No similarity between Ruto and Oginga in fight with their bosses

Saturday June 27 2020

Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta (left) and first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Photos/FILE


Jubilee’s replacement of Aden Duale as the National Assembly Majority Leader with Amos Kimunya has been characterised by some as a continuation of “the purge” of those perceived as aligned with Deputy President William Ruto.

In this connection, for some time now, various commentators have wondered whether, and if so, at what specific point the DP might “follow Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s example” and resign “on principle”.

They refer to the latter’s departure as Vice President in 1966 following his humiliation at Kanu’s June 1966 Limuru Conference when he was removed as the party’s national vice-president, with eight regional vice-presidents installed, thereby replacing this single office within the ruling party, which significantly undermined his position in government.

In this regard, talk has been rife of the DP and his allies preparing an alternative political vehicle for the 2022 election, which the recent establishment of a Jubilee Asili ‘meeting-place’ was seen by some as portending.

Yet, whatever the DP’s ultimate decision, a look back into history reveals a major contrast between his situation and that which confronted Jaramogi. In particular, however important the identity of whoever resides in State House, based in part on Kenya’s identification as a regional ‘anchor state’, there appears to have been far more at stake in 1966 in terms of the country’s development path than is the case today.

A quick re-read of Jaramogi’s 1967 book, Not Yet Uhuru, reveals that the foundation of Jaramogi’s unhappiness was his disagreement over a number of key government policies. Most profoundly, it captures how the transfer of sovereignty from the colonial power in 1963 at least appeared to provide the opportunity to choose between very distinct development models, especially in terms of: (1) the relationship between central government institutions in Nairobi and those of the provinces, (2) the role of the state in the economy more generally, and (3) the balance of development support to the country’s more fertile, agriculturally productive, regions as opposed to more marginal (and more sparsely populated) areas.


For Jaramogi, in this context, there were two key issues. One was Kenya’s external relations, as he became increasingly alarmed over the government’s slackening commitment to the pan-African policy of ‘non-alignment’ as it moved closer to the West in general and the former colonial power (the UK) in particular.

The other was the escalating accumulation of material privilege by the new political-bureaucratic elite. As Jaramogi wrote: “Not only are many European settlers still sitting on big farms, but we are getting a new class of Blundells, Delameres, and Briggs, deliberately created”, while noting that recent increases in the salaries of elected officials meant that, “In six months an MP earns more than the average peasant earns in half a lifetime.”

Given all the policy-choice distance that has been covered since those heady days, Kenya has indeed come a long way.

By contrast, at present, the (so far, at least) expressed unhappiness of the DP’s backers has been limited largely to anti-corruption efforts deemed ‘politically targeted’, and proposals to reshape the Executive through the BBI (which the DP himself addressed at Chatham House in London early last year). In both of these cases, however, most have interpreted such unhappiness as unease over their potential impact on the DP’s 2022 presidential aspirations.

Yet other – very substantive – policy issues currently abound. These include: the relationship of the counties to the national government; the power-relations between the three branches of the national government; the level of public debt and the manner by which it is financed, the balance between the ‘cheap’ importation of staple foods (e.g., maize, sugar, etc.) and the protection/resurrection of domestic production; the country’s priorities in terms of its most important ‘development partners’; the tension between environmental protection and the ‘land-hunger’ of an increasing ‘landless’ population; Kenya’s regional relations including participation in Somalia as part of AMISOM and the future of East African co-operation including even federation.

Given the above, it should be clear that the contrast with Jaramogi’s far more policy-based disaffection is not simply a matter of personalities. Kenya, and the world, have undergone vast changes since the tumultuous events of the mid-1960s that led to his ‘noisy and messy’ exit from Kanu. Globally, most central has been the end of the global ‘Cold War’ between the communist ‘East’ and the capitalist ‘West’, and the general disappearance of ‘socialism’ as an alternative development model; indeed, even Chinese (single-party) communism now has a heavy capitalist (or at least market-driven) flavour.

As such, the far narrower ideological and development options confronting today’s political leaders – of whatever faction or political party – should not be attributed simply to a lack of imagination, or ‘principles’. In other words, it is unfair to blame cooks for preparing only vegetarian dishes if there’s no meat in the kitchen to begin with.

Does this perspective make the current unfolding drama about the DP’s future any less riveting? Not at all. But closer attention to the historical circumstances that Jaramogi – and Kenya – actually faced in the 1960s should discourage misleading comparisons, while adding realistic depth to our understanding of the history being made now.

Dr Wolf is an independent research analyst based in Nairobi