In 1963, Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta appointed C.M.G. Argwings-Kodhek an Assistant Minister for Defence. In 1966, he was promoted to head the Ministry of Natural Resources and eventually in 1967 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was a true hero of the independence movement whose personal sacrifice, determined resistance and unfailing courage are good examples for the youth.
Argwings-Kodhek was the first Member of Parliament for Gem in Siaya, serving from independence in 1963 to 1969. He was a human rights’ lawyer based in Nairobi, where the bug of politics bit him shortly after returning to Kenya from London, where he had graduated with a law degree.
The colonial authorities branded him “a hot head” for his activism and human rights campaigns for his defence of Mau Mau freedom fighters, like Waruru Kanja (who later became Nyeri Town MP and Cabinet Minister), among other nationalists. While working in Nairobi, CMG launched his own party, the Nairobi Congress Party, to fight it out with Mboya’s Nairobi People’s Convention Party. The initials CMG stood for Chiedo Moa Gem, given to him by his parents in remembrance of one of their forefathers.
Kodhek used the initials as a political nickname in his Dholuo language. Chiedo Moa Gem literally means “fried (or cooked up) in Gem”. But his critics mistakenly accused him of being brainwashed by the British during his student days.
Born in 1923 in Malanga, Gem location, Argwings-Kodhek went to St Mary’s Yala and later King’s College Budo, Uganda. CMG was from the Kagola Ojuodhi clan, the same lineage of his successors, Isaac Omolo Okero (MP and Cabinet Minister, 1969-79) and Prof B. A. Ogot, husband of Grace Ogot, who was Gem MP between 1985 and 1992. After Budo, CMG taught at Kapsabet Boys High School, where he met Moi.
Argwings-Kodhek then won a scholarship to study teaching in England, but his interest was law, which the colonial government did not approve of. After a year, his scholarship was terminated and his father sold many cows to pay for his tuition.
He qualified as a barrister and was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. This was an outstanding achievement and he had an opportunity to stay in England and be a well-paid barrister. But he astounded his colleagues when he informed them that he would leave for Kenya. Argwings-Kodhek was among the first indigenous Kenyans to become lawyers on the eve of independence. He was in the same league with Njonjo, Jean Marie Seroney (Tinderet MP between 1963 and 1975 and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly).
He then returned home and the colonial government offered him a job as a legal assistant in the Registrar-General’s office, where his colleagues were Njonjo, Seroney and Mareka Gecaga. Gecaga later quit to join British American Tobacco Kenya Ltd as chairman. But CMG quit the job and became a legal defender of the Mau Mau, often for little or no pay. For this, he earned the wrath of the colonial government, who saw him as a Mau Mau lawyer. But to Africans, he was proof — if any were needed — of the European lie that black people were only fit for menial positions. The fact that Argwings-Kodhek had a European wife added to the colonial hatred of him.
At the Lancaster House conference in 1960 and 1962, Argwings-Kodhek was one of the legal minds that guided the Kenyan team around the traps set by the colonialists. One of the hallmarks of the colonial government was the divide-and-rule tactics. In Kenya, they had successfully divided the colony along tribal lines. When Argwings-Kodhek started a national party in 1956, the authorities passed a law that only allowed district parties for Africans. And to prevent Kodhek’s success, many hurdles were placed in his way.
The turning point in the struggle for independence came after the Hola Massacre in 1959, followed by a cover-up attempt by the colonial authorities. The world of prisoners in a detention camp at Hola was far removed from the hallowed halls of the House of Commons in London. But there was a bridge — Argwings-Kodhek — who had defended many detainees. He had friends in the British parliament. Through them, he exposed the truth behind the massacre. Comparisons were drawn between Hola and Hitler’s concentration camps. The inquest that followed affected the relations between the colonial government and the Foreign Office when the colonial reports were seen for what they were — dishonest about the heinous brutality carried out in the Queen’s name.
During the liberation struggle, Argwings-Kodhek, together with Oneko and Ngei, were some of the most prominent non-Kikuyus to openly associate with Mau Mau. President Kenyatta appointed Oneko and Ngei to the first Cabinet.
In politics, Kodhek was praised by his admirers as “one who was imbued with diplomacy”. But he was also a no-nonsense debater and did not mince his words. This is reflected in his contributions in Parliament as captured in the Hansard on the controversy over the responsibilities between the central and regional governments (majimbo).
Argwings-Kodhek, who was a Parliamentary Secretary (Assistant Minister) for Natural Resources, said: “Mr Speaker Sir, although members of the Opposition are rather jubilant because they have ‘Noes’ with loud voices like old crows, it has been pathetic to listen to people who have to share the responsibility for misinforming the public about the Kenyan Constitution.
“We want to build a nation: one nation. But it is because of the obstructionist policy of members opposite that things are delayed. There were a few points about not facing up to our responsibilities. It may be that you people are not interested that we really serve. Perhaps you do not really mind.
“I have also heard the Member for Butere speak about people having been misinformed. I happen to be in the constituency bordering Butere and I hope there are people in Butere in this House who could confirm that the person who deceived the people most in Butere is the member for Butere!”
Speaker Humphrey Slade cut short the debate, saying he would not allow issues to be personalised. But the Kanu MP defended his party against claims by Kadu rivals that they did not respect the Lancaster Constitution agreements.
“Surely, we have done our best, and you have been assured that we will continue to do our best respecting this. During the period just before the elections (1963), everyone on this side of the House tried his best to let you know what they were to expect in the present Government.
“Whatever is going to happen about the Constitution, whether in Kiswahili or Giriama, the people will have to know about it; but that is not the matter. If the Opposition is interested in getting the people to know about these things, I hope the Opposition will sincerely support the Government in doing so.”
Argwings-Kodhek was a nationalist, as his famous contribution during debate on the 1965 Budget Speech showed: “In ending this (speech), I must beseech all members and pray that we shall have, as the Germans say, ‘Kenya above all’, Deutschland uber alles (Germany above all) so that we may live here and, when we die, we shall have left Kenya a better place than when we came to it.”
On the need to forge national unity, Argwings-Kodhek said: “I would like to speak about some of those things that can unite us most. We have had a great deal of recklessness in the past and we have a great deal of what it is that divides the people of this country.”
One of these, Argwings-Kodhek said, was the threat of tribalism. He appealed to his communities in western Kenya — the Luo and the Luhya — to live peacefully.
Argwings-Kodhek deplored cliques and conspiracies, saying night meetings led to divisions. He said: “That is why we must be on the lookout. It is said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. We are likely to lose our liberty because so many of these secret leagues which, if allowed to continue, could lead to disruption.”
When Odinga left Kanu and founded the Kenya People’s Union in 1966, Kodhek stuck with Kanu. He served as Foreign Minister for two years — 1967 to 1969 — until his death in a mysterious road accident at Kilimani, Nairobi. Today, the road bears his name. It was a sad coincidence that Argwings-Kodhek died just months before his former rival, Mboya.
His son, Caesar, says: “Now, 40 years after his death, it is time for a grateful nation to look back at the sacrifices made to free this country from the yoke of colonialism and rededicate ourselves to the ideals that our fathers stood for. We are proud of our Kenyan heritage; let us not forget the heroes who bequeathed it to us.”