. What went wrong?
The land system was rotten and with immense powers vested in the President and Commissioner of Lands, one couldn’t do much.
A story is told that when Wilson Gachanja was the commissioner, the minister would go to his office instead of the other way round. But I made remarkable changes.
I pushed a paper on land policy, which gave birth to the National Land Commission. I cancelled more than 2,000 irregular land titles including that of the KICC, which had been registered to Kanu.
The meagre allocation we got could not allow us to digitise records, but I should be judged on the basis of the transformation I brought. When I went to the ministry, the annual collection was Sh800 million and this shot to Sh9 billion by the time I left. I believe if well managed, Lands can generate up to Sh30 billion to the Exchequer.
What is this war between Lands secretary Charity Ngilu and the commission’s chairman Mohammad Swazuri?
My understanding of the law is that just like elections are managed by a commission, the same template was going to apply in the lands sector. The primary intention here was to remove land from the hands of politicians.
What is your view of retired President Mwai Kibaki?
When I met Kibaki in Parliament, he was a very good debater, one of the most eloquent of the time. As a manager of institutions, he also performed better than his predecessors.
But he did not have the determination of a crusader who wanted to change Kenya for the better. In his mind, the Jomo Kenyatta presidency was the template of how governments should be run.
He was very uncomfortable with change. In fact when Prof Yash Pal Ghai headed the commission on constitution review, Kibaki would sometime ask him: ‘What is wrong with the old constitution?’ Such was his world view. He did not take it seriously that Kenya belonged to everybody. He recreated the Kenyatta hegemony and left it intact. The present occupier of State House is running it in more or less the same way.
Have any of your children taken after you?
A part of my life has been difficult and traumatic. I would be taking my children to school and police officers force themselves into my car.
They would escort me to school and arrest me thereafter. But the incident that got me worried most was when I was arrested and beaten by the police and my daughter, who was then in Class Three, asked her teacher for a gun to kill the President.
So far they support me, but keep away from politics although one of them has been telling me that my time is up and that I should pave the way for him. This has been mostly in jest, though.
What are you reading now?
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and The Gospel According To Judas. The latter raises doubts as to whether Judas really betrayed Jesus and interrogates the concept of life after death.
And what are your own beliefs?
I am spiritual and religious, but I believe that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive.
The God I believe in through his son, Jesus Christ, is a more merciful God who cannot condemn his creation to eternal damnation. I don’t believe in hell fire. I believe in the end, God will reconcile with all of us.-nation.com