If I accept your offer, I will be seen as a traitor to my people. The British cannot elect me leader to my people … Kenyatta is around, just here in Lodwar. Release him and allow him to lead us; he is already our choice.”
These words changed the course of Kenya’s political history forever.
They were uttered at a defining moment 53 years ago by nationalist Jaramogi Oginga Odinga to the consternation of Governor Sir Patrick Renison. Sir Patrick had invited Mr Odinga to the Governor’s Residence — now State House — to make an offer of leading independent Kenya as the first prime minister.
“The event occurred in Government House (now State House) in Nairobi in 1960. The British Governor and the Kenyan nationalist were both standing when the offer was made. It seemed to be the chance of a lifetime. It turned out to be Oginga Odinga’s last opportunity to become premier of Kenya on the eve of independence,” says renowned political scientist Prof Ali Mazrui in a paper published in the Kenya Law Reports dated October 2013.
The debate about Jaramogi’s response to the colonial governor, though not new, has assumed particular significance as the country celebrates 50 years of independence.
What if Jaramogi had taken up the offer?
According to Prof Mazrui, Jaramogi’s response sealed his fate and changed the course of the nation’s history forever. Commenting on Jaramogi’s response, Prof Mazrui says:
“Sir Patrick Renison was temporarily stumped. He then summoned the driver to take Mr Oginga Odinga back to his native quarters in Nairobi.” Thus, he left State House, never to return, well, at least to reside in it.
“He had sacrificed what turned out to be his last opportunity to lead Kenya. His incumbency could have transformed the ethnic configurations of post-colonial Kenya,” Prof Mazrui says in the lecture titled Half a Century of the Post-Colonial Judiciary and State-Formation: The African Experience.
According to Prof Mazrui, it was completely lost on Jaramogi that had he accepted the Governor’s offer, he could still have presided over the release of Jomo Kenyatta, and Kenyatta might have become Odinga’s Vice-President instead of the other way round.
Thus while Jaramogi succeeded in striking a blow against external selection of African leaders, he achieved this with great personal sacrifice. He threw away an opportunity to lead Kenya, a chance he craved to his death.
“Jomo Kenyatta was released from detention not long afterwards, in time to lead the Kenya African National Union (KANU) to an electoral victory in 1963. Jomo Kenyatta became Prime Minister of independent Kenya in December of that year.”
What Prof Mazrui doesn’t say is that barely six years later, Odinga would swap places with Kenyatta in detention, the latter jailing his benefactor and vice-president over ideological differences which culminated in a confrontation in Kisumu in 1969, during which tens of people were killed.
Even after his release years later, Jaramogi was isolated politically, an isolation second President Daniel Moi perpetuated and only lifted before Jaramogi’s death in 1994.
Jaramogi’s blow in favour of his hero-turned-tormentor began much earlier, becoming the first leader to publicly invoke the names of Kenyatta and his colleagues in detention whom the government considered dangerous terrorists and prophets of doom.
“It was Jaramogi who first gathered courage to invoke Kenyatta’s name at a meeting with the Colonial Secretary, Allan Lennox-Boyd, when he visited Kenya in 1957. Odinga confronted the Colonial Secretary with the appeal to consider releasing Kenyatta and other detainees,” Odinge Odera writes in My Journey with Jaramogi: Memoirs of a Close Confidant.
Jaramogi’s crusade would hit the peak in June 1958 during a debate in the Legislative Council after a letter detailing the detainees’ dire conditions at Lokitaung was smuggled into the House.
“These people, before they were arrested, were political leaders in this country. Any statement made which might be regarded as ridiculing these people hurts the tender feelings of the African people,” Jaramogi said in response to the statement by Sir Lennox-Boyd who had earlier stated the convicts were being treated well.
Jaramogi, Odera writes, received so much condemnation -- even from fellow African members of the Legco, for “embracing detainees whom the government considered to be dangerous criminals”.
The statement hardened the feelings of the Europeans in the Legco and outside, who began calling Jaramogi a communist sympathiser.
But it also elicited vitriol from unlikely quarters -- fellow African leaders, especially from Central Kenya, the most virulent attackers being Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano and Jeremiah Nyaga -- both of whom would later enjoy Kenyatta’s confidence.
Dr Kiano said Kenyatta “does not, and cannot, come from prison to direct the political activities of the Africans today. He does not and cannot issue instructions as to what course to take when a political issues arises.”
To Mr Nyaga, “Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau rebellion has brought nothing but misery to thousands of Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people for six years and another six years in hardship in secret oath-taking and subversion.”
It was another twist of irony that the British, who at one point were ready to hand over Kenya’s leadership to Jaramogi, would help Kenyatta isolate him by fuelling propaganda especially in the Western press that he was a communist lackey, allegations which Jaramogi did not help rebut.
Prof Mazrui — in his manner of using parallels and paradoxes in his lectures — moves to the subjects of political dynasties which he defines as families that have exerted disproportionate influence on the politics of their societies.
“The Odingas in Kenya have also become a dynastic family. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga rose as high as Kenya’s Vice-President, and exercised almost equal power as Minister of Home Affairs."
"It has been the politicisation of Raila Odinga which has turned the Odinga family into a political dynasty. Raila has become a second Odinga force in Kenya politics. He ran twice (sic) for President, but his highest rank was that of Prime Minister.”
He says that by twist of destiny, the Kenyattas have also been evolving a political dynasty.
“In 2002 Uhuru Kenyatta attempted to become President of Kenya like his father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. In 2013 Uhuru was at last elected the fourth President of Kenya. Uhuru Kenyatta is also young enough to ascend, in like manner, to the pinnacle of power in the future.”
He also discusses what he calls a pattern of “male succession to male heroism” a tendency witnessed in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] and the Republic of Togo.
In the former, Major-General Joseph Kabila succeeded his assassinated father President Laurent Kabila while in the Republic of Togo, “the long presidency of His Excellency Gnassingbé Eyadema was succeeded [by fair means or foul ones] by the Presidency of his son, Faure Gnassingbé.”
But while the DRC and Togo have been cases of inter-familial succession by military means, by contrast the rise of Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta to national prominence in Kenya has been through the forces of democratisation.
Had Jaramogi not uttered the words and accepted to rule, next month’s Jubilee celebrations could have had a completely different cast. Given Jaramogi’s well-known socialist ideology, the development path and the geo-political trajectory Kenya would have taken would have been different 50 years on.
Perhaps, the acrimonious relations between the older Odinga and Kenyatta which has cascaded down to the sons — Uhuru and Raila — and sucked in their communities, would have been avoided, or maybe not, but whatever the case maybe, Kenya would not have remained the same.
Next week: Day Ugandan dictator Amin asked Mazrui to become his envoy in South Africa.