Peter Habenga Okondo – A loose tongue proved to be his final undoing

Throughout his political career that spanned the colonial years until 1990, Peter Habenga Okondo was known for being outrageously outspoken; so much so that the media commonly referred to him as a man with a loose tongue. During the 1992 multiparty election campaigns, he was quoted as chiding members of the Opposition in Busia District (now Busia County) in a famous statement: “Nefue baliyo, nafue baliho, khandi nafue balibaho! (It is us who were there, it is us who are here now and it is us who will be there).”

He could have been making reference to the fact that he was in high places long before any of his would-be opponents appeared on the scene. In 1961, he was one of two Africans, the other being Charles Rubia, to sit on the Industrial Development Corporation board, precursor of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC). Okondo sat on the board as an alternate to Avelling Wabuti, who would later become one of the first Permanent Secretaries in independent Kenya, while Rubia became the first African mayor of Nairobi. Okondo had also earned the recognition of the colonial government, serving as Assistant Minister for Finance (1961-1962) and Works (1963) in the prestigious Legislative Council.

As a trained accountant and a first class honours graduate from Cape Town University in South Africa, Okondo founded Habenga Corporation, which later merged with Tysons Ltd, a real estate company that still exists today. He was variously described as being very frugal and a loner. Some have it that if he hosted a guest in a restaurant, he would order one bottle of soda or beer and share it. He was also said to avoid social events, even with business colleagues – lunch meetings were the farthest he was willing to go. It was, however, his unbridled tongue that stood out wherever he went.

Under President Daniel arap Moi, he worked in the Ministry of Labour and Manpower Development twice as well as in the ministries of Cooperatives, Transport and Communication, and Commerce and Industry, and seemed to enjoy courting controversy despite being a public servant tasked with casting the Government he worked for in good light.

When Okondo was Minister for Labour, he postponed the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) elections to September 1981. This was after COTU Secretary General Juma Boy was ousted from the Dock Workers Union. With the law requiring a COTU boss to be an official of a grassroots union, this meant Boy was disqualified from contesting the COTU leadership position. But with the elections postponed, Boy had time to prevail upon his ally at the Kenya Petroleum Workers Union to step down for him thus enabling him to defend his position in COTU.

In 1989, Ali Mohammed, the Secretary General of Posts and Telecommunication Workers Union, presented the Minister with a proposal for a COTU merger with the ruling party, KANU. He also proposed the setting up of a party newspaper, and that COTU should have a say in the running of the National Social Security Fund and the National Housing Insurance Fund. Okondo went ahead to ensure that COTU was affiliated to KANU in 1990 along with the powerful women’s organisation, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake. The affiliation was however short-lived as COTU itself, amid the onslaught of pluralism, fought to remain independent.

When he was moved to the Ministry of Cooperatives in 1984, Okondo found a powerful office – Commissioner of Cooperatives – solidly established by Alfred Birgen. With two strong personalities working in the same space, it turned out to be a short stint for the Minister; barely a year later, he was moved to the Ministry of Transport and Communication. There, he found bus and welfare associations fighting against public service vehicle licensing and the Government’s first attempt to introduce speed limits on the highways in an attempt to curb speeding, which was a cause of rising road carnage at the time.

Then he was moved to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, again after spending hardly a year in the Transport docket, before returning to Labour in 1986, which was his last Cabinet assignment under Moi. It was while he was the Minister for Commerce that he would engage in one of the biggest controversies of his public service career.

Okondo went to Parliament and told MPs that he intended to remove restrictions on imported goods. His reason was that Kenyan-manufactured goods were of inferior quality. At the time, second-hand clothes and shoes (mitumba) were being imported in bulk and the effect on an otherwise strong Kenyan textile and leather industry was dire.

