Ojwang’ K’Ombudo – Going against the grain

Ojwang’ K’Ombudo, an erstwhile Member of Parliament for Nyakach, worked for a relatively brief period in the Cabinet of President Daniel arap Moi. The fiery MP served for several months during a turbulent time in the country’s history as Moi, who doubled as Chairman of the ruling party, KANU, gave in to pressure from the Opposition, civil society and Western powers to introduce a multiparty political system in the country in 1990.

By then K’Ombudo, the Assistant Minister for Environment, had landed the coveted position after his friend and neighbour in Kisumu District (now Kisumu County), Mathews Onyango Midika, joined his fellow Luos in the Cabinet who defected en masse to the FORD-Kenya party, the Opposition party founded by Kenyatta-era Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

K’Ombudo was one of the longest-serving MPs for Nyakach and in Nyanza region, having retained his seat a record six  consecutive terms from 1969 to 1992. Among his supporters, the no-nonsense MP was popularly referred to using the symbolic lantern he had adopted as his campaign symbol. They described him as “K’Ombudo taya, chiel wiye oke (a brave man who cannot be scared)”.

Consequently, the presidential appointment to the Cabinet turned out to be rather awkward.

The Nyakach MP was informed of the best news in his political career, announced during the State-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) radio news bulletin, four days after the fact by his secretary on his return from an overseas trip.

K’Ombudo said, “I did not know of my appointment until I arrived back at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from a UN trip to Montreal, Canada. I was met at the airport by four armed bodyguards and an official Government Mercedes Benz with a flag flying on it.”

None of the guards spoke to him about his appointment until he arrived at his Kencom House office where his secretary broke the sweet news to him. She told him that they were moving to the Kenyatta International Conference Centre as he had been appointed Minister for Regional Development. She also informed K’Ombudo that the President had summoned him for a meeting at State House Nairobi that afternoon, when he was scheduled to be sworn in. K’Ombudo said he tried to have the ceremony postponed so that his wife could attend but the State House Comptroller would not hear of it. In fact, he was expected to travel to Japan the next day to finalise the funding of the Sondu-Miriu hydroelectric power project.

According to K’Ombudo, who once had a short stint as a primary school teacher in Molo, Nakuru District (now Nakuru County), he ended up in the Cabinet by default. This was after the heavyweights in Luoland like Peter Oloo Aringo (Alego Usonga MP) and Midika (MP for Muhoroni) resigned and joined the Opposition in protest following the mysterious kidnapping and death of their friend and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Robert John Ouko, at his Koru home in Muhoroni Constituency in February 1990.

“President Moi called me; by then I was an Assistant Minister for Environment and I had just been elected at the World Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, as Chairman of the Ozone Layer Protection Committee, with an office in Toronto in Canada, where I had called an international meeting,” he said.

The Kenyan Government delegation was to be headed by Minister for Environment Dr Njoroge Mungai. K’Ombudo’s plane ticket and accommodation were to be paid for by the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) from its Nairobi office.

In those days, it was a requirement that all senior Government officials, including MPs, get written clearance to travel from the President through the Secretary to the Cabinet, Prof Philip Mbithi. But the Nyakach MP’s name was missing from the list of the Kenyan delegation because he was under the UN team as Chairman of the Summit. When K’Ombudo enquired about the omission, Mbithi called him to his office and informed him that the President had rejected his application to be allowed to leave the country for the UN meeting, of which he was the convener.

“Prof Mbithi told me he had explained that to Moi, but he still refused to clear me for the trip. Moi instead asked that I meet him at State House Nairobi at 7am,” said K’Ombudo. During the tense meeting, the President did not mince his words; he asked the Nyakach MP point blank whether he was also intending to join his Luo Nyanza colleagues in abandoning KANU and his government.

“I said, ‘No, I will not do so. I will defend my Nyakach seat on a KANU ticket because the projects I initiated have been supported by your government; the Sondu-Miriu hydroelectric power project and the Nyakach water projects are more important to me’,” K’Ombudo recalled.

In response, Moi said if that was the case, he should “… take this form and go to Canada for three to four days and return to Kenya”. On his return four days later, the assistant minister discovered he had been elevated to the Cabinet to replace Midika. He was later allocated a spacious Government house among other benefits.

Looking back, K’Ombudo recalled that after his Montreal trip, his friendship and ties with Moi were strengthened. “He treated me with lots of honour and dignity. I was now an insider and I was accepted by the likes of Chief Secretary Simeon Nyachae among others. But this gesture hardened my people’s loathing for me,” he revealed.

