PROF JOHN JOSEPH OKUMU

Eulogising academic giant with the bug of founding new institutions

When John passed on last week on July 10 at the Avenue Hospital in Kisumu, the media gave a wide berth to this very unfortunate loss of a Kenyan many former students and academic colleagues hold in awe

In Summary

• Prof John Okumu nurtured Rongo University at its infancy, a passion he carried with him to Maasai Mara University as the chairman of the University Council of that institution at its sunrise.

• Kenyans remember him as a renown academic at Moi University, where he subsequently served as chairman of the University Pension Fund.

The late Professor John Joseph Okumu
The late Professor John Joseph Okumu
Image: COURTESY

Professor John Joseph Okumu was the first African head of the department of government at the University of Nairobi in the mid-1960s.

He later went to Arusha to be the founding director of the East and Southern Africa Management Institute (ESAMI) after a stint as Professor of Political Science at Dar es Salaam University. More recently, Kenyans remember him as renown academic at Moi University, where he subsequently served as chairman of the University Pension Fund.

Having been bitten by the bug of founding new institutions, John nurtured Rongo University at its infancy, a passion he carried with him to Maasai Mara University as the chairman of the University Council of that institution at its sunrise. 

 

When John passed on last week on July 10 at the Avenue Hospital in Kisumu, the media gave a wide berth to this very unfortunate loss of a Kenyan many former students and academic colleagues hold in awe. 

The first time I met John was at the University of Nairobi's education lecture theatre in April 1968. I had just graduated from the Alliance High School the previous December and was then waiting to be "called" to join the University of East Africa whose constituent colleges were at Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Makerere in Kampala.

On that Saturday morning, Tom Mboya, then minister for Planning and Economic Development, had  been invited by the department of government  (political science) whose chairman was John Okumu to give an address on "African Socialism and its application to planning in Kenya."

Kenyans will recall that Sessional Paper No. 10 was still very topical after its publication in 1965 as the Kanu government's key policy development blueprint.

Mboya gave a spirited and eloquent defence of the Sessional Paper, which was under attack in many academic journals then dominating the intellectual scene in East Africa. I can remember Transition, then edited by Rajat Neogy from Kampala and heavily patronised by Prof Ali Mazrui, and The East Africa Journal, edited from Nairobi under the auspices of the East African Cultural Society with "big academic guns" such as Bethwell Allan Ogot, Collin Leys and John Okumu as the prime movers.

That morning Mboya's main thesis was that in as much as socialism was extensively espoused by Marx and Engels in 19th Century Europe, its application had since then born the characteristics of each society in different historical epochs.

John's rejoinder was that, while Mboya’s explanation was largely acceptable, Kanu had the problem of having a cadre in government who neither understood nor appreciated what he was talking about

Even by translating socialism in the context of the Kenyan experience, success was unlikely since the implementers were either very few or lacking altogether. As the Chinese would put it, "socialism with Kenyan characteristics" was perhaps a wild goose chase.

Ciira Cerere, then a graduate student under John, joined his mentor when he pointed out to Mboya the contradictions of competing ideologies in the Kanu government.

On the one hand was Mboya’s persuasive arguments in defence of African Socialism a la Nyerere, on the other hand, was a cabal in Kanu of "primitive accumulators" bent on exploiting the ideology and practice of tribalism to satisfy their own personal and selfish goals.

 

In his response, Mboya was not in the least defensive. In fact, he completely agreed with Cerere but pointed out that Cerere did not go far enough. A bigger problem was facing the KANU government: that of clanism. 

Cerere then interjected: "Do you mean the Kiambu mafia?"

Mboya, in his rejoinder, was very smart: "Ciira, you are an upcoming academic, under the tutelage of my very able friend, Professor John Joseph  Okumu, I am sure you cannot jump to any conclusion without being certain of your evidence!"

The audience burst out in laughter.

I remember that incident as if it happened yesterday. But it was the beginning of a lifetime friendship with John as an employer, an academic colleague and political supporter.

Let us now wind the clock forward.

The time was April 1971. The place was the then Apollo Hotel in Kampala, Uganda. The issue was what I was going to do after graduating that year. 

John had been our external examiner in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration in March 1971. He sent a message to me through Dr Ahmed Mohiddin, then one of my lecturers, whether I could have tea with him at Apollo Hotel at 10 am. I was there on time.

After several preliminaries, John went straight to the point. "You have done very well in your final exams. You have obtained a First Class Honours. What are you intending to do?"

I told John I had two choices: Either to go for a PhD in Oxford or go to study law at the Osgood Hall Law School in Toronto. Professor Ali Mazrui strongly supported the Oxford idea, while Professor Peter Russell was for Osgood  Hall.

John then told me his preference. "I am proposing you come to my department as a special lecturer, and then we can arrange a Rockefeller Foundation graduate fellowship in any university of your choice". It was a deal.

Our long journey together started in earnest then. I subsequently went to the University of Chicago on October 1971. The following year, John was a visiting professor at Grinell College, Iowa, and I spent Christmas of 1972 with him, his wife Laura and the two kids Wasonga and Osir.

Wind the clock forward again. The year is 1986. I was then working as a consultant at the ECA headquarters in Addis Ababa after finishing my two-year contract with the Addis Ababa University.

I bump into John in Addis and again he is concerned about what I was up to. After a long story of what had gone on since I hurriedly left Kenya in December 1981, he proposed that I join him in Arusha to help develop a research Centre at the Eastern and Southern Africa Management Institute  (ESAMI) with support from an ECA grant. Another deal closed. He had been appointed the founder-director of the institute.

We had a wonderful time in Arusha for the one and a half years I spent there, finally coming back home in 1987 as head of programmes at the African Academy of Sciences working under yet another academic giant known as TRO, the late Thomas Reasley Odhiambo. 

We have since then maintained contact with John. But my entry into active politics deprived us of the possibility of publishing together many thoughts and ideas we always shared in the world of academia. But one thing will remain solidly embedded in history.

My first published article as an academic was in the East Africa Journal in April 1971 when Laura Okumu was the editor. It was the result of my final year research paper on the Civil Service in Uganda in the Administrative Law class taught by George Kanyihamba.

As my external examiner, John encouraged me to polish it up for publication. As the editor of the journal, Laura helped me to polish it up and get it published. What I am today I owe partly to Laura and largely to John.

May the good Lord bless and keep him in eternal peace.

The writer is the Governor of Kisumu County.