Otieno Kajwang’ – The mapambano slapstick star

Among the individuals who served in President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet, a few stood out from the rest. They had their own way of making their presence felt wherever they went and whatever they did.

One such charismatic Minister was the towering Gerald Otieno Kajwang.

Kajwang’s trademark hearty laughter and sense of humour made him irresistible even among his political foes, who named him a ‘political comedian’; many did not take him seriously because of the way he clowned in public.

When he died in November 2014 the political class united to mourn the eloquent debater, patriot and nationalist who turned political gatherings into mass songfests and a man who commanded a presence whenever he walked into a room or on to a political podium.

He was a good dancer, a very jolly guy and outgoing. You could not hate him even when you wanted to

“He was a good dancer, a very jolly guy and outgoing. You could not hate him even when you wanted to,” his former Cabinet colleague, now Isiolo Governor Mohamed Kuti, recalls.

Another Cabinet colleague, current Kisumu Governor Prof Anyang Nyong’o, wrote in The Standard newspaper, “I write today to mourn Senator Gerald Otieno Kajwang’ of Homa Bay. Otieno Nyakwar Nyakwamba. Otieno DeLoks, as I used to call him, meaning ‘Okil Kamaloka’, which in Dho-Luo simply means ‘the lawyer who can turn everything around, so even a lie becomes the truth’.” Prof Nyong’o added that the late Kajwang had “mastered his own art of debate and delivery” with a “knack of wittingly laughing at his own arguments, with a quiet chuckle and facial expression that no doubt conveyed the seriousness of what he was saying.”

President Kibaki eulogised him thus: “The late Kajwang, be it in Cabinet or public rallies, expressed his views with notable flair and exuberance. Indeed, one did not need to necessarily agree with him every time but few, if any, would fail to notice, let alone ignore, his trademark charm and charisma.”
Throughout his personal and political career, Kajwang lived a controversial life from his youth to his death. He entered active politics in the early 1990s and in 1997 was elected to Parliament to represent the people of Mbita Constituency on a National Development Party (NDP) ticket. He retained the seat in 2002 on a National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ticket and again in 2007, under the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party.

In 2013 Kajwang’ vied for and won the Homa Bay County senatorial seat.

“Except for the period in Kibaki’s second term when he held a Cabinet position, Kajwang’ was always the vanguard of Opposition ranks both in and out of Parliament, playing his role with copious enthusiasm until his death. He was an ebullient debater; and an argumentatively stubborn backbencher in the August House. His stint in the Senate was short and undramatic,” Joe Khamisi, a former Member of Parliament (MP) and author of The Politics of Betrayal: Diary of A Kenyan Legislator, wrote about Kajwang.

In April 2008, Kajwang was appointed Immigration and Registration of Persons Minister in the Government of National Unity formed by Kibaki and Raila Odinga following the disputed 2007 General Election, which resulted in post-election violence.

Before his appointment as Minister, Kajwang had proved his worth in the divisive politics of the time, moving a vote of no confidence against the Vice President George Saitoti and proving himself as Odinga’s trusted lieutenant.

Kajwang, who was among Odinga’s advisers and confidants, never even once went against the wishes of the ODM leader.

“Yes, he was a political irritant to the ruling elite but he was also a patriot, a democrat and a principled and consistent leader, one of few politicians whose support for party leader, Raila Odinga, remained intact to the end,” Mr Khamisi wrote about him.

Unlike many polished politicians who are hesitant to eat in public places either for fear of embarrassment or poisoning, Kajwang mingled and ate with the masses generous helpings of ugali and fish or matumbo (tripe) in places like Burma Market in Nairobi. He never left a funeral without eating.

Born into a political family, he was the first born of 12 children: three girls and nine boys. Three of his brothers followed in his political footsteps — Homa Bay Senator Moses Kajwang, Ruaraka MP T.J. Kajwang and Kaptembwa Ward MCA Peter Kajwang, were all elected in the 2017 General Election. His father, the late David Ajwang’ Nyakwamba, was a teacher while his late mother, Dorcas Akumu Ajwang’, is remembered as one of the first female African primary school teachers in the 1940s.

