James Orengo – The indefatigable soldier

Only he knows his next move. But undoubtedly, he’s the swashbuckler of current Kenyan politics — daring and in a hurry to tackle the powerful and the mighty, and rarely shying away from divisive matters, such as impeaching the President or Cabinet members. This has been his fodder for 40 years. And this explains why, just days after his appointment to the Cabinet in April 2008, the Daily Nation reported thus: “any rumour (Orengo) was to visit a corner of the country would see the adrenaline of the police rise with scores of them reaching for either a club, a tear gas canister or any other riot dispersal gear available to them”.

As it were, the Presidency is always the ultimate prize for every politician worth his salt. For Orengo, December 2002 was momentous. He ran for President of the Republic of Kenya and came a distant fourth with polling 0.4 per cent of the total vote. Orengo ran on the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Ahead of him were Kibaki (61.3 per cent), Uhuru Kenyatta (30.2 per cent) and Simeon Nyachae (5.9 per cent).

The seasoned politician that he is, Orengo isn’t timid about reinventing himself. His plan in 2002 to weaken Raila Odinga’s grip on Luo Nyanza politics floundered. But now Orengo is the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader’s hatchet man. That apart, as Senate Minority Leader, Orengo is currently arguably the most powerful elected Opposition legislator in the country, much to the chagrin of his critics who had predicted the end of his political career following his failed presidential bid.

First elected to Parliament in 1980, and despite his proactive approach to politics and governance, Orengo has mostly been in the Opposition. The only time he has been in government was during the Government of National Unity, a coalition government, where he served as Minister for Lands and Settlement, for five years. As documented elsewhere in this profile, he had mixed success in this very sensitive ministry. The Daily Nation, on 24 April 2008, aptly captured his rise, in an article titled ‘Orengo’s long and windy route to the Cabinet’.

Orengo’s Parliamentary tenure has not been without its fair share of drama. Just after President Daniel arap Moi succeeded Jomo Kenyatta, a group of MPs emerged that kept the new government on its toes by challenging almost all repressive policies. It was a group of young MPs, energetic, outspoken and combative. The MPs were Orengo, Abuya Abuya, Onyango Midika, Mwashengu wa Mwachofi, Lawrence Sifuna, Chibule wa Tsuma, Koigi Wamwere. Their close allies included Chelagat Mutai, Wasike Ndombi and George Anyona.

The group emerged and become powerful enough to counter Moi’s attempt to consolidate power after taking over from Kenyatta. Currently, some of the members of this group remain politically active while others have since retired or died. Abuya’s attempt to relaunch his fortunes in Nairobi’s Kibera during the 2019 by-elections failed. Midika has retired, as have 78-year-old Tsuma, Wamwere, Mwachofi, and 74-year-old Sifuna. George Anyona passed away in 2003.

Orengo was born in February 1950. His father, Orengo senior, went to school with Kenya’s first Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, at Maseno School. Orengo senior was also a friend of Argwings Kodhek (a member of the Colonial Legislative Council). Orengo schooled in various primary schools in Nairobi, Kiganjo and Ugenya, and later at Ambira and Alliance high schools for his O’ and A’ levels. He then studied law at the University of Nairobi.

After he completing his studies, Orengo worked at the Ministry of Lands and Settlement as an Assistant Secretary.

Orengo was first elected to Parliament in 1980. But before long, he got into trouble with President Daniel arap Moi’s government and was forced to flee to Tanzania. He was later extradited back to Kenya in June 1983 alongside the 1982 coup plotter Hezekiah Ochuka. Orengo lost his seat in January 1983 after he fled the country, accused of, among other crimes, forgery, issuing false cheques and stealing client’s money.

Luckily, with the onset of multiparty politics in Kenya, he was re-elected in 1992 and retained his seat in the subsequent election. Years in the political cold didn’t suppress Orengo’s hatred for the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and Moi. His proposal to impeach President Moi in 1998 failed to marshal enough support in Parliament. But it drew a sharp reaction from KANU leadership. Nominated MP George Ndotto said Orengo was treading on dangerous grounds. “Had the vote of no-confidence passed, the whole government including Parliament would have stood dissolved,” Orengo would later recall in an article in the Daily Nation.

