History Kenyatta's Cabinet

Oversaw growth of hospitals, James Charles Nakhwanga Osogo


What comes to one’s mind whenever one converses with James Charles Nakhwanga Osogo is Shakespeare’s dictum in As you like it: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”

At his Kilimani home in Nairobi, the evidence of Osogo’s graceful aging is a doting granddaughter who won’t leave the old man alone. Clearly, the young girl will one day understand that his grandfather was a pioneering political leader, one who contributed greatly to shaping the political theatre that Kenya is.

Osogo fought many political battles and stuck out his neck sometimes in the most charged of circumstances in Kenya’s history. In 1975, for instance, following the death of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, Osogo who was the Minister for Health, led the Government’s attempt to scuttle the Parliamentary Select Committee’s report that had implicated Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga and General Services Unit Commandant Benjamin Gethi in the murder.

The Busia South (now Bunyala) MP moved a motion urging the House to “…note and understand rather than accept the report”. This amendment motion was defeated. MPs were so incensed that they could not entertain anything that would water down the motion.

Today, Osogo explains the circumstances in which he moved the motion thus: “I had no ulterior motives. All I wanted was to save the Mwangale report. What had happened was that an initial report which I happened to have seen had many more names (of people implicated) compared with the one that Mwangale had presented in parliament. It appears that Mwangale had been forced to withdraw the first report because the names of some very senior politicians were in it but some of us had seen this very report.”

Whether it was because of his taking a pro-Government line at a time when the mood in Parliament and elsewhere was anti-Government remains a matter of conjecture. What is for sure is that in the post-JM murder period, his political stock appreciated, a major boost to his career being his elevation to the position of Deputy Leader of Government Business in the House.

Osogo was born in the little village of Bukani in Bunyala district in 1932, the second born in a family of 10. He was raised in a strict Catholic family, his father being an official of the local church. Indeed, he says that, as a child, his first desire was to join a seminary and become a priest but that this was not to be. But he ended up at St Mary’s Yala School, the famous Catholic-church sponsored institution that nurtured many a talent in Kenya’s formative years. Indeed, his school-mates included a certain Thomas Joseph Mboya.

After school, Osogo had a lingering ambition for the military, specifically the Royal Navy, but opportunities in this area were scarce and thus he took an opportunity to serve in the East African Railways – a major source of employment then. This entailed training at the East African Railways and Harbours Institute (today, the Kenya Railways Training Institute) in Nairobi.

If Osogo’s political consciousness, particularly against the colonialists, had been pricked while at Yala, joining the Railway Institute brought him face to face with the brutal face of imperialism. He would witness and participate in the riots called by such fiery trade union leaders as Markhan Singh and Kung’u Karumba.

On completion of his studies, he was employed as Assistant Station Master at various railways stations in Kenya and Uganda. “This gave me an opportunity to traverse the two countries, in the course of which I met and interacted with very many people”, he recalls. However, he says his heart was never really in Railways. His passion was in teaching, “which for me was the closest thing to politics, since, by imparting knowledge, you influence people towards development.”

What accelerated his departure from the railways were the many instances of discrimination against Africans — many of which he could not stomach. He recalls many occasions when he had a run-in with the colonial railways management.

Thus, in 1953, Osogo sought and got admission to Kagumo Teachers Training College, from where he would graduate three years later. Like the Railways Institute, Kagumo had the effect of expanding his knowledge of Kenya’s leadership challenges at the time, mainly the Mau Mau uprising and the fact that Kagumo was in the heartland of Kikuyu country, where a brutal purge was going on.

After graduation, Osogo was posted to Sigalame Intermediate School in his Busia home district, where he entered politics, serving as a councillor in the Nyanza African District Council. He thus doubled up as a teacher and as a councillor at the relatively young age of 24. This was not to last, however. Two years later, the District Council was dissolved ostensibly because Osogo and his colleagues were very critical of the colonial administration.

In 1959, Osogo was transferred to Port Victoria Intermediate School, on the shores of Lake Victoria, a much more urbanised area. This was also the year he married his first wife, Maria. His stay at Port Victoria would, however, be short. Within the year, he had run afoul of the colonial administration, especially by being outspoken about the fishing rights of his Bunyala people.

“The colonialists wanted to dominate and monopolise fishing in Lake Victoria. As nobody was coming out strongly enough to defend the rights of the locals, I decided that I would stand up for the rights of my people,” he says.

For his agitation, the colonial administration rewarded him with a transfer to Kabasaka Intermediate School in Nandi District, banishing him from his people. “This infuriated me but I took it in my stride, knowing that, in my plans, the transfer would be a temporary stop before going on to serve the people on a full time basis,” he says.

When Kanu was formed in 1960, Osogo was one of the first people to join the party. He would show independence of mind by sticking with Kanu even when his native Luhyaland decamped to Kadu, in part because one of its leading lights was Muliro, the sole representative of Elgon Nyanza (Western Province) in the Legco .

“I felt very strongly that we needed a national party that would bring together all Kenyan people as a force to defeat the colonialists and felt that divisions would make us weak,” says he.

Thanks to the passing of the Lancaster Constitution in 1961, elections were called throughout the country. Osogo’s Bunyala region was in Central Nyanza District and, at elections, attracted eight candidates. He thought he had a chance. When the results were in, however, he had come in at number three after Odinga and Kodhek. After the elections, he lobbied for nomination by Kanu but the slot went to Walter Odede instead, even though Osogo had entertained the thought that, as one of the foremost Luhya contestants, he would be considered over a Luo politician. Across the party lines, Kadu nominated Peter Habenga Okondo, the man who would be Osogo’s nemesis.

