President Uhuru Kenyatta with his new ‘bestie’ and former foe, opposition leader Raila Odinga, left many people speechless at Kisumu International Airport last week after they drove off into the ‘sunset’ with a small security team, one publication declared.
Uhuru had arrived in Kisumu to attend events marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was Raila’s father and Kenya’s first Vice-President under First President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father.
The publication topped off the story with an equally catchy headline: “Kenyatta, Odinga risk it all to nurture blossoming bromance”.
And so, the March 2018 “handshake” between the two men, which followed the bitterly contested 2017 election, and how it might affect the 2022 vote and Uhuru succession, continued to dominate news and political conversation. The result was that we didn’t get much focus on Oginga and what he meant.
Now, my teen years — when the greatest act of radicalism was taking to the stage during a school debate and shouting things like “Power to the people!”, “Down with imperialism!” and “Aluta continua!” in Uganda — were during the rule of military dictator Idi Amin.
There was no free press, except a storied daily run by the Catholic called Munno (your friend).
The relatively free media was Kenyan or Nairobi-published — Drum, The Standard, the Daily Nation and big daddy of them all, Hilary Ng’weno’s Weekly Review.
If they had a story critical of Amin, they would circulate clandestinely. If they were benign, they would be easily available.
Through both Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi’s one-party rule, Kenya was different in that it always had Quixotic and eccentric politicians, even in the ruling party — like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney, to name two.
This was a period when, apart from less than a handful of countries such as Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, and Tanzania, most of the continent was ruled by nasty military guys who fed their opponents to crocodiles and beat schoolchildren to death like “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa did.
The idea of an opposition politician who was not in jail or dead, or attacking a ruling party and getting “only” jailed for it, was strange and rare.
In the Kenyan print media, Oginga was a constant feature, and different from the rest of the troublemakers. He had a mysterious air.
He wore an odd-looking hat. He had been VP but was still walking around, half-free, and his head hadn’t been cut off and stored in the fridge at State House.
If you were a young person in a military dictatorship of the time, that was not easy to process.
Soon, as we got older and outgrew shouting radical slogans, we became alive to the reality of the Cold War contest in our corner of the world. We learnt that Oginga was a doyen of the Left.
At a time when virtually all the countries in East Africa and the Horn were toying around with some version of socialism, Kenya stood out as the only country outside southern Africa that was classified as “capitalist”.
It was considered a traitor nation; the only one not countenancing a redistribution of wealth to the masses and was not a big supporter of liberation movements.
Oginga came to be seen, at least from outside, as Kenya’s redemption.
He was one of the main persons the radicals could point to to make the case that some revolutionary and pan-Africa blood still flowed in Kenya’s political veins.
However, it was an image in sharp contrast with how he was seen by the Luo Nation in the wider eastern and Central Africa.
Some years ago, I ran into a long write-up touting the creation of the “Lendu Republic”, spanning northeast DR Congo, present-day South Sudan, northern and eastern Uganda, western Tanzania and Kenya’s western and Rift Valley. Oginga was listed there as its inspirational god figure.
It remains unresolved whether this was an inevitable duality, or a contradiction, for a vaunted Pan-African figure.
It also interesting, on the anniversaries of people like Oginga, to reflect on how they saw the world in their last days and if they thought their life and struggles had been fruitful or in vain.
Jaramogi died on January 20, 1994. That year is one of the most significant in 20th-century Africa. On April 6, 1994, the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, which had been under way for four years, was turbo-charged when the plane carrying the country’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down over Kigali.
Then on April 27, South Africa held its first democratic multi-racial election, formally ending Apartheid.
The former would have depressed Jaramogi; the latter would have pleased him. And, at least, he got to see Nelson Mandela walk free on February 11, 1990.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3