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Ajuma Jaramogi Oginga Odinga

Ajuma Jaramogi Oginga Odinga

Ajuma Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (1912-1994) was one of the leaders of the African political organizations which secured Kenya's independence. He was a foremost critic of Kenya's ruling party after he resigned as the country's first vice-president in 1966, and he remained a vocal opposition leader until his death.

Oginga Odinga was born in 1912 at Bondo in Nyanza Province, Kenya, a member of the Luo people. His father, a woodworker, selected him as the only child the family could afford to educate. Young Odinga attended Maseno Secondary School and Alliance High School, finishing his formal education with a diploma in education from Makerere University College in 1939. From 1940 to 1942 Odinga taught mathematics at the Church Missionary Society school at Maseno, and from 1943 to 1946 he was headmaster of the Maseno Veterinary School. In 1947 he moved to the business world, founding the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation; he served as its managing director until 1962.

Follower of Kenyatta

Odinga entered politics in 1947, when he became a member of Kenya's legislative council. He was a supporter of the Kenya African Union, Kenya's only important African political group. After hearing a speech by the future leader of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, Odinga became his devoted follower. In 1953, Kenyatta was jailed by the British, and during Kenyatta's years in detention Odinga became one of the most outspoken resistance leaders calling for his release. In the first African elections for the legislature in 1957, Odinga won election in his home district of central Nyanza.

A major British effort to control Kenya's evolution in peaceful fashion was the Lancaster House Conference of 1960. A unified African delegation attended and accepted the conference's decisions as a step on the path to independence. But when the delegates returned to Kenya, rivalries shattered the unity of the African politicians, with Odinga emerging as one of the leaders of the radical group of dissatisfied Africans. Odinga and other members of the legislative council formed the Kenya African National Union (KANU). The other major African party was the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). Odinga's KANU used its strong showing in the 1961 general elections to help gain Kenyatta's release.

Breaking with Leadership

Kenya gained independence in December 1963, and Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, became president. Odinga, a leader of the second largest ethnic group, the Luo, was appointed minister for home affairs in 1963, and in 1964 he became vice-president. Kenya became a de facto one-party state that year when KADU merged with KANU. Odinga increasingly opposed KANU's direction after the merger, which in his opinion helped turn the government's policies to the right. He openly challenged the government's use of private and foreign investment capital and its close ties with the West.

Within KANU a coalition formed against Odinga. He was left out of decision making, and in 1966 a KANU reorganization conference abolished his post of party vice-president. In April 1966 Odinga resigned from the government and party to form an opposition group, the Kenya People's Union (KPU). The KPU faced government harassment, and some of its leaders were jailed. In October 1969, Odinga was jailed by the government on the charge of organizing a demonstration which turned into a riot. The KPU was banned, and Odinga stayed in prison for 15 months.

Tireless Opposition Leader

Odinga remained an opposition leader throughout the 1970s. After Kenyatta's death in 1978, the new president, Daniel arap Moi, tried to bring Odinga back into KANU. But when Odinga was reinstated into the party in 1980, he attacked Moi and Kenyatta as corrupt and protested U.S. military presence in Kenya. In 1982, the party again banished Odinga and amended the constitution to make Kenya officially a one-party state.

Throughout the 1980s, international criticism of KANU's human rights record grew and Odinga remained vocal in calling for democracy. In 1991, Odinga founded the National Democratic Party, but the government refused to recognize it and briefly jailed Odinga. However, international protests were effective and later that year Odinga and five other opposition leaders formed the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the nucleus of a pro-democracy movement. When other nations cut off aid, KANU was forced to allow opposition activity.

But FORD split in 1992, and a third leader formed another party. The splits allowed Moi to win the presidency in the December 1992 elections with about 35 percent of the vote; Odinga, 81 years old, finished fourth. In 1993, Odinga's reputation suffered when he admitted taking a campaign contribution from a bank accused of bribing government officials. In the months before his death in January 1994, Odinga tried to reconcile his branch of FORD with KANU, but without success. President Moi said at Odinga's death that "Kenya has lost a great son, a nationalist, and a patriotic citizen." In truth, it had lost its strongest opposition leader.

Further Reading

Odinga's account of his life was Not Yet Uhuru: The Autobiography of Oginga Odinga (1967). Aspects of his career may be followed in A. J. Hughes, East Africa (1963, rev. ed. 1969); George Bennett, Kenya, A Political History: The Colonial Period (1963); Richard Cox, Kenyatta's Country (1965); and Ali Mazrui, Violence and Thought (1969). Africa Reportmagazine, March-April 1994, had an extensive obituary. □

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