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October 18, 2018

Odingas' dominance of the Luo and why it is not about to end

Odingas' grip on the Luo
Odingas' grip on the Luo

The Presidential poll of October 26, if allowed to stand, will indeed be one of the most divisive elections ever held in any country. NASA’s Raila Odinga withdrew two weeks to the polls, citing his doubts on whether they would be ‘free and fair’.

He promised Kenyans that there would be no election on the said date. The election went on largely as scheduled.

However, the fact that there were no elections in 25 constituencies in Luo Nyanza has brought about a new focus — the grip Raila has on the Luo people.

Given the fact that our politics is largely personality based, there is a way in which the Luo have broken the record in having near total support for an individual.

The militancy of the support for him and the pugnacious rioting in his name have baffled all form of sense.

Affectionately called ‘Baba’ or ‘Father’, his anger is the anger of his followers, his displeasure is the displeasure of his followers and his wish is their command. As we speak, there is no Kenyan leader who has his community solidly behind him like the Luo are behind Raila.

Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto and even Kalonzo Musyoka cannot boast such near-total support. Even those Luo leaders who, at one point chose to defy Raila or his father, paid a high price for it. His most brilliant general today, Senator James Orengo, is a rebel-turned-loyalist.

He (and numerous others), are slurping the (sweet) lollipop of conformism to the Odinga political machine, having learnt a bitter lesson in their rebellion. Others who dared to defy or somehow fell out with or remained insolent to Raila are still suffering out in the political cold with little or no hope of ever redeeming themselves. Let us understand how this came to be.



In many ways, Raila is reaping what his father sowed more than a half-century ago.

So powerful was his father that anyone would have done anything for him. On June 5, 1981 House Speaker Fred Mati swore in William Odongo Omamo as the new Bondo MP. Oginga Odinga had been MP for the area since before Independence until 1969, when he wasdetained without trial. But even then, he remained the undisputed leader of the Luo people. Omamo took up the seat in the background of yet another attempt by Odinga to crawl out of the political cold. Kanu honchos believed then that Omamo was the answer to their perennial headache, Odinga, and consequently elevated him to a powerful Cabinet docket.

However, Omamo was nothing close to Odinga and what he represented among the Luo. For many years, Odinga was the unequivocal leader of the Luo and an equivalent could neither be created nor elevated to his level.

In fact, Omamo came to represent the culmination of the persecution of Odinga and in my informed mind, when Jubilee appointed his daughter Raychelle Omamo to the Cabinet it was still perpetuating the old wounds and torment against the Odingas.




Between 1969-81, Odinga underwent what can only be described as horrendous politically motivated persecution, including the sudden recall of his loans and crippling of his business interests just to contain him. By 1981, Odinga had been reduced to his knees and was ready to cut a deal with the government and return. However, the Moi administration was still ill at ease with the doyen of opposition politics, not quite convinced that he had changed. In 1979, he was again not cleared for the seat and the little-known Gordon Jalang’o got the seat. However, Kanu did not quite realise, or rather appreciate, the extent to which the Odinga name was ingrained in the Luo psyche. It was deep. It was the product of a move to centrally manage the Luo nation under Odinga as their leader.



When Odinga became the formative leader of ‘Riwruok Luo’ or the ‘Luo Union’, which he co-founded in 1946 with Walter Odede and Richard Arina, his intention was to bring together all the Luos in East Africa under one umbrella. The Luo Union (EA) presented itself as a ‘non-political, non-party, democratic organisation for alround (sic) uplift of the Luo Community’. Odinga was elected first as the treasurer but later became the ‘Ker’ or loosely put, ‘president’ of the organisation. Anindo Nyakachunga was his ‘Ogaye’ or vice president, while the ‘Ruodhgoro’, or secretary general, was Adala Otuko. The ‘Okebe’ or ‘treasurer’ was Awino Otal. The Luo Union became a powerful organization, complete with an elaborate constitution and a substantive ‘Dund-riwruok’ or ‘Head Office’ in Kisumu, bringing together (nearly) all the Luo in East Africa – Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.



By October 1955 they had 3,557 members in over 60 branches spread over all the major towns and cities. They held regular meetings and discussedmatters affecting the Luo but which often turned to assemblies of hot political confabulation. And they all looked up to Odinga.

Back in 1953, Odinga became a member of the Central Nyanza African District Council and four years later, he joined the Legislative Council, taking with him the aspirations of the Luo. He used both platforms to champion Luo interests, creating in their mind an era of total bliss and perfect satisfaction – something of a Utopia. The Luo Union remained central to the Odinga political machine and he used that to leverage his position in national politics. This was the start of a long and extremely tumultuous political career that would end in his death four decades later. In those four decades, Oginga had totally permeated the heart and soul of the Luo people, they would do nothing – absolutely nothing, without his direction.



Odinga had transformed an idea into a fascistic organisation spanning several countries and with branches all over. The affairs of the Luo were now centralised under one authority — Odinga — and he cut a near-cult-like leadership in the organisation. It directly controlled the Luo people and even regulated everything from their economic to cultural and even social behaviour. For instance, it came up with such by-laws as this released in 1955 stating: “Any Luo girl or woman who shall be found to break one of the following by-laws shall be prosecuted: (a) Smoking cigarettes with the lit end inside the mouth, (b) drawing money from the underwear pocket.’ (By-law number 8 of 1955 ).”

Nearly all the bylaws had a fascistic bent and in fact, released that year all touched on women – banning them from, among other things marrying certain listed foreigners, engaging in prostitution, lodging in hotels, conducting ‘unrecognised’ work, operating brothels and others. In no time, Odinga was etched in the minds of nearly every Luo. He was their undisputed leader. It is little wonder he was attracted to Socialist absolutism. It was only natural.




