• Stephen Osieyo

OWIGO OLANG': WHAT MANNER OF MAN

Updated: Jan 20, 2021




One day Confucius, the Chinese philosopher was walking in the wilderness with his disciples during a period of meditation and self-denial to purify the body as is a routine with any spirited persons. And deep in the mountains they stumbled onto a wailing woman with 3 children, one breastfeeding oblivious to the dangers around. And Confucius enquired why the woman was wailing. And the woman replied, “the tiger just killed my husband, two days ago it killed my son and the day before it killed my daughter who was playing in front of the house”.


Confucius replied, “And why do you decide to live in such a hostile place full of tigers? Go back to your village.”


The wailing woman instantly stopped whimpering and firmly said, “No, I cannot go back to my village. Never”


When Confucius asked why. The wailing woman said, “In my village there is oppression, so I cannot go back.”


Confucius sighed in despair, turned to his disciples and said, “Remember this my disciples. Oppression is worse than a tiger.”


Believe me this was the environment representatives like Zablon Owigo Olang’ were expected to operate in. I grew up in this period and never forgot the helplessness around me.


The passing on of Zablon Owigo Olang’ this week brings down the cellophane curtain on the invisible Luo leaders. Invisible because constitutionally Nyanza was to participate in elections but were not to be heard or seen. These Luo leaders were leading a region being taxed without representation. And I will never stop saying it until I die. It’s a far cry of leadership in Luo land today. These days you are elected and that is all. No need for Harambees; No need for fashioning of corrective or enabling legislation; no need to speak in whispers; No need to balance between pro-government or anti-government.


In Owigo Olang’s time, things were not so easy. You could do all that and still fail to get approval of your people not because they dislike you but because of manifestations of oppression. Sometimes it was because there is no room at the top like when Ochola Makanyengo is forced to constituency leadership to replace Owigo Olang’ when he Makanyengo was already a national leader much much over qualified to be the next Central Organisation of Trade Union (COTU) boss which was vacant in any case. These were politicians who were thrown in a lion’s den while somebody is constantly poking the furious lion and another inciting the voters.


I grew up in these hostile environment (tiger infested). The glass ceiling is a common sight in the diaspora Africans as it was by that time in Kenya. And predictably Makanyengo was merely used as double sword, to body-check Gogni and to side-line and stop him going to COTU because as later evidenced Makanyengo himself was never rewarded with a portfolio during cabinet ministry appointments.


This dangerous balancing act went on for a long time. There was this time President Moi came touring South Nyanza when Owigo Gogni owad-gi-Adoyo was the member of Parliament for Ndhiwa Constituency. An eager musician Jagara Odewo Olang'o, in praising President Moi simply complimented that Moi was feted before Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.


Jagara Odewo in platitudes and superlatives of a court jester simply sung the lyrical lines, “JaLang’o-a-Lang’a imiyo telo to Oginga nitie”. It was a verse just honouring the President, that Moi has been honoured with a seat preserved for our own son. It was a compliment to President Moi. But not to the attending Luo political intelligence.


Even before the function was over the lyrics were poorly interpreted by Dholuo Special branch intelligence to mean that he had praised Jaramogi over Moi. Now Owigo had the difficult task of mollifying the president then having to rush to Migori police station to save the poor musician from being molested by over eager security. Of course the damage had been done and word was already rife that the government, that Owigo is palling with is the same one that has its boots on the community’s throat. And the slur was neatly filed to be used in local vendetta in the next general elections. Such was the tight races these Luo leaders led between the government and the voters.



EARLY YEARS.

After early education, and date of birth is 12th January 1940, he started his career in law enforcement. Pre parliamentary politics he served in the police force and specifically in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Whether this was useful in voter soliciting is not known, but in the line of duty and the spirit of comradeship he must have owed allegiance to some people mostly the Vice presidents office that hosted the police department and the Public prosecutor, Charles Njonjo.


In Kenya the public prosecutor title was called Attorney General but the deputy was titled deputy public prosecutor. It is some of these random laws that Njonjo enjoyed passing such as banning the pound as a currency yet the Income Tax Act cap 54 only dealt in the currency unit of pounds. What a joke!