Earlier, in March 1996, Orengo had claimed that Moi wouldn’t have been in power then if the Constitution had been changed. “When an old bull is praised all the time, it becomes unconscious to its age … President Moi asked for a job, and if he cannot do it, he should take a break … He has been at the helm for far too long and needs to take a rest,” he told Parliament. The following year, Orengo presented a motion seeking Parliament to declare a vote of no confidence in the government. He attempted the same in 1998.

Apart from a plan to oust President Moi, Orengo also always put pressure on Vice President George Saitoti and Cabinet ministers to resign. At one time he claimed in Parliament that Cabinet ministers in the KANU government had “made the government part of their economic enterprise for self-enrichment”, the Daily Nation reported.

When Oginga Odinga — at the time leader of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-Kenya) party — and Moi had agreed to ‘cooperate’, Orengo appeared to oppose the liaison. He maintained the same position when Odinga’s son, Raila, would later come to an understanding with Moi. While Raila decamped to the National Development Party (NDP), Orengo remained in FORD-Kenya, and this change of status was evident in frequent skirmishes between the two parties.

Raila’s decision to tango with KANU appeared to suggest that he, the NDP leader, had abandoned his Luo ethnic community known for its decades-long opposition to KANU. Eventually, when Raila disagreed with Moi and decided to throw his weight behind Kibaki as his preferred Presidential flag-bearer, Orengo seized the opportunity to run for President, expecting to benefit from a disillusioned community. However, his dismal performance in the Presidential race run jolted him.

But it is instructive to note that the fight for the Luo turf between Orengo and Raila had started much earlier, indeed way back before 1996 when seven of the community’s MPs ‘anointed’ the former as the Luo spokesman and Achieng Oneko as the Chief Adviser. “We are fed up with talk that the Luo have no leader. And we declare here today for all to hear that Orengo is our political spokesman after he beat Raila Odinga at an election attended by all MPs from the community,” said the then Kasipul Kabondo MP Otieno K’Opiyo, as reported in the Daily Nation of 23 September that year.

In May 1996, Orengo, then Vice Chairman of FORD-Kenya, tabled a motion in Parliament calling for a national convention to discuss the Constitution ahead of the 1997 General Election. This motion, which was ferociously opposed by the KANU leadership, was seconded by Democratic Party (DP) chairman Kibaki, who called on KANU MPs to “stop the pretence and be honest with themselves on the need for constitutional reform”. According to the DP leader, some laws, including the Public Order Act, the Chiefs Authority Act, the Vagrancy Act, and the Preservation of Public Security Act were repressive as they were not in agreement with the spirit of democracy, reported the Daily Nation.

Yet, it is instructive to note that with all his fiery attacks on fellow politicians, Orengo always avoided antagonising Kibaki — the person who allowed him to work as a Cabinet Minister. Perhaps this explains why, during the back and forth negotiations between the then Opposition leader Raila Odinga and Kibaki while cobbling together the Government of National Unity, Kibaki agreed that Orengo should take up the Ministry of Lands and Settlement.

Apart from the respect between the two, Kibaki was aware of Orengo’s resourcefulness, not only in the Opposition but also in government. Having worked in the Lands office before joining politics and being a lawyer who is able to discern the legal imbroglio in land matters, Orengo was first among equals in the list of possible holders of this Cabinet portfolio.

In June 2003, just six months into his rule, President Kibaki appointed a commission to look into the thorny issue of land grabbing in Kenya. It ultimately came to be known as the Ndung’u Commission, as its chairman was Paul Ndiritu Ndung’u. Its eventual report detailed the widespread abuse of public and State land at the hands of well-connected individuals and top government officials. Interestingly, among the culprits the report mentioned was Moi, the man Kibaki succeeded as President.

Orengo took up the Lands docket with palpable vim. Just days after his appointment, he put land grabbers on notice, promising to implement the Ndung’u Report to the letter and to repossess grabbed land. “If I go to Limuru and Nyeri, people are concentrated in congested land whereas stretches of land in the same regions belong to a few rich landowners,” he said, pledging to right historical injustices, reported the Daily Nation.

Indeed, he embarked on the task with exuberance. In 2009 he cancelled all leaseholds granted in 1909, declaring that the pieces had reverted to the government. The cancellation affected leases in Kirinyaga Road, buildings on Tom Mboya and Kimathi streets, Parklands, and plots in Mombasa Old Town and tea estates. President Kibaki had to step in after public outcry. “Those who have leaseholds or letters of allotment that have expired should renew them in the normal way and there should be no reason for panic. Processing of these documents should always be expedited by relevant government authorities,” Kibaki said during the 2009 Madaraka Day celebrations.

