Sunday, 26 May 2013

Is It Time For The Siege Mentality Within The Luo Nation To End?

On Saturday, October 25, 1969, President Jomo Kenyatta travelled to Kisumu to open the New Nyanza General Hospital. The hospital had been built by the Russians through contacts made by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the leader of Kenya People’s Union (KPU) and was therefore known as the “Russia Hospital”.

During the opening ceremony, the bad blood that had been simmering between Kenyatta and Jaramogi came to a boil and bitter words were exchanged. Insults were hurled, a physical confrontation took place and threats of detention were made by the president.

The crowd jeered Kenyatta and by the time he was leaving, tempers had risen to the point where some youths began to stone the presidential motorcade. The presidential guard opened fire and the result was 10 dead people and scores of others injured.

"Yeah, bros before hoes! Bro."

This event marked the turning point in the relationship between President Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga. Odinga was detained two days later and his party, KPU banned. But perhaps more importantly and for the purposes of this post, the relationship between the Luo community and government was scarred.

Two gallant sons of the Luo had died in the months preceding this event. Tom Mboya had been assassinated by a lone gunman in a Nairobi street in broad daylight and Argwings Kodhek had died in a road accident. Jaramogi had personal and ideological differences with Kenyatta that had seen him bundled out of government and the ruling party, KANU years before.

The president vowed to never step foot inside Luo Nyanza again, and indeed, up to the time of his death, he went on as though that part of the country did not exist.

When Daniel arap Moi took over as president in 1978, there was a thawing of sorts in the relationship between the government and the Luos. This was until the attempted coup of 1982 in which soldiers of the Kenya Air Force from that community were implicated. Many Luos, including Jaramogi’s son, Raila, were arrested and detained by the Moi administration as a result. Raila has, in the book, Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics released not too long ago admitted to his role in that event.

Once again, the Luos found themselves at odds with the government. This situation got worse when in February, 1990, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Robert Ouko went missing, and was subsequently found murdered near his home. Subsequent investigations revealed that there was complicity and cover up by elements in the government. People from the Luo community were up in arms and charged that there were attempts by whichever government was in power to finish off its leaders.

Fast forward to December, 2007. Kenya held a presidential election that was hotly contested by the then incumbent, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. We have been told that no one knows who won that election, but Kibaki was nevertheless declared winner and the Luos took to the streets. There were riots in Kibera, Raila’s stronghold and in Kisumu where property owned by non Luos was looted or burnt. The police reacted and people were killed and others injured.

In March, 2013, another presidential election was held. This time, Raila Odinga went up against Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the nation’s first president. It was another hotly contested race, and it brought back memories to people who are old enough to remember, of the epic battles between their fathers, the first President Kenyatta and Jaramogi (the duo never competed in a presidential election, though).

Uhuru won this election. The Supreme Court, in a judgement on a petition against the election results brought before it by Raila upheld Uhuru’s victory. Once again, members of the Luo community felt aggrieved. They complained that there was a conspiracy by the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities to lock them out of the presidency.

Now, I cite these various examples to demonstrate that yes, unfortunate things have happened to people from the Luo community. Whether it be assassinations or missed political opportunities.

But the truth is that these things have happened to members of other communities too. Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated in the sixties. JM Kariuki was brutally liquidated in 1975. They were not Luos. The Kikuyus were economically sabotaged by the administration of President Moi. Their businesses collapsed. Ask SK Macharia.

I am happy to observe that in the days and weeks following the inauguration of President Kenyatta, there has been gradual acceptance of the new administration and goodwill by the Luo. Matters, of course have been helped by Raila’s own recognition, albeit grudgingly, of Uhuru’s presidency.

One can only hope that the president will take advantage of this new situation and begin by mending fences with Luo Nyanza. On his first visit outside Nairobi as president, Mr Kenyatta went to that region to attend the burial of the late Secretary General of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), Mr David Okuta Osiany.

I was impressed by the way he handled himself in the face of what could potentially have been a hostile crowd. The residents made it very clear that it is Raila that they regarded as their leader, but Uhuru behaved very respectfully to them and to Raila, even making the point that he (Raila) was his “elder brother”.

"Our dads were right! Up there. Bro."

So, should the siege mentality among members of the Luo community continue indefinitely or is it time for it to come to an end?

Well, that largely depends on future engagement between the new administration and Luo Nyanza. The president appears to be keen to send the right signals. He has treated the former Prime Minister with respect (which I must stress is important) and he has appointed a Luo as Cabinet Secretary for the important Ministry of Defence. I am waiting to see him visit Kisumu as that will set the tone for what kind of relationship we can expect to see between the government and that region.

Of course it is not as simple as that. My own feeling is that the Luo should also meet the government halfway and cease acting like perpetual “rebels”. Raila has indicated that he will not oppose the government just for the heck of it. That is a good sign, and one that the larger Luo community should embrace. President Kenyatta should also avoid the mistakes of the presidents who came before him, and treat all regions of this nation equally and not appear to marginalize anyone.

Beyond that, we can only wait and see.


President Kenyatta I was at the centre of the Pan African movement of the 1960s that threw out the mzungu from Africa.

President Kenyatta II finds himself at the centre of yet another Pan African movement 50 years on that is against the interference of the mzungu in African affairs.

I don’t know about you, but these are very interesting times, no?

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