There is a chance that if one met Lieutenant General Daniel Opande on the streets of Nairobi, one would not notice him or know how much Namibians, Mozambicans, Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and Kenyans owe him for the relative peace they enjoy today. For Lt Gen Opande appears as a very self-effacing man in his autobiography, Lieutenant General Daniel Opande: In Pursuit of Peace in Africa (East African Educational Publishers, 2019).
For a man with such a decorated military career, it wouldn’t have been farfetched to assume that the memoir would be a self-back-patting story in the mould of many recent life stories in this country. Yet it is not.
Lieutenant General Daniel Opande: In Pursuit of Peace in Africa is a tale of a God-fearing young man from the then South Nyanza leaving home for secondary school in Kakamega, ending up in the army just as the British were departing from Kenya, serving his country with valour and honour, risking his life to bring peace to Namibia, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone and eventually retiring honourably.
Born in Gendia to Mwalimu Ishmael Opande and Beldine Omolo Opande, he was named “Daniel Bezalel Ojijo Opande, in honour of Daniel Ojijo Oteko, a famous Luo politician who had recently died under mysterious circumstances,” in his own words.
Opande’s early life is pretty much what many Kenyans who were not directly affected by colonial rule led. His were working parents – both were teachers but his father “worked his way up the ranks to become an Inspector of Schools with responsibility for two districts: South Nyanza and Central Nyanza, a feat which meant success, admiration and better pay.” As Seventh Day Adventists, his parents expected them to “lead a Christian way of life... We had a specific weekly routine and at the end of the week, my sisters would usually spend time on Friday practicing their singing for the Saturday church events.”
ORDER & DISCIPLINE
The strict home and school environment prepared Opande in many ways for his school life at the then Government African School (GAS), Kakamega, now Kakamega High School. He not only excelled in the classroom at GAS but also performed well in co-curricular activities such as long-distance running, high jump, swimming, soccer, alongside debating and the Boy Scouts’ movement. At that particular time, he wished, like so many boys then, to become either a lawyer or an engineer. He would end up a soldier, serving the army for 42 years before retiring.
Opande joined the Kings African Rifles, later the Kenya Army, by chance. His father’s illness had forced him to forsake joining high school for ‘A’ levels and take up a job with the East African Industries in order to support his siblings. When the army advertised for officer cadets’ recruitment, he decided to try his luck. Despite reservations from the family, especially his father who had lost his only brother in Burma during the Second World War, Opande, who says he was “impressed with the type of order and discipline that the military embodied,” applied, was interviewed and selected, in a group of 14, and sent to Lanet for "medical examination and basic training."
At Lanet, Opande was trained by the likes of Idi Amin, then a Lieutenant in the Kings African Rifles, and Shaban Opolot, from Uganda; and Cpt Mrisho Sarakikya from Tanzania. Mrisho later became the Army Chief of the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces and an ambassador. Opande writes that he “was one of the lucky ones to survive the rigorous basic training at Lanet … and was nominated to attend a further six-month training course at Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershort, UK.”
His first major posting was to North Eastern province to fight the Shifta rebellion. This was probably the most definitive stage in Opande’s career, and may have established the ground on which he walked for most of his military career as a peacemaker.
His first major peace-keeping undertaking was in pre-independence Namibia as part of the African contribution to the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG), where he was a Deputy Force Commander. Opande’s time in Namibia was not easy as the South Africans and the supporters of the South Western African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) couldn’t easily agree on peace and transition from white to black majority rule. The East/communist and West/capitalist ideological divides didn’t help the situation either. Opande, though, doesn’t say much about the fact that Kenya was an interested party in the Namibian situation since Sam Nujoma and Swapo had sympathisers in Nairobi. Opande and his team midwifed Namibia through the subsequent elections and helped in training the Namibian army and police.
His next assignment was in Mozambique, where the fight between Frelimo and Renamo movements threatened to split the country. The names Alfonso Dhlakama and Joaquim Chissano were on the lips of many Africans in the 1980s because of the raging civil war in Mozambique, pitting the Communist leaning Frelimo against the anti-communist Renamo, which was sponsored by the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organization, according to Opande. Kenya was involved in the mediation process through Mark Too, Bethuel Kiplagat and Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, the Lonrho boss.
But Namibia and Mozambique were more or less soft assignments for Opande, who found himself in the deep of the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. He served in Liberia on two occasions, first as the Chief Military Observer in the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) from 1993, and later as the Force Commander in the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNAMIL) in 2003. In between, he had been the Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). The Sierra Leone mission is, when one reads Opande’s memoir, probably one of the most difficult of his international peacekeeping missions as Kenya lost soldiers there.
It is not by accident that Opande sees himself more as the peacemaker and peace-keeper out there on the continent rather than as a home soldier. However, his international assignments don’t lessen his role back at home where he established the Moi Barracks in Eldoret and set the National Defence College on its feet in so far as innovating its curriculum and making it more of an international military training and research institute.
Even with such a stellar military career, one meets an Opande who is a family man, a keen golfer and a senior citizen who is concerned at how politics may be driving Kenyans up the wrong street. Which is why, unknown to many Kenyans, Opande was instrumental in the signing of the peace accord between the ODM and PNU in the aftermath of the post-election crisis of 2007.
There is a sense in which Lieutenant General Daniel Opande: In Pursuit of Peace in Africa leaves the reader with many questions, especially about the military itself, considering that little has been written about the history of the Kenyan military.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]