Kajwang joined Waondo Primary School in 1964 and sat for the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) examination seven years later. Friends remember him as a playful and notorious pupil who arrived in school late leading to frequent punishment. After the CPE exams, he joined Mbita High School for O’ Levels, where he caused even more trouble. “He was sent away for leading a strike against badly cooked food. Since his father was the deputy headmaster at Mbita High School, he managed to secure him a place in Form Two at the school,” his former schoolmate, Ochieng Oreng, said in an interview with the Daily Nation.

He was a member of the school choir and performed well in his O’ Level examinations emerging as the best candidate. Kajwang proceeded to Homa Bay High School for A’ Levels, from where he was expelled after leading a strike following an altercation with the school librarian. He would later secure a slot at the prestigious Maseno School where he completed his A’ levels. In 1977, he was admitted to the University of Nairobi to study Law, setting the stage for his activism and political career.

After being elected as the Secretary General of the Nairobi University Students Organisation (NUSO) in 1979, Kajwang led the first demonstrations against newly elected President Daniel arap Moi, resulting in his expulsion from the university. He was expelled alongside Rumba Kinuthia and Mukhisa Kituyi. He later competed his studies at Makerere University in Uganda through the help of progressive lecturers from the University of Nairobi. Upon graduation from Makerere, Kajwang joined the Kenya School of Law and graduated with a Diploma in Law after which he was admitted to the bar as an advocate in 1984.

He remained a rebel.

In 1990, Kajwang led a riot by lawyers, protesting the arrest of lawyers Mohamed Ibrahim and John Khaminwa who had presented politicians accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The riots resulted in the closure of courts for two days.

His legal career suffered a setback on 11 August 1999 when the Law Society (LSK) Disciplinary Committee banned him from practising as an advocate for allegedly stealing from a client. He was subsequently struck off the Roll of Advocates for professional misconduct.

“I felt like I was being persecuted for my opinions on certain issues. It is very painful to work so hard to qualify for a profession only to be denied the opportunity to practise. I am still very bitter with the decision to bar me,” he defended himself in an undated interview.

Kajwang practised as a lawyer for several years and served as the legal adviser for both the original Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party, and one of its offshoots FORD-Kenya, and the National Development Party (NDP), a party led by former political detainee, Odinga.

Kajwang joined NDP from FORD-Kenya where he was the legal secretary. This was after Odinga left FORD-Kenya to Kijana Wamalwa and his faction following endless disputes over its control. It was through NDC that Kajwang joined the Odinga political dynasty. In the 1997 General Election, Kajwang was elected on a NDP ticket becoming one of the 21 MPs to be elected from this party; Luo Nyanza voted overwhelmingly for Odinga and the NDP in that election. Only James Orengo in Ugenya and Joe Donde in Gem Constituency were re-elected on a different party ticket in Luo Nyanza in the 1997 General Election.

Soon after his win, Kajwang proposed a vote of no confidence against Vice President Saitoti over corruption in relation to the Goldenberg scandal. This was a political scandal in the 1990s where the Government of Kenya had subsidised exports of gold beyond standard arrangements. The government had paid 35 per cent more (in Kenya shillings) than the country’s foreign currency earnings for the deal. When the motion did not go far, Kajwang filed a private application before a magistrate on behalf of Odinga seeking to have Saitoti prosecuted in relation to his alleged involvement in the Goldenberg issue. He obtained leave to institute criminal proceedings against the Vice President. However, Attorney General (AG) Amos Wako invoked Section 26 of the Constitution and terminated the case. Not ready to give up, Kajwang went to the High Court to challenge Wako’s move but did not succeed.

Through that case, the prosecution brought into question the law that gave the AG absolute discretion over cases. This would later form part of the basis for the constitutional reforms, which saw a new Constitution promulgated in 2010 without such an exploitative clause.