It is worth noting that on the eve of independence, as Assistant Minister for Works, he was quoted as having opposed the upgrading of facilities at Nairobi Airport in Embakasi, arguing that foreigners coming to Kenya had no expectations of high standards of quality or efficiency. He further opposed the construction of high-rise buildings in Nairobi and limited them to no more than two storeys, saying that the newly-independent country was setting standards that were too high for itself. In an editorial, the East African Standard newspaper told him off and reminded him that Kenya was on a new road to take her place as a member of the international community.

In the days when KANU reigned, it was the norm for dissenting politicians to be expelled from the party while the clergy was viewed as the unofficial opposition. Okondo had something to say about this. Reverend Timothy Njoya, a Presbyterian Church of East Africa cleric, was among those who were critical of President Moi’s government. Okondo was to describe him as a “cleric with the wisdom of a fool”.

Meanwhile, the Busia District KANU Branch had recommended that Okondo should appear before a party disciplinary committee chaired by Okiki Amayo to defend himself against accusations that he had been disrespectful of the party. Okondo told Parliament that the Amayo committee was “boisterous, bloated and bombastic as to make utter nonsense of truth and reality”.

When it came to the battle for control of Busia, he referred to his rival, Moody Awori, as “nusu waziri” (half Minister), in derisive reference to Awori’s long-standing status as a “permanent assistant minister” in successive Moi administrations. He also described James Osogo, another rival, as “man of nakhabuka (oath), a claim for which a voter, Nicolas Okada, went to court after the 1979 General Election.

The court found Osogo guilty of having an oath administered, which was said to have led to the death of the man in whose compound the ceremony was conducted. Consequently, he was barred from contesting in any elections for the next 10 years, as the law stipulated at the time. This opened the way for Okondo to capture the Busia South parliamentary seat in the 1981 by-election.

His aggression extended to members of the press when, during a political rally he had convened in Busia, he accused journalists of siding with his enemies. He then signalled his supporters in the crowd to round up the journalists present and throw them into Lake Victoria. It was Ishmael Chelang’a, then the Busia District Commissioner, who rescued the journalists and ordered police to ensure that they were safely escorted back to Kisumu Town.

In another incident, Okondo claimed that there was a plot to assassinate him and members of his family. Speaking in 1986 at the funeral of Achiya Echakara, an assistant minister, Okondo dramatically announced that he was on a hit list of people loyal to the President, and declared to mourners that he would not survive another week. He went on to live for another decade before dying of cancer.

Okondo’s tongue would prove to be his undoing with the death of the Anglican Church of Kenya’s Eldoret Diocese Bishop, Alexander Muge. The bishop was one of four Anglican clerics – others were Archbishop Manasses Kuria, Dr Henry Okullu of Maseno South and David Gitari of Mt Kenya East – who spoke against the KANU regime of the 1980s.

Because of Muge’s anti-KANU stance, Okondo had publicly warned him in August 1990 never to set foot in Busia or else he would not come out alive. In defiance of the warning, Muge went to Busia. On his way back, he was involved in a fatal crash on the Busia-Eldoret highway. The accident was widely viewed as a political assassination and the driver of the lorry that Muge’s car had rammed into was arraigned, charged with reckless driving and imprisoned. Following this turn of events and mounting pressure for him to resign, Okondo quietly exited from the Cabinet and the political stage.

But controversy continued to follow him even in death. When he died in 1996, a woman surfaced with a boy she claimed was his son. And while his kinsmen were busy making funeral arrangements, his European wife, Marialuisa Okondo, whom he had married in 1958, secretly had his body cremated at the Kariokor Cemetery in Nairobi. News of the cremation caught them by surprise as they were in the middle of preparing to go to court to argue why Okondo should be buried in his ancestral home.

Born on 1 February 1925 to Gaetano and Clementina, Okondo was raised as a staunch Catholic and educated at St Mary’s Yala and St Mary’s Kisubi in Uganda before going to Cape Town University. He was among the first Kenyan elite students who were educated in South African universities. Others were Masinde Muliro, Benna Lutta and Charles Njonjo.

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