The life and times of Prof John Joseph Okumu, who was never afraid of voicing his opinion on Kenya’s politics
Irrepressible. There is no better word to describe a man who lived his life with the same fervour and zest that he applied to politics, a subject he breathed, lived and taught.
Prof John Joseph Okumu, who died on July 10 after a three-year battle with prostate cancer, was stubborn and fearless to the end.
Once, in the early 1990s, he even told off goons from the Special Branch unit of the police who confronted him at Moi University for entertaining opposition politicians on his farm in Songhor, Nandi County.
“I am a hard-core oppositionist. I have always been and will not change even at the pain of death. You can go and say so to whoever sent you here,” he told them.
NYAYO HOUSE TORTURE
In those days, such utterances could easily earn one a stint at the dreaded Nyayo House torture cells in Nairobi. Those were the early years of agitation for multiparty politics and the Kanu regime had spies in universities.
Prof Okumu joined Moi University from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where he had lived and taught in exile over his political views that were at variance with those of the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi regimes. He had seen it all.
"You are babies and don't know what I went through in the sixties and seventies. You can't threaten me so many years later for no reason at all: I have a right to entertain whoever I like and choose in my home. Nobody selects friends and enemies for me,” he said.
Political science was the umbilical cord that connected Prof Okumu to the outside world. He enjoyed nothing better than analysing various regimes through history and isolating key characteristics that defined leader’s politics.
He was especially intrigued at the corrupting influence that absolute power wields over charismatic leaders.
It is hard for me to accept that he died before I could interview him for a biography I wanted to write on his life, but I can still reflect on our many interactions on the main campus of Moi University in Eldoret.
Like when I asked him if he could recollect a famous public lecture he once delivered that described Jomo Kenyatta as Kenya's last colonial governor.
He laughed. “What has changed except the skin colour in State House?”
He felt that despite achieving independence, gaining a national flag and ‘Africanising’ the political leadership, nothing had really changed because the new leadership maintained the colonial ideology on how to rule.
Prof Okumu was weary in his last years at Moi University. He was human, after all. This was a man who had fought intellectual battles in books and journals from the 1960s up to 1972, when he resigned from the University of Nairobi as dean of the Faculty of Arts and associate professor of government.
It was time to build institutions while his juniors like me fought the mind and political wars he had given up on.
He had wanted Moi University to grow and proceeded to establish the Centre for Refugee Studies and facilitated the training of members of staff overseas. Monica Juma, Kenya's current Cabinet secretary for Foreign Affairs, is a beneficiary by way of a doctorate at Oxford University.
Prof Okumu loved the finer things in life. Long before his death, he had resigned himself to a largely private life. Much of what I am recollecting here happened in his university house, where he had a rich collection of books and fine whisky. The many times I visited, he would joke about how I “spoilt” his evenings with my sodas or “sugared water” as he called them.
Prof Okumu lived a full life and shared it with others. He was acutely aware that my Seventh-day Adventist faith forbade alcohol. After all, he was married to my older cousin, Diana. I give him credit for converting her into a devout Catholic with all the consumables that go with the denomination. Not many Adventists can cross that line — and I am one of them.
Although Prof Okumu respected journalism, he felt sensationalism was affecting the profession, leading to “unreliable self-serving scoops.”
When a columnist once wrote derisively about Anyang’ Nyong’o, the current governor of Kisumu, as the “intellectual prop” of a political party, Prof Okumu remarked that Kenyan politics had a way of wasting, misusing and dumping great brains and that Prof Nyong’o was such a brain.
He had a keen eye for detail and once described Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, whom he taught at the University of Dar es Salaam, as a “reluctant undergraduate student” who rarely took notes in class but was very inquisitive.
Only once did we meet accidentally in an Eldoret pub. He was alone with a drink he was sipping very sparingly in deep thought. As always, I “spoilt" his evening with tea or what he called “coloured water”. He was mellow and asked me a few questions about romantic poetry, cited a few poetic lines from Wordsworth and got Ngugi wa Thiongo into our conversation.
“Your old teacher made the right choice by going to America so that he could think and write more creatively in a free environment,” he said of Ngugi, praising him as a bright thinker.
He gave me a lift in his car back to the main campus, and on the way he expressed his frustration at what he saw as my ignorance of history when I talked spiritedly about the virtues of devolution.
“We killed devolution under Jomo Kenyatta, but are now behaving as if we’ve invented something new. Ignorance and stupidity drives our politics, and I don’t think we shall change any time soon,” said Prof Okumu.
He was a true patriot to the end, and will be dearly missed.
Prof Amuka teaches literature at Moi University. E-mail [email protected]