Before the 2002 General Election, few politicians had had the nerve or the flair to jump on to the stage in unrestrained song and dance. Then came Kajwang, apart from making others smile, lit the fire of rebellion with grace and robust humour. He became more famous with the use of the song ‘Mapambano’ during political events. Kajwang first used the mapambano slogan at the beginning of the Orange “No” campaign against the proposed Constitution during a rally in Makadara Constituency.
“In our efforts to stop the enactment of the proposed new Constitution, we had to engage our opponents in the battlefield. I set out to harness public imagination and crystallise the campaign in a slogan,” Kajwang told the Daily Nation in a June 2008 interview.

He explained that mapambano was a religious song about the struggle between good and evil and that he used to sing it when he was a member of his church choir.
He also had a stint as a panellist in one of the most listened to radio programmes in the country, Crossfire, a weekend radio show that aired from the early 2000s.
Other than Kajwang, the other seasoned debaters on the show included the current UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) boss Kituyi, political analyst Tony Gachoka and lawyer Mutula Kilonzo.

Both Mutula and Kajwang were lawyers with opinions about the government. Whereas Mutula enjoyed close ties with President Moi as personal lawyer, Kajwang was a dissident who had rubbed the government of the day the wrong way before he was expelled from the University of Nairobi. These different political inclinations always came up in the debate. When it came to hitting out at the ‘system-man’ Mutula, Kajwang minced no words:

“We can’t sit here and listen to narratives perpetuated by guys who formed the first row of the government’s choir. Give us another substantial subject for discussion”, said Kajwang during one of the shows.

In September 2009, Kajwang voted in a divisive vote against the appointment of Aaron Ringera and his two assistants to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission.

In 1990, Kajwang led a riot bylawyers, protesting the arrest of lawyers Mohamed Ibrahim and John Khaminwa who had presented politicians accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The riots resulted in the closure of courts for two days

In the decision, the Cabinet was divided, with at least 13 Cabinet ministers and assistant ministers voting in favour of the resolution by 2 House committees to annul the gazette notice that appointed Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission Chief Ringera and his two assistants.

He was also very dismissive of his Cabinet colleague William Ruto whom he dismissed as leader who had no capacity to destroy ODM and stall Odinga’s political career.
Following the 2007–2008 post-election violence, Kajwang was among the ministers who backed a local tribunal to try the post-election violence instead of going the Hague (International Criminal Court) route. He threw his weight behind backbenchers in their push for a special tribunal weeks after the Cabinet decided to give the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) a shot at trying post-election violence suspects.

While serving as Immigration Minister, he created a diplomatic issue after Sudanese soldiers manning a roadblock on the Kenyan side of the border blocked him from opening an immigration office at Nadapal border post. The Minister was turned back at the roadblock just a kilometre from the country’s border with South Sudan.
In May 2009, he announced that senior civil servants, most of them appointed by the first Kibaki Administration, seemed unwilling to take orders from coalition partner appointees.

“A good partnership can be crystallised in two words: consultation and concurrence. In this partnership, there is neither of those ingredients. The fact is that although the coalition is written into the Constitution, PNU [Party of National Unity] does not accept there is a partnership and their view is that this is their government,” Mr Kajwang remarked.

Among his successes as Immigration Minister was setting the ground for the introduction of dual citizenship and introducing third-generation identity cards.
He was, however, unable to actualise centralisation of personal data records through a KES 300 million government project. The project, known as the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS), aimed at bringing together information from different agencies undertaking population registration functions in the country.
The centralised registration system was supposed to link individual information on both citizens and foreigners to various population registries. The project was also expected to help the government broaden its tax base by easing the identification of potential taxpayers. It was meant to be implemented over a period of three to four years.

There were also grumblings within the ODM party that he did not use his position as Immigration Minister to sensitise the youth to acquire national identity cards that would qualify them as voters in the 2013 General Election. Also buried under party loyalty were claims of bribery in the issuance of work permits to foreigners that dogged Kajwang’s last days in office.

In November 2014, almost a year after winning the Homa Bay County Senator seat, Kajwang succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 58 years. He spent his last days as he had always lived. He was in Parliament contributing to debate in the Senate and later relaxed over drinks at the bar as he laughed and talked politics with his colleagues.

On that night, he collapsed at one of his homes and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

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