Dr. Paul Adhu Awiti – From dissident and activist to cabinet minister

Paul Adhu Awiti had a chequered career, rising from political detainee to Cabinet Minister both under President Daniel arap Moi’s government.

Awiti never in his wildest dreams imagined that he would share a table with, let alone become a member of Moi’s Cabinet, having been blacklisted as a dissident and detained for his radical political stand.

One Monday, while on a bus travelling from Kisumu to Nairobi, the Karachuonyo Member of Parliament (MP) was woken from his midday nap by a fellow passenger and informed that Moi had just named him as a minister in a mini-Cabinet reshuffle.

And just like that, the soft-spoken MP arrived in Nairobi that evening and was immediately escorted to an official government limousine, complete with driver and bodyguard, and driven to his humble residence.

As planning minister, Awiti believed that the government should be frugal, effective and efficient”

The following week he went to State House Nairobi where he and his mentor, Raila Odinga (MP for Langata), were sworn in as ministers for Planning and National Development and Energy respectively.

But in reality, it was not as easy as that. The two opposition MPs were integrated into the KANU government after intense behind-the-scenes meetings and a political pact between Odinga, leader of the National Development Party (NDP), and KANU, which had been in power since independence in 1963.

Among others who benefitted from the KANU-NDP Cooperation, as it was called, were Ndhiwa MP Joshua Orwa Ojode, and Philemon Abongo, who was promoted and appointed Police Commissioner (1998–2002).

After his appointment as Planning minister in 2001, Awiti emerged as one of the best performing ministers. His talents as a planner and political economist stood him in good stead in managing the ministry.

When Moi bypassed Odinga and all other senior politicians in both KANU and NDP to appoint a junior official, Uhuru Kenyatta, as his heir-apparent, the political merger hit turbulence, forcing Awiti and all ministers from the NDP wing to resign en masse in protest.

“There was turmoil in KANU and NDP. There were big expectations that Moi would settle on Raila or George Saitoti, who was then the Vice President, as his successor.

But he shocked everyone by settling on Uhuru,” Awiti told a local TV station during an interview in 2014.

Others who resigned were Energy minister Odinga, KANU Secretary General and Education minister Kalonzo Musyoka, Heritage minister William Ntimama and the Assistant Minister for Education, Moody Awori. Awori later became Kenya’s fifth VP.

As Planning minister, Awiti believed that the government should be frugal, effective and efficient. His opinion was that government employees needed to be committed and selfless leaders at all levels of our society.

The former detainee was one of the top political strategists at the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD)-Kenya before Odinga moved to NDP. Awiti is credited as being one of those behind the decision to merge NDP with KANU in 2001, believing that it was easier to change a government from within than from the Opposition.

The MP was an outstanding economist and political strategist, a renowned mobiliser and advisor to many key personalities including Tanzania’s founding President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere during his three decades at the helm as a regional leader in East Africa and beyond. Awiti was a principled and brave politician who never sought favours from the establishment even when he needed to.

He was first elected to Parliament in 1997 on an NDP ticket, to replace former MP Phoebe Asiyo for whom he had been chief campaigner in 1992. He had helped Asiyo trounce KANU’s Okiki Amayo who was fully supported by Moi’s government.

He successfully challenged Asiyo in 1997. She was one of the most formidable women politicians Kenya has ever had. Awiti was re-elected in 2002 as a National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) candidate. In 2007 his fortunes changed when a newcomer, James Rege – an electrical engineer who had just returned from the USA – beat him to win Karachuonyo parliamentary seat.

During his one term as Karachuonyo MP Awiti lived in a rented house in Nairobi. He travelled by bus every weekend to be with his constituents in Karachuonyo and with his wife and children in Kisumu.

In an interview after Awiti was first appointed minister, Awiti’s cousin Peter Awiti recalls that his brother confided that the MP’s first reaction was to scoff at the claims.

“He thought it was a joke until he called me and I confirmed to him that he was among the few from the opposition party who had been appointed to the Cabinet with Langata MP, Raila Odinga.”

Even after receiving the best news of his political life, Awiti remained calm in his bus seat until he arrived in Nairobi. It was as if nothing had happened.

