One Saturday exactly 40 years ago stands out as a pivotal moment in Kenya’s political history.
On October 25, 1969, President Jomo Kenyatta travelled to Kisumu to officially open the “Russian Hospital” (New Nyanza General Hospital), a pet project of his fierce rival, opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
The President and Kenya People’s Union leader exchanged harsh words, a scuffle broke out and as the hostile crowd advanced on the dais, presidential security personnel fired into the crowd, leaving more than 10 people dead as the visitors’ motorcade sped away.
Three days later, the KPU was banned and Kenya became a de facto one-party state.
Today, 40 years later, Mr Collins Odinge Odera wishes Jaramogi had heeded his counsel.
Mr Odera, who was Jaramogi’s adviser and speech writer had, on the morning of October 23, advised the politician against attending the meeting.
Earlier that morning, the young Odera was informed by his KPU friends in the Special Branch that “there will be problems in Kisumu” if Jaramogi turned up at the ceremony to open the hospital by founding President Kenyatta.
“I was advised that we should be very careful and if possible, Jaramogi should not go to Kisumu,” recalls Odera.
“I met Jaramogi at his Nairobi office and told him there would be trouble if he travelled to Kisumu,” says the 76-year-old beneficiary of the 1959 Student Airlift.
But Jaramogi, who was the MP for Bondo, would hear none of it and insisted on going to Kisumu.
In a conversation with Saturday Nation, Mr Odera projected Jaramogi as stubborn and brave; a man determined to use the event to make a political point though the results turned out disastrous.
“Jaramogi said ‘if the President is going, I must also go because he is coming to our area,’” recalled the former editor of the defunct East African Journal.
Besides, observed Mr Odera, Jaramogi felt a strong attachment to the hospital since it was built by his Soviet Union friends. It is said that Mr Kenyatta was not particularly enthusiastic about the project because of this Eastern link.
Because of the warning, Mr Odera decided not to accompany his boss to Kisumu. “I remained in Nairobi and monitored events from there,” said the elderly man who studied Government and Journalism at the University of South Dakota in the United States.
Mr Odera has captured his relationship with the doyen of opposition politics in a book, My Journey with Jaramogi, Memoirs of a Close Confidant, expected to roll off the press by the end of this month.
He privately holds the view that the Kisumu killings were stage-managed and believes that the youths who heckled Mr Kenyatta during the October 25 meeting, thus provoking the shooting by the presidential guard were “planted” in the crowd by the State.
“They were not KPU supporters ... they were strangers,” claims Mr Odera.
“Jaramogi had advised KPU supporters against shouting party slogans,” he added.
President Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu came barely three months after the death of two great Luo nationalists — Tom Mboya, who was assassinated in Nairobi and Argwings Kodhek, who died in a road accident.
Further, Jaramogi Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president, had been kicked out of Kanu and had founded KPU.
His sacking and the Mboya assassination poisoned the political environment and created animosity between the Luo and President Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community.
“The Mboya assassination was a turning point,” say Mr Odera. “The tension that gripped the country at that time started with Mboya’s killing.”
The feeling among the Luo was that the Kikuyu were determined to block them from ascending to the presidency (discourse in the Luo nation over the disputed 2007 presidential election took a similar tone).
In 1969, the Luo were saying that the Kikuyu power elite around Mr Kenyatta had not only kicked Jaramogi out of government and the ruling party but also killed Mr Mboya, the charismatic planning minister who was Jaramogi’s nemesis. (Mboya was killed a few months prior to Mzee’s Kisumu visit).
These events united the Luo behind Jaramogi, who they perceived as the champion of their cause.
And to counter the growing anti-Kikuyu sentiment, Mr Odera says President Kenyatta organised “massive oathing ceremonies to bide the ‘house of Mumbi’ together.”
President Kenyatta also received various loyalty delegations of Kanu members from across the country at his Gatundu home.
Mr Odera remembers what he calls lorry-loads of people trooping to Gatundu in vehicles labelled “Kanu Private”.
All and sundry
The Kikuyu were being pushed to take a cue from the Luo and rally their forces behind President Kenyatta.
It is because of this push that even Jaramogi Odinga’s deputy in KPU, freedom fighter Bildad Kaggia, was pressured to renounce the opposition party and rejoin Kanu.
And because there was an election in the offing, President Kenyatta decided to tour the country to popularise Kanu.
He was particularly keen to tour Kisumu to demonstrate to all and sundry that he was in charge despite the anti-Kanu sentiments in the region.
It is against this background that Mzee would tour Kisumu on Saturday, October 25, to open the Russian-built hospital.
On arrival in Kisumu, Mzee was greeted with jeers and chants of “Dume, Dume”, the KPU slogans. Placards asking, “Where is Tom (Mboya)?” were also brandished.
The jeers infuriated President Kenyatta who threatened Jaramogi with detention, describing him as a “good-for-nothing noise maker”.
Mzee Kenyatta declared that “enemies of Uhuru” would be “crushed like locusts”.
As Kenyatta’s motorcade was leaving the hospital grounds the crowd, incensed by the insults, surged closer displaying what the police later described as a “threatening attitude towards the President.”
Police said the situation deteriorated as the crowds pressed forward on the road.
At this stage, security personnel in the lead car of the presidential escort opened fire on the crowd, killing people, as President Kenyatta left Kisumu.
Two days later, Jaramogi Odinga and other KPU leaders were arrested in a dawn swoop and detained.
He was put under house arrest in Kisumu before being ferried to Manyani.
Other detainees included his deputy, Iveti South MP J.M. Nthula, KPU publicity secretary Achieng Oneko and MPs Luke Obok (Alego), Tom Okello-Odongo (Kisumu Rural), Okuto Bala (Nyando), Odero Sar (Ugenya), Wasonga Sijeyo (Gem) and Ondiek Chilo (Nyakach).
Mr Odera was picked up in Nairobi where he was “monitoring events.”
The government described Jaramogi and his allies as “subversive elements” and accused them of working with foreigners “to destroy the peace in the country.”
And after October 30, KPU was banned and Kenya became a de facto one-party state.
But Mr Odera says President Kenyatta was determined to ban KPU regardless of what transpired in Kisumu. “He was only waiting for the slightest provocation and that is what he got in Kisumu,” Mr Odero said.