After his swearing-in ceremony, he was hosted for lunch by President Moi, who told him, “I am happy with you for choosing development politics over pure politics.” They continued to talk about politics generally over the sumptuous meal as Moi expressed regret that Luos had abandoned him and KANU, and that no one would push development projects in the Government for them.

“I also found out that the Sondu-Miriu project had been transferred from the Minister for Energy, Nicholas Biwott, to my docket!” he recalled.

K’Ombudo’s Nyanza parliamentary colleagues branded him a traitor and kept their distance from him. They used election campaign platforms to criticise him for going against the grain in the Opposition zone. Moi kept him close by, using him as his point man in Kisumu and Nyanza as a whole by holding fund-raisers, political rallies and other public events with him at the forefront to popularise KANU. The Nyakach MP lasted barely a year in the Cabinet, as the country was deep in campaign mode.

“During one of the meetings on his way to Karachuonyo, Moi campaigned for me, saying I was an industrious and development-conscious leader who deserved to be re-elected to complete the development projects I had started,” said K’Ombudo.

Plans were also underway to dam the Sondu-Miriu river jam at Magwaga, to be used to irrigate parts of Kisii and Kisumu districts to create wealth, jobs and business opportunities.

“But when the polls were held, I lost heavily to trade unionist Dennis Akumu, who did not have as many resources as my party KANU had, but who was a member of the party of choice, FORD-Kenya,” said K’Ombudo.

The irony was that shortly after the elections, Akumu approached him to request his support saying, “I know you still have good relations with Moi.”

“But I reminded him, ‘You are the MP, get on with the job!’”

Later, during a tour of Kisumu, the President met with KANU leaders like K’Ombudo, who requested him to sub-divide West Nyakach Location. He agreed and acted on the spot. Thereafter, Moi appointed K’Ombudo Chairman of the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA) where he worked for two years and initiated the Yala Swamp irrigation farm project – later taken over by the US-owned Dominion Farms Ltd – as well as a massive borehole project in the lake region.

The 82-year-old former Minister, who at one point was also the Kisumu Town Clerk, is a father of six and a businessman, a large-scale cane farmer in Muhoroni, and a prominent hotelier in Kisumu. His best memories of his time in the Cabinet are the free hand Moi gave him to promote the Sondu-Miriu and the water projects.

K’Ombudo’s lowest moment in the Cabinet came during the 1992 General Election, when tension had built up and it was obvious that no Luo politician in KANU would be elected.

“There were comments during our Cabinet meetings that unless our views changed, it would be hard to be in Government. It was a fact that has continued to date.”

K’Ombudo attended Ndori Primary School in his village before proceeding to Nyakach Secondary School and then St Peter’s in Mumias, Kakamega District, where he trained as a P3 teacher. He was transferred to Nyabondo in Nyakach in 1952 and taught for a year before moving to Nakuru as an education officer. He shared a house with Luo colleagues, one of whom was married to the sister-in-law of trade unionist and politician, Tom Mboya.

K’Ombudo said, “I admired and made friends with Mboya, and when he started the famous air lifts to the United States for bright Kenyan students who wanted to further their eduction, I approached him and asked him to help me.”

Because of his desire to meet with Mboya, he regularly attended his political rallies held by the Nairobi People’s Convention Party (NPCP) that Mboya founded, at the historic Makadara Hall off Jogoo Road in Nairobi.

“Tom inspired me and helped me to go to the US in the first air lift of Kenyan students; I was in the same group as Barack Obama Sr, the father of former US President Barack Obama,” he revealed.

In the US K’Ombudo attended Missouri University for one year and transferred to Fairley Dickinson University in New Jersey from where he graduated with a degree in economics. He later got a US scholarship to study for his master’s degree in economics at the University of Southern California. On graduating, he decided to “… dodge the Education Attaché at the Kenyan Embassy, Seth Adagala, and his team”, who were recruiting Kenyans and helping them return home to take up managerial jobs.

On graduating in 1964, he returned to Kenya with his wife and was employed as a lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Administration (since renamed Kenya School of Government) for two years before he moved to the Industrial Credit Development Corporation as a loans officer, initially in Nairobi and later in his home town, Kisumu. He successfully applied for the job of Town Clerk after James Miruka Owuor resigned to set up his own law firm. K’Ombudo worked in this capacity until 1979, when he decided to venture into the murky waters of politics by vying for the Nyakach parliamentary seat, which he won.

Asked what inspired him to go into politics, the former Minister said it was after a tour of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the US, where he saw the potential of a massive irrigation scheme and a hydroelectric project dammed from a big river, like Sondu-Miriu in his constituency.

