Life and times of varsity don who was not afraid to take part in academic fight

Wednesday March 18 2020

The passing on of Prof John Joseph Okumu on July 10, aged 84, calls for comments on his administrative and intellectual contributions and legacy. Okumu possessed vast academic experience in Kenya, Uganda and the United States.

Long career

He attended Rangala Primary School near his home in Ugenya, Siaya County, and later St Mary’s Secondary School, Yala (1955-56) and St Mary College, Kisubi, in Kampala, Uganda (1956-57). He then joined the Royal College in Nairobi (1958-1960) before proceeding to the US for university education, first at Grinnell College, Iowa (1960-1962), where he attained his BA degree in Economics and Political Science and then to the University of California (1962-1965) for his MA and PhD degrees, respectively. Hailing from rural Buholo in Ugenya, his education in Kenya’s and Uganda’s capital cities and then in the US made him cosmopolitan and urbane. But he still cherished the indigenous ways of the Luo.

After his education overseas, Okumu commenced his teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam (1966-1967); the University of Nairobi as lecturer and senior lecturer (1967 -1972); the University of Dar-es-Salaam as associate professor (1973-1976); the University of Khartoum in Sudan as a professor of political science (1976-1978); the Eastern and Southern African Management Institute (ESAMI) in Arusha, Tanzania (1978 -1987) as director; and then Moi University as head of department, dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences and director of the Centre for Refugee Studies, now Centre of Peace and Reconciliation (1990-2012). Shortly after his formal retirement, he was contracted as campus director to establish Rongo University. He finally served as the chair of council, Maasai Mara University.

His stints at these universities helped him gain teaching and administrative experience, which he put to productive use. He developed many competitive programmes, supervised many students, many of whom he assisted to secure scholarships abroad.

During his long career, Okumu had time to do a lot of writing and publishing. He penned many articles in the then popular East African Journal, which analysed political events in Kenya, including, “The By-election in Gem: An Assessment” (June 1969). In 1970 he collaborated with Goran Hyden and Robert Jackson to write Development Administration: The Kenya Experience, and with Joel Barkan in 1973 to publish Politics and Public Policy in Kenya and Tanzania. The two books are primary references for students of public administration.



Okumu’s other intellectual legacy includes his works on Kenya’s international relations and foreign policy. His most outstanding articles include “The Place of African States in International Relations” (1971), “Some Thoughts on Kenya’s Foreign Policy” (1972), also published as “Kenya’s Foreign Policy” (1977), and “Foreign Relations: Dilemmas of Independence and Development”. Okumu’s response to Howell’s article “An Analysis of Kenya’s Foreign Policy” (1968) demonstrates he was occasionally quite intellectually combative.

Okumu was particularly incensed by Howell’s characterisation of Kenya’s foreign policy as ambivalent. Howell had argued that, on the one hand, Kenya’s foreign policy in the East African region and at home was conservative and restrained because of the fragility of Kenya’s political system and domestic economic weakness. On the other hand, he asserted that Kenya’s global foreign policy was radical because this stance helped the country to create national consciousness, which was necessary to cement Kenya’s fissiparous ethnicities through aggressive pan-Africanism. Howell went ahead to claim that this ambiguous stance in Kenya’s international relations served the country and Western powers well. Regional and domestic conservatism and restraint (read pro-Capitalist) attracted the needed foreign capital to Kenya while radicalism abroad was harmless and did not imperil Western interests in Kenya and the rest of Africa. Howell praised the leadership in Kenya for maintaining good relations with Britain, her former colonial master, but derided Tanzania for thinking about an alternative ideology: socialism. Howell’s blatant patronising and flattering attitude towards Kenya, together with the illogical nature of his argument, greatly incensed Okumu.

He countered Howell’s view in the articles he wrote on the subject. His argument in all these articles ran as follows: The newly independent states, like other developing countries, require well-conceived foreign policies as instruments of development. The foreign policies should be premised on properly prioritised issues of national interest and the countries’ capabilities for their achievement.

Foreign policy

Among the decisive factors for the realisation of development through foreign policies are competing interests among the political elites, which may be based on their ideological orientation and personal interests. The personal interests of the domestic political elites may or may not coincide with those of metropolitan capitalists. These are the factors likely to cause disjunctions between stated foreign policies and their implementation. Okumu’s position was that these contradictory factors can only be resolved through the establishment and nurturing of new bureaucratic institutions and leadership styles based on creative ideologies and ethos that are different from those left behind by colonial authorities.

According to Okumu, countries like Kenya, which inherited the hegemonic institutions of their former colonial rulers, maintain the very economic dependence the colonial authorities left behind. This, in turn, conditions these countries’ foreign policies to be reactive rather than active and positive in regard to their development aspirations.

It is in the context of this theoretical premise that Okumu dismissed Howell’s position on Kenya’s foreign policy. He argued, instead, that Kenya’s foreign policy was cautious and moderate with regard to the critical issues of the time: decolonisation of former Portuguese colonies in Africa like Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau; the liberation of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa from minority white domination; non-alignment; and national economic development. He coined the term “quiet diplomacy”, a policy of wait and see, to describe Kenya’s foreign relations.

Quiet diplomacy

He further averred that the factors that influenced Kenya’s quiet diplomacy at the time included her determination to consolidate her national boundaries whose security was threatened by the Somali irredentist or secessionist attempt, her pursuit of good neighbourliness to maintain the market for its relatively more developed economy, and finally her desire for rapid economic development that relied on foreign, particularly Western, capital investments and aid. According to Okumu, Kenya’s quiet diplomacy, rather than being creative, was defensive of the colonial status quo. It never liberated the country from the clutches of western neocolonialism. His position, which he supported with cogent analysis and statistical data, anticipated Colin Leys’ broader perspective Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism (1975).

Admittedly, some of Okumu’s views about Kenya’s foreign policy have stood the test of time to date. However, certain aspects of his arguments require revision given changes in the domestic political configuration and the international order since the 1970s when he wrote.

Okumu’s long academic career was not without setbacks. He did get into problems with the State’s security organs because of his critical views about Kenya in earlier years. According to some of his colleagues at the University of Nairobi, this led to his relocation to the University of Dar-es Salaam, which in those years was the radical intellectuals’ Mecca. However, with time, the sharp edge of his radical liberalism had clearly been blunted by the many years of his exile. State harassment stifled his writing.

Odhiambo Ndege is a professor of history at Moi University. E-mail: [email protected]