In brief Owigo Olang’ must have had Njonjo ears somewhat and I am not forgetting that Njonjo himself despite later public opinion had a thing for Luos. Is this not the guy who owed George King Omolo (GK of Nyakach) for his legal career? Tom Mboya's best man?. The man who filled the AG chambers with Luos and had a prevalence of hiring Luos in all institutions he patronised like a Nairobi nurses training Hospital and a series of international research bodies? And what is more, Njonjo was given a Luo community clean bill of health while later being persecuted at the Judicial inquiry. But when it came to being friends with Gogni, his detractors used it against Gogni, And I will explain why this was good for him and bad for him. In general, he did not enjoy that association because he was too early when Njonjo was not very powerful but when Njonjo became powerful, it was too little too soon. All the same the Njonjo fall from grace must have impacted on Gogni.




Political career.

The first time I heard of Gogni was in 1974 in Form 2 at Homa Bay high school which is the backdrop of Ndhiwa. His name was doing the rounds among school boys who used to venture into local rallies around Homa Bay town at up to Rodi Kopany. I remember very well because Gogni (rocks) especially of Kadem terrain are rugged looking rocks like those formed of molten volcanic lava. The sound of the name used to scare me. More so because Homa bay town is in the catchment of Kakdhimu geysers/hotsprings. In fact, where the pier at Homa Bay touches the land, there was a breathing geyser/ hostsping poorly covered with pebbles. With the grass patch it looked like just a mini round-about. Some kids warned me not to walk there or I would disappear and be found badly scalded in Karungu Bay some 60 miles away. That was the dread that I held on gogni word.



Wait a minute! What has Geology have to do with eulogy and more so biography. As is seen in Orwa Ojode, James Aggrey Orengo, Hezekiah Oyugi and others, most Luo nicknames are more spiritually inspired than their Christian names. Gogni rocks are created geologically by pressure and time from molten lava I believe, if not so then these South Nyanza gogni were created by time and pressure. Pressure and time maybe related to oppression but for now we are only talking pressure and time. And so are the geysers in this area of Luo Nyanza that are created by pressure and time deep in the earth. I was fortunate enough not to step on that geyser at Homa Bay pier in 1973! However some leaders like Owigo Gogni were not so lucky with political geysers in Luo Nyanza created by oppression or oppressive regimes. The geological formation of gogni and the vagaries of Luo Nyanza politics are created in similar ways, pressure and time (and oppressive regime).



When I finally caught sight of his poster, he wore such sleek physical features that he maintained in old age. He also had this disarming and naturally moist dark skin. Zablon Owigo Olang’ is what they call in American lingo as pretty boy. In Modern day sports he would be like Theo Walcott of English Arsenal FC because his face made him the clubs pin up calendar boy. Gogni was that pretty. Such sports personalities like Theo Walcott are paid to appear in adverts and calendars just for their good looks. I never listened to him speak so I cannot say but given that he was a tactical genius in attending to the weak voters first, in dholuo lingo he would be termed jambola (Ugenya) he must have been a smooth talker or orator. In ancient Luo he would be the wearer of kondo gweno (feather hat regalia) of Ombuny (entourage) when guys went to od-maro (mother in-law residence).


Come the general elections of 1974 and it was Odero Jowi who went through and Gogni did not make it for the Ndhiwa constituency. Then a strange fate of luck came about. Just before Jomo Kenyatta announced the Cabinet, Odero Jowi was spurned. The rumours started swelling in school. I remember my class mates George Joash, Phares and Onyango Sam Midhodho talking of Odero Jowi spurning the post because apparently he had been promised the vice president’s post in the new cabinet to replace Moi. And when that was not honoured Jowi later decided to do a more worthwhile job in UN. I did not take them seriously. What do Form 2s know about government appointments anyway. But Jowi was right. He had been a minister in Community affairs. Even if Moi had walked out of Cabinet selections committee of 1974 when legend has it that Jowi was to replace him as Vice President, it was no reason for Jomo Kenyatta to leave him without a cabinet portfolio.


