Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Odongo: The man Kenya is refusing to honour

By Wafula Buke

Late last year, an Irish comrade sponsored a trip to Zanzibar for us to belatedly pay homage to a fallen hero in the struggle for the social liberation of Africa: Prof. Abdul Rahman Babu. Just as I have done on the few occasions I have been lucky to visit other countries, I went finding out how the poorest lived and being a Kenyan, where could I find out this other than in the slums? My one and a half-hour walk was unsuccessful. The worst houses that crept into my view were qualitatively miles away from the Kenyan slum version of bad houses. I had hoped that any direction I walked would lead me to a slum as was the case in Kenya. I decided to seek guidance from the ever courteous Zanzibaris.

The guy I approached did not know what a slum was so I described the nature of this humble estates in terms such as "flying toilets", congestion, houses with walls that can be brought down with a horse kick etc. "Pole Ndugu," the fellow spoke. "We do not have such residences in Zanzibar. After the 1964 revolution that was led by John Okello, everybody was given five acres and I believe that's why we do not have such houses here." Incidentally, the second in command of his army was Brigadier Absolom Amoi Ingen whom Okello describes in his autobiography as "a Mluhya from Kenya." Okello himself was a Ugandan from the Acholi community. He had traversed East Africa in search of a means of livelihood for himself and his orphaned siblings.

When he arrived in Zanzibar, he took the challenges that black people were facing then; racial discrimination, political and economic marginalization. He played a lead role in staging a coup that brought the order that seems to have erased slums as indicated above. John Okello's story is a sad one that deposits lorry loads of guilt in any conscience. After the revolution, Nyerere and Abeid Karume threw him out of Tanzania after branding him dangerous. On the Kenyan side, he was given six hours to leave Kenya by Kenyatta. Uganda was equally hostile. He could not land himself a job despite having been a Minister for Defence in Zanzibar for the short period his team was in power. He became a beggar to survive. On returning back to Kenya, he was given an eighteen month jail term for being illegally in Kenya. It is in Kamiti that he wrote his autobiography. He is reported to have been found murdered on the banks of a river in Uganda by the Amin regime in the 70s.

Brigadier John Odongo's death on 26th this year in the D.R.C. brings to an end a life that bears amazing similarities with the 1964 Zanzibar revolutionary hero: John Okello.

• Both came from an ethnic community that spans the entire East African region i.e. Luo

• Both had similar first names (John) and similar initials (J.O.)

• Both left their countries of origin and settled in countries within the East African region.

• Just like Okello, Odongo took up arms and joined Ugandan patriots and Tanzanian Pan Africanists in rooting out the Amin dictatorship.

• Both were not formerly militarily trained prior to the rebellions they led.

• Both were victims of expedient politics of their host countries. Museveni dispatched Odongo to Ghana in an effort to maintain peaceful relations with Kenya just as Okello was ordered out of the region to wear out his revolutionary influence.

• Both were selfless and did not live to enrich themselves. To them individualism was the proper utilization of the whole individual at the absolute benefit of the community.

• Both abandoned their families in pursuit of higher moral and societal goals whose benefits accrued to many.

• Both did not acquire university education. Odongo dropped out of secondary school while Okello dropped out of primary school when his parents died. Prof. Abdul Rahman Babu is on record for dismissing Okello as a Lumpen due to his poor grasp of theory.

• Both were shunned by mainstream politicians of their native countries.

• The final part of their lives were miserable.

• Both exhibited amazing degrees of Pan Africanism by their readiness to die for the liberation of people far from their own countries believing that liberation anywhere leads to liberation everywhere. After being thrown out of Kenya by the Kenyatta regime, Okello got a lift and headed to Mozambique where he hoped to

• participate in the war of liberation from Portuguese colonialism.

• Both were conscious of imperialism as a fundamental cause of Africa's predicament.

• Citizens of the countries that benefited from their political labour recognize and revere the two leaders (recall Museveni's acknowledgement of Odongo after the attack on Sirisia by FERA?)