Orengo’s exuberance caused substantial concern within the sector. People thought he was ruffling feathers too much and too fast. But others thought he was up to the job. “Mr Orengo, you know the law but you also have expressed that you shall use political will to achieve justice in the shortest time possible. You have many supporters on this and Mombasa residents have in the past shown that they will support the government to get back what is theirs,” journalist Njuguna Mutonya wrote in a commentary in the Daily Nation in May 2008, the month after Orengo’s appointment.

But was he aware that the Ministry of Lands and Settlement is a hot potato, in a manner of speaking?

In 2009 he found himself embroiled in controversy occasioned by his Ministry’s decision to purchase land for the resettlement of the 2007–2008 post-election violence (PEV) victims. It emerged that some of the land pieces earmarked for this had been irregularly acquired and should have been repossessed by the government, as recommended by the Ndung’u Commission. Yet, despite his earlier promise to go after landgrabbers, Orengo would argue that the government lacked a mechanism to reclaim grabbed land. Instead, he opted to purchase the land pieces.

Boni Khalwale, the then the chairperson of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said: “As Parliament and as PAC, we will be reluctant to allow public funds to go towards purchasing land belonging to the public. Orengo should tell Kenyans whose interests he is protecting if they are not the interests of the public,” according to a report in the Daily Nation.

Two months into the job, Orengo raised the official land search fees from KES 100 to KES 3,000. This sparked uproar, forcing him to review the increase. “Due to the public outcry, and in view of the current economic hardships affecting the majority of Kenyans, especially in the rural areas where most land is registered under the Registered Land Act (RLA), the ministry is considering revising the newly gazetted fees,” Orengo told Parliament in June 2008.

He unearthed a scheme where fraudsters had infiltrated government registries and were issuing out fake titles. “They are so daring and arrogant,” Orengo stated in a December 2008 article in the Daily Nation.

The National Land Policy was drafted during Orengo’s tenure but surveyors accused him of delaying the production of a Sessional Paper on the policy. The policy has had far-reaching effects on the land ownership pattern in Kenya, in terms of land rights and dispute resolution, among other issues. The Institute of Surveyors of Kenya in July 2009 described the policy as “the only gift that Kenya has received since independence”, said the Daily Nation.

He also issued titles to group ranches hit by controversy, especially those in Kwale.

In August 2009 Orengo announced that the government would not allow the converting of leasehold title deeds to freehold titles. This is because the government spent huge sums buying back land from individuals with freehold titles when it sought to expand public utilities such as roads. “Everywhere, everyone wants their land to be converted into freehold. We will not give people freehold land because it means they hold it for eternity and we cannot get it back,” he told Parliament.

During his time as Lands Minister, Orengo memorably nullified the allocation of 30,000 acres of land in Lamu and Tana River counties to a foreign investor.

As Minister he strongly supported dialogue in the resolution of the squatter resettlement issue in the Mau Forest. He saw politics and not necessarily conservation in attempts by some Rift Valley leaders to block the eviction of squatters in the key Mau water catchment area. An article in the Daily Nation reported the Minister as saying: “MPs from this region should not employ populist politics over the Mau issue … They should, instead, let this matter be resolved professionally.”

Orengo was a member of the team hastily put together to work with retired UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to return peace to Kenya following the extensive violence over the December 2007 Presidential election results that claimed about 1,500 lives. The team, aptly called the ‘Serena Team’ for the venue of its meeting, Serena Hotel in Nairobi, sat for 39 days before coming up with the roadmap to peace and recovery.

In 2009 Orengo, Mutula Kilonzo and Attorney General Amos Wako were at the centre of finding ways to prosecute the masterminds of the PEV in Kenya rather than at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The option was either a division of the High Court, a special tribunal — Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission — or ICC. When the government failed to establish a special tribunal within a stipulated time, Annan forwarded the suspects’ names to the ICC Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo.

Orengo supported the move. “His action is completely justified because one year down the line, we do not have a system to implement recommendations of the Waki Commission,” Mr Orengo told the Sunday Nation.

Still, Orengo soldiers on. Forty years since he was first elected to Parliament, it’s everybody’s guess where his eyes are now set. Almost 70 years ago, General Douglas MacArthur coined the catchphrase ‘Soldiers Don’t Die’; Orengo’s politics is still alive — and isn’t fading away any soon. He is truly an indefatigable soldier.

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