The first major salvo in the Osogo–Okondo duel was to be played out in 1963 as part of the comprehensive political reforms accompanying Kenya’s independence. In the battle for Ruwambwa constituency, Osogo emerged victorious, notwithstanding the fact that Okondo had had a headstart as a nominated MP in the previous Parliament, as well as being the more educated of the two men. Okondo boasted of a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Cape Town and had served as a senior Government official in the Ministry of Finance in Uganda.

When he made his debut in Parliament, Osogo was appointed Agriculture Ministry Parliamentary Secretary (assistant minister). The Agriculture Minister was Bruce McKenzie. When the relationship between President Kenyatta and Vice-President Odinga turned from comradeship to sworn enemies, Osogo was to be a beneficiary. In the 1966 reshuffle, he replaced Oneko as the Information and Broadcasting minister.

The Osogo–Okondo battle was replayed in 1969. Osogo would once again trounce Okondo but with the thin margin of 600 votes. Kenyatta appointed Osogo Minister for Commerce and Industry.

“Some of the major industries in Kenya today were initiated during my tenure at the ministry,” says Osogo. He lists Pan African Paper Mills, Firestone tyre company (now Yana) and Mumias Sugar Company as examples of the Government’s investment in manufacturing under his watch.

From Commerce and Industry, Osogo was moved to the Ministry of Local Government, where he oversaw the transformation of many market and urban centres into town councils.

In 1974, Okondo tactifully decided not to contest the Busia South seat and, instead, threw his weight behind James Ombere Okoch, a relative of Osogo. It would appear that Okondo’s strategy was to erode Osogo’s support by pitting a blood relative against him. The contest was bruising. Still, Osogo scraped through with a smaller margin. He was appointed Minister for Health at a time when the sector was going through many difficulties. Nairobi’s Kenyatta National Hospital, the country’s only referral facility, was in a shambles. Medical doctors were threatening industrial action against poor living and working conditions. When Osogo introduced a Bill seeking to regulate the medical practitioners, the professionals became defiant.

Osogo used a hands-on approach to address these mounting problems. At the same time he oversaw an ambitious expansion of medical facilities throughout the country. Indeed, modern buildings at Kenyatta National were completed during his tenure as were many provincial and District Hospitals countrywide. When Kenyatta died in 1978, Osogo’s fortunes started to plummet and he found himself facing new challenges.  He believes this was one of the reasons he was not in the good books of Moi’s new regime.

In the 1979 elections, all indications were that Moi was intent on getting new faces across the nation as he sought to consolidate his power base. Many political careers ended abruptly as newcomers with demonstrated loyalty to the new president romped home.

Osogo managed to stave off a spirited battle from his perpetual nemesis, Okondo, and on his return to Parliament, Osogo was appointed Minister for Agriculture while retaining the Deputy Leader of Government Business position that he had held from June 1975.

If ominous signs that things would not be rosy for Osogo in the new dispensation were discernible everywhere, the clearest indication was in the 1980s when his agriculture portfolio was split into two with the creation of the Ministry of Livestock, to which he was moved.

As his duties and functions were thus being clipped, he had another worry in the form of a petition by a voter who claimed he had won by administering an oath. Osogo lost his parliamentary seat in 1981 with a heavy price — being legally barred from contesting the seat for five years. In the ensuing by-election, Osogo threw his weight behind a retired army officer, William Diffu, against Okondo. But the Kanu party machinery was determined to ensure Okondo made it to Parliament. Diffu was barred from contesting and Okondo sailed through unopposed. Okondo would win again in 1983 and 1988 against Osogo. When Okondo won the latter elections, however, Osogo petitioned and ironically pointed out oath taking as the main ground. The court dismissed the petition. Not long after this, Okondo, known for oral gaffes in public, was involved in an altercation with outspoken Anglican Bishop Alexander Muge. When Muge, a vocal critic of the Moi Government,  died in  a car crash shortly after Okondo had threatened that he would not emerge alive should he visit Okondo’s Busia, public pressure was so high that Okondo had no choice but to resign from his ministerial position.

When the multi-party wave gained momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Osogo joined Ford Kenya and became the party’s Busia branch chairman. However, he did not stay long in the opposition as he was persuaded by Moi to rejoin Kanu.

“I was all for the Opposition but when the main opposition leaders could not agree to field one candidate against Moi, I had to be realistic. I knew that divided they would not beat Moi. I tried to advise but the Opposition was full of ambitious people who would not leave room for one another. These were the circumstances in which I rejoined Kanu,” says Osogo.

He easily won the Bunyala seat (formerly Busia South) and, on return to Parliament after a decade in the cold, he was appointed Assistant Minister for Commerce. This was clearly against his expectations of coming back as a Cabinet Minister.

In 1997, Osogo was, with Achieng Oneko, co-chairman of the Inter Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) that successfully negotiated minimum reforms before that year’s elections. During the 2002 elections, however, Osogo lost to newcomer Raphael Wanjala for the now renamed Budalang’i constituency. After the loss, Osogo hang his political boots. Today he shuttles between his Nairobi and Busia homes, on personal business.

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