“From then on, I always had in mind that one day, if I ever had a chance to influence a similar project in Nyakach, it would be a wonderful project,” said K’Ombudo. And when the opportunity arose in 1980, while he was serving his first term in the august House, K’Ombudo moved a motion calling for the construction of the ambitious multi-billion shilling Sondu-Miriu hydroelectric project.

He served three five-year terms as MP before running into problems with KANU and some of its top brass, who blacklisted him as an Odinga sympathiser. Others on the blacklist included Karachuonyo MP Phoebe Asiyo and Muhoroni MP Midika. His neighbour, Samuel Ayodo, MP for Kasipul-Kabondo, was an independent and was considered neutral as he preferred to sit on the fence saying, “Ling ber!” (It’s better to be quiet!) in protest after Moi refused to appoint him in his first Cabinet in 1978.

“Despite the low salary of KES 4,000 per month compared to the KES 8,000 I earned as a town clerk, I opted to represent my people because Nyakach was seriously backward,” he said. “It was also because these were the same people who had raised funds to enable me to travel and study in the US. The fund raiser was presided over by Odinga and the managing director of Miwani Sugar Factory.”

K’Ombudo was the first resident of Nyakach to ever travel abroad for higher education. Looking back, the former MP is proud that more than two decades since he lost his seat, no one has surpassed his development record.

“Now the Sondu-Miriu Hydroelectric Power Station is up and running and serving the entire western Kenya with electricity, thanks to my efforts,” he said.

K’Ombudo deliberately used the name Sondu-Miriu to get the support and votes of Rift Valley MPs in addition to those in Nyanza who easily embraced it. “I had used serious politicians from Nyanza and the Rift Valley in Parliament after the House approved my motion. I later went and personally talked to President Moi to embrace this project. He then instructed Nicholas Biwott, the Energy Minister in the Office of the President, to prioritise it.”

But the Nyakach MP would later be shocked to learn that his pet project had been allocated a token budget while the Turkwel Gorge hydroelectric project in Biwott’s Rift Valley backyard was apportioned the lion’s share and was implemented immediately. That caused a huge uproar in the House as MPs took the Government to task over the blatant discrimination and marginalisation of Nyanza region. Sondu-Miriu was given priority in the next budget.

At the time K’Ombudo was first elected in 1969, there were only three public secondary schools in his constituency: Nyakach, Rae Girls and Nyakach Girls. By the time he was leaving there were 40 secondary schools built through funds drives. The schools were later taken over by the Ministry of Education.

His fondest memory of his tenure in Parliament was when he removed his shoe, banged it on the table and hurled it at the Speaker of the National Assembly, Prof Jonathan N’geno. This was during the height of multiparty politics, when tribal and ethnic violence erupted along the Kericho-Kisumu border.

An angry K’Ombudo said, “I have been forced to attend more than 14 funerals of my people in one day because of these clashes and I am not ready to see my people being killed like rats! We are now ready to prepare for total war!”

This incident made K’Ombudo a household name throughout the nation. Moi was away on an official trip in Geneva, Switzerland, when it happened, and K’Ombudo’s intention was that the Head of State should get the message loud and clear that Kenya was on the brink of civil war.

The Nyakach MP was immediately arrested after his threats and thrown into the bunker cells of Parliament Buildings where he was kept locked up for over 10 hours until the President called from Geneva and ordered his release. Moi was concerned because K’Ombudo’s utterances and arrest had given the country a bad name locally and internationally. The President then directed the Nyanza and Rift Valley provincial commissioners to send the police to stop the clashes forthwith.

“When Moi returned, he called me and dispatched police officers, not to arrest me, but to take me to his Kabarak home from my Kisumu residence at 8pm, two days after my release. But I dodged them by pretending that I was going to my bedroom to change, only to escape through the kitchen and jump over the fence to my neighbour, Joel Omino’s house from where I fled.”

The next day he presented himself at Kabarak in the company of 120 constituents in four matatus, but the guards at the gate barred them from entering, saying only the MP was expected. State House Comptroller Abraham Kiptanui had to intervene to allow the delegation to enter and meet the Head of State.

“Moi received us and fed us well; he then spoke to me in the presence of my supporters, assuring us of security and asking us to maintain peace as his government was handling the matter,” he recalled.

Asked what his wish would be if he had a chance to turn back the clock, the veteran politician replied, “I don’t see such a prospect because of my age; I have no strength to mount a political campaign. My advice to my Luo people is that they can differ as much as they like with the national government under the 2010 Constitution, but their elected representatives should not stop looking for development from the national government. Even during our time we had differences with the Government, but we still pushed for projects like Sondu-Miriu among others.”

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