Now if you are wondering how come many Luos seem quite well established in nearly every mentionable trade, then you can draw it from the vision of the Luo Union. Today, thousands of Luo people will make you a dress, fix your car, and build your house – name it. And they will do it meticulously.

Under the regime of the Luo Union, young men were encouraged to take up education and the union worked hard to place them in various foreign universities and the rest took up a trade. The economic transformation of a community had begun. Realising that they lived in a harsh and rather difficult land prone to droughts and flooding, it was necessary to develop a skilled labour force to take advantage of emerging opportunities not just in Kenya, but also in East Africa (and beyond). However, lots of internal issues would creep up and destroy the good vision, particularly after the Luo Thrift and Trading Organisation (Lutatco) suffered from a hostile business environment and also from corrupt practices under the leadership of Odinga. It went bust eventually, with millions in shareholder funds and assets unaccounted for (to this day). A friend of mine named Orundu once showed me an old shareholder receipt for the money his mother paid to Lutatco in the fifties. This was the most incontrovertible Ponzi scheme that ever was.



In all that, nobody dared question Odinga for the failures of the organisation. The office of ‘Ker’ was above reproach. In following Odinga unquestioningly, the Luo became vulnerable and exploitable. The centralisation of the Luo thought and action around an individual was not really new. In fact, Odinga was only one in a long line of tribal supremos only that he took over when the Luo nation dawned into the modern era. Odinga properly utilised this position for both political and economic purposes. He would go on to raise only his close allies as leaders all over Luo Nyanza and he just needed to mention your name and the people of that area would definitely send you to Parliament. No amount of persecution would deter the Luo from Odinga. Even in the change of his political fortunes, the Luo still stood behind him squarely.



Later, Odinga put his weight to the drive for Independence and helped co-found Kanu, even influencing its symbols (the Kanu Cockerel was borrowed from Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party, complete with the colours and all). He would become its vice president and later a Cabinet minister and second in command of independent Kenya.

His spectacular resignation from government in 1966 ushered in an era of division that split the nation right down the middle. All pretensions to national unity were quickly lost when his party, the KPU, was banned in 1969. To be fair to Odinga, the suspicions against him were not just political but also ideological. He was plying his politics at a time of great global ideological divide, known to us today as the Cold War. He suffered a series of political setbacks and even though Odinga made his followers believe that their worst enemies were the Kikuyu, he wouldn’t admit it but the truth is that he was the victim of his own tactlessness and injudicious political decisions.



He remained in the political cold unable to practice politics for the remainder of Jomo Kenyatta’s life. Also sinking with him were all the former KPU legislators, each of whom had undyingly united their political will to Odinga. They served detention sentences all because of Odinga. The last of the detainees, Wasonga Sijeyo formerly Gem MP, left prison in 1978 after nine years without being charged.

In 1979, Odinga requested to be cleared to contest in Bondo on the Kanu ticket. Kanu leaders were not quite convinced that he had changed his ways. They remained suspicious of him, particularly when he declared at a party function that the late Kenyatta was the biggest land-grabber.

Instead, Jalang’o was cleared and became the Bondo MP but resigned in 1981 in favour of Odinga. Can you imagine which politician could resign for another in Parliament today? When Jomo Kenyatta was released in 1961, all those who had loudly called for his release could not agree who should resign so that he could be a member of the Legislative Council and eligible to attend the Lancaster House Conferences.

In fact, when approached, Tom Mboya specifically refused to resign so Kenyatta could become an MLC. The Kigumo MLC Kariuki Karanja, the son of senior chief Njiiri of Murang’a, consequently resigned, paving way for Kenyatta in the Legislature. He was consequently sworn in on January 13, 1962 as the Member for Kigumo, just in time to participate in the second Lancaster Conference. Jalang’o and Karanja had one thing in common, but the outcome of Njiiri’s gambit was, however, very fortunate.



Jalang’o was never really considered the area MP, hence his decision to give up the seat. The people wanted to see their beloved Odinga return to active politics but then again, the Kanu honchos refused to clear him for the seat and instead cleared agriculturalist Omamo, more popularly known as ‘Kaliech’ or the ‘Elephant’ for his being overweight. President Daniel Moi had tried to rehabilitate Odinga, even appointing him chairman of the cotton parastatal, but the Luo considered it pure tokenism. It was not until 1990 that he would return to active politics and was elected to Parliament in 1992. He only served for a year, passing away in January 1994.

It was said that in his last days he begged that he should lead this nation if for only a day. It was like the Mosaic moment at Mt Nebo, where God caused Moses in his last days to see the Promised Land but forbade him from getting there.



Moses never reached the Promised Land, and it fell to his protégé Joshua to complete the journey. Raila took over the Joshua challenge to lead the people to Canaan. Before I forget, you must know that the Luo Union was open to whoever wanted to be a part of it. On June 24, 1956 at the insistence of Odinga, the Kipsigis were invited to the Luo Union Annual General Meeting at the Kericho ADC Hall. Although formally invited, the Kipsigis were reluctant attendees because, as the name suggested, they were not Luo.

The journey to the Promised Land, therefore, began long before Independence and it has taken more than the 40 years that the Israelites had wandered through the desert. The new Joshua seems rather frustrated that he is unable to shake the forces of Pharaoh, who seem to have continuously exasperated his journey.

However, the biblical Moses and Joshua had to contend with lots of criticism and murmurings by their followers. The present Moses and Joshua do not tolerate dissent. The people are solidly behind them and believe in him to the extent of refusing to vote and at the same time preventing others from voting. In creating the new ‘People Assemblies’ he is seemingly following the script of the Luo Union. To the letter.

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