WITH THE death of Oginga Odinga, Kenya has lost its most colourful survivor from its heroic era of anti-colonial nationalism and the father figure of its present parliamentary opposition.
He was a natural rebel, but never a revolutionary, a distinction that the British colonial government appreciated more clearly than Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta; it would be truer to call him a conservative populist. More outspokenly honest than is wise in a politician, in no way a tactician, disadvantaged by the poverty of his rural home and its distance from Nairobi, he inspired widespread affection and respect in his use of romantic visions of the communal African past, to criticise the kleptomania of independent Kenya's rulers, no less than late-colonial plans for individualistic land reform. In a political system that valued the spoils of office more than consistency of vision, it was a remarkable tribute to his personality that he retained the support of most of the Luo people through all his long years in the political wilderness, from 1966 until the false dawn of multi-party democracy two years ago.
Born in 1911 in the far west of Kenya, near the shores of the Victoria Nyanza, Odinga was one of the earliest to be sent to an Anglican mission school. He learnt how to combine the new religion with service to his people in boyhood journeys as bag-carrier to the Luo inspector of rural schools, later entered into close but critical relations with his white mission teachers, was involved in school strikes over food and clothing regulations, became a dedicated teacher himself and a businessman, as much concerned to show white (and Kikuyu) doubters that Luo could run anything as to make money. He was nicknamed 'Jaramogi' after the legendary founder of his Luo nationality.
After the Second World War, he joined the nationalist congress, the Kenya African Union, but was never at its heart; he remained a farmer, rural trader and local councillor and never became a townsman. His genius lay in mobilising, as president of the Luo Union, the Luo to invest in their own educational and social progress. It was as local boss that he was elected to the Legislative Council in the first African elections in 1957 and thereafter, in all the heated politics that led to independence in 1963 he remained the rural sheet-anchor of Luo participation in nationalism, outmanoeuvred at the centre by his much younger, streetwise rival for Luo leadership, Tom Mboya. It was Mboya's access to American funds that drove Odinga to seek links with the People's Republic of China, as much as any ideological conviction.
In 1964 Odinga became Kenya's first vice-president more by virtue of his ethnic leadership than any political affinity with Kenyatta, who marginalised him. Driven from the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), in 1966, Odinga formed his own, the Kenya People's Union (KPU), in alliance with the Kikuyu radical Bildad Kaggia. Kenyatta's KANU government did all in its power to suppress the KPU, culminating in 1969 with Kenyatta's bodyguard shooting on hostile, but scarcely violent, Luo demonstrators, the banning of the KPU and Odinga's detention for two years.
He never regained Kenyatta's confidence, and any hope of rapprochement with the new president, arap Moi, was dashed by the strong Luo involvement in the attempted Air Force coup in 1982. Thereafter, Odinga became increasingly disillusioned with government oppression and corruption, his son Raila being his chief supporter. It was not until 1990 that Odinga acquired the powerful allies that made an organised opposition look plausible, when the Kikuyu ex-cabinet ministers Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia launched a campaign for political pluralism.
By early 1991 Odinga had reluctantly agreed to play a leading role in FORD - the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy - which sought to unite the opposition. Under international as much as internal pressure, the Moi government legalised opposition parties in late 1991 and it seemed, briefly, that FORD might triumph in the forthcoming elections. But an ethnic and personal rivalry (between Odinga and Matiba) split FORD; KANU kept its head, its organisation, and its real support among minority ethnic groups and Odinga lost his chance for a comeback.