- The military is still one of the few trusted institutions in this country.
- As we grapple with all the usual Kenyan civilian problems, we need to be assured that we have a force watching over our backs.
The great Lt Gen (retired) Daniel Opande says in his book, In Pursuit of Peace in Africa, that when his boss, Chief of the General Staff Daudi Tonje, decided to retire in 2000, he (Tonje) placed a call to Opande informing him that he had recommended him as the next CGS.
Tonje had just initiated new rules in the military requiring the post of CGS to be rotated within the three services. So given that Opande was from the Army, like Tonje, the assumption was that he would be first on the rotation log from that point.
But soon after Opande received this news, then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan got in touch asking him to take up an appointment as UN force commander in Sierra Leone, where he served for three years before moving to Liberia in 2003, also in the same capacity.
Annan had been asking for the general for some time but then-President Daniel Moi had been declining. But following Gen Tonje’s retirement, Opande was suddenly made available to the UN.
He doesn’t go into these 'political' details in his book for obvious reasons, but the reader doesn’t have to be a genius to note that he was sent to the UN to prevent his promotion to four-star general and appointment as the CGS.
Commentators have always said that his ethnic origins played a role, and it’s difficult to disagree.
I am a long-term admirer, even a disciple of the doctrine, of Gen Daudi Tonje. In my view he is probably the only Kenyan since independence who has led a large institution, reformed it completely, left it better than he found it, and been outlived by the reforms he initiated.
The ordinary Kenyan only gets to hear about the general when there are references to “Tonje Rules”, specifically those regarding successions at the apex of the military. But there is catalogue of reforms and changes he initiated.
Gen Tonje, for example, disbanded the Women’s Service Corps and integrated women into the main units of the military and allowed female soldiers to marry and have children while serving. He also introduced academic and length-of-service protocols to make promotions and appointments fairer, among many others.
But in tapping Opande to succeed him, even though all his other reforms had succeeded because he had political goodwill from President Moi, even he might have been aware he was biting more than he could chew.
The Luo community has been referred to as the second largest, third largest and fourth largest at different times since independence. But as far as the independence struggle goes, the large cast of the community’s luminaries taking part was only second to the Kikuyu community.
And yet, after 60 years of independence, it had become normal for the community’s sons and daughters not to hold certain high positions, largely because of their perceived antagonistic relationship with successive regimes. The unspoken mistrust has lived on.
Last week, however, President William Ruto surprised everyone by appointing Francis Omondi Ogolla the new Chief of Defence Forces. No local newspaper had a more apt headline the next day than the Star’s "Surprise as Ruto Names Gen Ogolla New Military Chief."
Even before his rise to four-star last week, Gen Ogolla had been only the second officer of Luo ancestry to reach three-star, after Gen Opande.
The joke in security and civil service circles is that for people of this ancestry to reach the top, they have to work 10 times harder than their peers, given the stigma and marginalisation they have to endure.
I do not believe that Ruto was constrained to pick Gen Ogolla because of Tonje rules. He could have appointed anyone. But he opted to make a brave call, possibly based on the general’s immaculate record and renowned professionalism.
In many ways, the President’s decision was absolutely inspirational, and he deserves kudos for this.
Weeks before the military changes, vociferous Kenya Kwanza politicians had been besmirching the character of Gen Ogolla with allegations centred around a visit to the Bomas tallying centre during August 9 general election.
In this country, the political philosophy that barking dogs only convey the master’s wishes holds true, so the assumption was that most of these clownish political gadflies were laying the ground for the retirement of the general and the appointment of a different person.
I am quite sure the President and the Defence Council caught them all by surprise. The bigger lesson should be that politicians should keep off security professionals undertaking their duties and keep to their lanes.
A politician’s biggest tool is the mouth, which often is also a destructive and divisive one. This was the first time we were witnessing something of this nature, and we have to hope that it will also be the last.
There were other surprises in my view.
First, in previous appointments of a new CDF, especially the last two of Gen Samson Mwathethe and Gen Robert Kibochi, the announcements came with an “outgoing CDF to commence handover process before the CDF designate takes over”, giving at least two weeks of the process.
This time, the announcement came that Gen Kibochi’s term had ended, and his replacement was sworn in barely 20 hours later! It was almost as if Gen Kibochi had to leave in a hurry.
My second surprise was that after Lt Gen Jonah Mwangi was moved from the National Defence University of Kenya to become Vice CDF, his replacement at the institution, Maj Gen Said Farah, was not promoted to Lt Gen, effectively appointing a two-star general to a three-star post.
Third, but not necessarily the last surprise, was that given the rotational trend for the CDF position, Kenya Navy commander Maj Gen Jimson Mutai was not promoted to Lt Gen and made the CDF.
Indeed, the elevation of Gen Ogolla and the retirement of Lt Gen Badi leaves all three serving three-star generals (Mwangi, Kenya Army commander Lt Gen Peter Njiru and National Defence College commandant Lt Gen Albert Kendagor) from one service, the Kenya Army.
Gen Ogolla’s resume is the epitome of brilliance. An accomplished fighter pilot and instructor, he is said to be firm, principled and thoroughly professional. I am certain that he will go on to make a name for himself alongside Gen Tonje as one of the greatest military chiefs in independent Kenya.
Hopefully, after making this brave call, the President will follow with the same goodwill President Moi accorded Gen Tonje, so that he gets room to achieve the same fetes his famous predecessor did.
The military is still one of the few trusted institutions in this country. As we grapple with all the usual Kenyan civilian problems, we need to be assured that we have a force watching over our backs whose fairness and forthrightness we can still rely on.
To a large extent, these last changes have tried to reflect this desire. We can only hope that this is a long-term blueprint to sustain a professional and disciplined fighting force that keeps our sovereignty in check while staying away from the divisive rhetoric of our political class.