Odongo died as a leader of FERA, an acronym of the February Eighteenth Revolutionary Army whose inspiration is derived from the day Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi was hanged. Yet Odongo's death did not elicit a single message of condolence from the "who is who" in Kenya. The government has no comment and has apparently no plans of facilitating the return of his remains to his relatives. Unfortunately, the social composition and the historical background of the official opposition cannot have room for him in the riches of their hearts. Our Odongo has been buried by the burial rites-fatigued Congolese having witnessed millions of funerals in the last decade. Clearly, no tear may have been shed and no eulogy delivered in what must have been handled by the "town council" as it disposed bodies of "persons of no consequence."

It may not be easy to make out what the late Odongo's vision for Kenya and indeed humanity was since he was not published. However, his political association speaks volumes. He was an ally of what Kenyans have come to refer to as the doyen of opposition politics. Oginga Odinga was the architect of the first post-colonial institutional home of the Mau Mau dreams for a just society: the Kenya People's Union. Its disbandment and the ensuing crackdown on its functionaries deployed Odongo to the Ugandan front in the struggle for qualitative change in African politics. Odongo found himself exiled in Tanzania when the socialist leaning Obote was overthrown.

Unlike many exiled political actors, he did not seek the politically neutralizing comfort of Western countries but instead opted to join the struggle for the liberation of the region from dictators. One is inclined to imagine that he had read Ernesto Che Guevara who said: "Each spilled drop of blood in any country under whose flag one has not been born, is an experience passed on to those who survive, to be added later to the liberation struggle for his own country…"

In a continent that is rocked by ethnicity and the concomitant unity mongering, Odongo could still draw moral and spiritual upliftment from a movement that has been dubbed by neo-colonial agents as a Kikuyu peasant struggle; the Mau Mau. Odongo's and Wangamati's FERA was an attempt at talking social and economic justice. It was a revival of the "Not Yet Uhuru" of Kaggia and Oginga Odinga and the "Uhuru na Mashamba" slogan of the anti-colonial struggle. He negated the brand of politics that were espoused by political platforms such as KANU, FORD and other associated organizations which in practice defined democracy as the right of the rich to access the reigns of power through an electoral process as they continued dominating the poor.

For his unshakable and deeply-rooted faith in social justice and the dignity of humanity in disregard of national boundaries, Odongo had to be hosted by the radical Jerry Rawlings, be displaced by the conservative Kofuor, be hosted again by the revolutionary Laurent Kabila and be abandoned by his European-leaning son Joseph Kabila where he succumbed to the maladies of the poor and miserable. For indeed, Odongo was never a refugee in the United Nations sense of the word. Even in exile, he was a politician, a businessman when situations demanded and a freedom fighter at best. He was never just a granary of knowledge about change for the better, he lived every idea he knew about change.

As we continue hoping for the exhumation of the body of Odongo for a decent burial in Kenya, our people must be wondering why his death could not provoke even a hypocritical message of condolence from the mainstream quarters. Having been an underground politician myself, I am aware that Odongo had several contacts among people who are presently in the ruling coalition. Some were leaders of armed groups in the fight for change during the KANU leadership. Those in the civil society must keep their distance from being associated with violent forms of human rights advocacy lest the Reebok Award givers and donors spot them.

As for politicians, the reason lies in the substance of his politics. He believed in the ideals of social equality and even distribution of national resources. Kenya being a country that leads in Africa with regard to the gap between the rich and the poor had to find it uncomfortable in honoring a man who spend his whole life trying to supplant architects of Kenya's social disorder. He has to suffer the fate of social transformers. And as happened to Patrice Lumumba and Che Guevara, Odongo's remains had to be thrown in an unmarked grave. Just as the ruling elite of Che's mother country Argentina celebrated his death, similarly Odongo's death can only be a subject of murmurs and may be celebration in the privacy of the ruling elite. Its only the poor of Kenya and revolutionaries all over the world who will tearfully note the death of one of their own. As the curtains close on Odongo, his sympathizers may find solace in what Lumumba wrote to his Congolose people when his own death was nigh; "History will one day have its
say. It will not be the history taught in the US, UN, Washington, Paris or Brussels. However but the history taught in the countries that have rid themselves of colonialism and its puppets."

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