Such was the simplicity that defined the life of a man who lived a chequered political life for close to three decades.

Former Subukia MP and KANU-era detainee, Koigi Wamwere, described Awiti as a freedom fighter who risked his life to fight for liberation. “I met Adhu in 1970 when he was an Assistant Town Clerk in Kisumu. He used to pick me in Nakuru in his Beetle car when we went to hold secret meetings with university lecturers,” remembers Koigi. “Adhu also visited me while I was in detention. We were part of the young Africans who were fighting for liberation.”

One of his chief campaigners in the 1997 campaigns, Dick Ogembo, says that unlike most politicians, Awiti was a simple and very principled politician. The MP dropped his first name, Paul, and preferred to be called Adhu Awiti. He was “a politically mysterious man”, according to Ogembo, who said that nobody ever knew his next move and that he worked on very complex political plans to defeat his adversaries.

In 2003 Adhu stunned a gathering that included the country’s top politicians when he said that he had walked all the way from his village in Kanjira, Karachuonyo, about 80 km away to attend the home-coming party of Dennis Akumu, a former Nyakach Constituency MP.

The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) Executive Director, Oduor Ong’wen, also a political detainee during the single party era, described Awiti as a rare breed of freedom fighter, a principled man who led the fight for Kenya’s second liberation.

“Dr Awiti was many things to many people but to me, Adhu was a father, mentor, confidante, best friend and a symbol of revolutionary disposition. He was a true comrade of mine,” said Ong’wen.

“I first met Adhu in December 1980, when I had just joined the University of Nairobi. We had a student reunion in Kisumu, and he was a keynote speaker. I was struck by his brilliance and eloquence. In that memorable speech, he reminded the students about their responsibility to the historic national struggle, and the need to remain uncompromising.”

Ong’wen reunited with Awiti in April 1987, when the two were arrested and detained at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison on sedition charges.

“Upon release from Moi’s jail, we regrouped to continue with the struggle. He became the fulcrum of our cell in Kisumu comprising among others Muga K’Olale, Onyango CA and Odhiambo Olel. Following the disruption of this cell after the Saba Saba uprising in 1990, Adhu and I fled the country. We reunited in exile, and continued to link up with the movement back home and intensify the agitation for return of multiparty democracy,” recalled Ong’wen.

According to Ong’wen, Awiti was actively involved in anti-government activities while in exile and was a frequent visitor to Uganda where his former student, Yoweri Museveni, was the President.

For three years between 1970 and 1973, Awiti taught Economics as a lecturer at the Dar es Salaam University College. His students included Museveni and former Congolese rebel leader Wamba dia Wamba.

Awiti was among opposition politicians, university lecturers and student leaders who bore the brunt of KANU’s high-handed leadership in 1987 during the crackdown on the clandestine ‘Mwakenya’ movement.

He was arrested on the charge of belonging to Mwakenya, and detained at the notorious Nyayo torture chambers for 30 days before being transferred to Kamiti Prison. When he was released in 1991 he fled to exile to Oslo in Norway.

Four years later, he joined Odinga who had been elected Kibera MP after decamping from FORD-Kenya to launch the NDP in 1996 following differences with FORD-Kenya leader Michael Kijana Wamalwa.

An aggressive go-getter, Awiti quickly joined Odinga’s inner circle of strategists and became one of the founder members of NDP. He was also a lead campaigner for Odinga when he first vied for the Presidency in 1997.

Even though Awiti lost the Karachuonyo seat in 2007 and in 2013, he remained a loyal member of ODM and the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) until his death.

When Odinga and Kibaki formed a coalition government after the post-election violence triggered by Kibaki’s re-election, Awiti acted as Odinga’s political advisor when the latter was appointed Prime Minister, a role he performed with passion.

Earlier, Awiti had worked as Deputy Town Clerk in Kisumu in 1974 and was instrumental in drawing up physical and development plans for the lakeside town. Some of his plans are still in use.

Awiti was born on 15 October 1939 in Kanjira in Karachuonyo in Homa Bay County.

He died on 15 July 2015, aged 75. As appreciation for his leadership and to honour his sacrifices during the struggle for the second liberation, residents of West Karachuonyo named a secondary school in his honour.

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