Anyway, Jowi did not complete his tenure. Jowi made history as Kenya’s first politician to win a closely fought election and then abandon his electorate for greener pastures abroad. He left to join a UN agency in Canada before the end of his term.


A by-election was called and a former senior police officer, Zablon Owigo Olang’, won. He served the remaining 2 years straddling Jomo Kenyatta passing on in 1978 and the reception of Moi misrule. So an all-powerful Attorney General Njonjo hand held Vice President Moi to take over the presidency of Kenya after the constitutional 90days and to the 1979 National General elections.


1979 General elections was a rough time for Luo Nyanza politicians who were being voted out for having been Jomo Kenyatta friendly but Zablon Owigo Olang’ held his own to come through and represent Ndhiwa constituency upto 1983 when the 1982 Coup prompted an early General election.


In the 1983 General elections Zablon Owigo Olang’ lost. The defeat was seen as an eventuality after his Cabinet Minister in the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs was also ousted in a Judicial inquiry that followed in 1984.


Zablon had a formidable grass roots campaign tactics. For example, in the so called gogni spraying of cash, he would begin with mothers, children then the elderly. This really endeared him to the voters and for this reason it was just as well that a political martyr Phillip Ochola Ogaye Makanyengo was the eventual winner. Any other person would have been white washed, but with detainee Makanyengo in the field the narrative was simple: The persecuted vs persecutor’s agent on the ballot even if Makanyengo did not utter such a line.


Some of his development tactics like finding employment for the youth in the police force is what was carried forward by his protégé late Orwa Ojode, another stalwart of this region.


During his term using his proximity to all powerful Kanu stalwarts, Olang strung so many influential politicians for Harambee projects in his constituency. It’s the balancing of his proximity to the government and his allegiance to the voters that proved his distraction just like it did to late Orwa Ojode when otherwise non Ndhiwa critics swarm in.


He is easily remembered as a government loyalist when he was really loyal to Ndhiwa people and at no time betrayed the Luo community in their hour of need. But like Cabinet Minister Odongo Omamo had observed, that does not count for much in Luo land politics (tich gi dhano tek, tich gi jarateng’ tek tatata, tich gi jaLuo tek tititi). Here is a case where he balanced the tight rope of being loyal to the voters needs and the governments collective responsibility but still, this was not good enough because the oppression of Luo Nyanza had blinded all and even yours truly.


A community is easily and devastatingly reduced to endless vendetta through oppression. And this happens to any community be it Brazillian Rio Favelas, the aborigine’s communities, the South African slums, the North American Ghettos or Mafioso infested Sicily. It no wonder that the Chinese Philosopher found an easy and perfect line for oppression.


Zablon Owigo Olang’ is remembered with Ong’er bridge over river Migori which was his priority and maiden project to replace a makeshift hand ferry a replica of 1800 AD explorer’s treks into Africa. The ferry was a death trap as death from the disaster was so regular. The people who were saved from circumventing routes and the villages that bore scars of the ferry menace held Gogni dearly to heart.


In a terrain not well served with communications network, Gogni set up many schools in Bondo Kosiemo, Kirengo, Otiato. He also conceived and set up Nyatike High School. All this in addition to many health facilities.


One must not forget that all these was done in one term as an assistant Minister in a ministry without back bacon - Constitutional Affairs ministry. You wonder what could have happened if he had been in a meaty ministry like education or health. Or if he had served for 4 terms of almost a quarter a century. And better still what if he represented a constituency already endowed with infrastructure like Siaya and Kisumu district constituencies.


Zablon Owigo Olang’ was truly a politician born with too much of a weight to bear and against all odds. And he did pretty well in that short space of time.


What would Zablon Owigo Olang, Gogni, Owad-gi-Adoyo have done in the new governance structure as a governor of any of Luo Nyanza’s 4 counties with bottomless of decentralised cash? Aayaaye Owad-gi-Adoyoo, pier-ja-jony-makata-ibedo-go-e-citroen-to-ni-piera-koro-ojony (pressure + time). A philosopher once said, "there is no greater joy than remembering happy times". We can only sit back, reminisce and smile.




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