Dr Robert John Ouko – Kenya’s most celebrated foreign minister

Robert John Ouko, once the Kisumu Town Member of Parliament, will go down in history as one of the most celebrated Foreign Affairs ministers Kenya has ever had. Ouko, called Bob by his friends, was a diplomat par excellence.

He had an impeccable record in that prestigious docket in President Daniel arap Moi’s Cabinet for six years, between 1979 and 1983 and again from 1988 to 1990, during one of the country’s most turbulent times. The KANU regime was under pressure locally and internationally over its appalling human rights record and grand corruption. The pressure was intensified and spearheaded locally by the Clergy and by an outlawed group of dissidents made up of university students, politicians and activists called Mwakenya.

Despite the onslaught from opposition leaders, Western envoys accredited to Kenya, and development partners like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the Kisumu Town MP strongly defended the Moi regime through both local and international media. Indeed, Ouko emerged as one of the foremost articulate defenders of the track record of Moi’s political establishment, especially in view of adverse coverage both in the country and in the western press.

Ouko was eloquent, brilliant and unflinching in his speech and defence of his motherland at a press conference in Oslo, Sweden, in the 1980s. Analysts applauded him for the manner in which he handled the gruelling one-hour forum, in which he fielded a myriad of hostile questions on many topics. He gave a sterling performance and emerged as the perfect spokesman for his country.

Another demonstration of his brilliance was observed when he held another well-attended press conference in Washington, DC in January 1990 when Moi visited the United States. Ouko was reported by the international media to have “out-thought and out-shone a hitherto hostile American Press, as the top-most diplomat and Moi’s blued eyed boy.”

The Kisumu Town MP had organised the controversial oreign trip for his boss to the US at a time when the KANU government was blacklisted by the US media and top government officials. However, at the end of the January 1990 visit to attend the annual Prayer Breakfast, Moi’s image and that of his regime is reported to have been changed for the better, thanks to Ouko’s public relations and international connections with the who is who in and out of government. On his return from the trip, the Foreign Minister continued to defend the government against claims that it was persecuting its critics led by the Opposition and the Clergy, for its dismal human rights record and corruption in high places among other ills.

One of the best legacies Ouko left behind was the multi-billion shillings Kisumu Molasses Plant in Kisumu City, which he had lobbied Moi and the government to build

Indeed, those who knew him well say Ouko’s love and passion for his President, country and ruling party was evident. He was reputed to be in Moi’s kitchen cabinet, and was the President’s friend and confidant.

Born in Nyahera village near Kisumu, Ouko attended Ogada Primary School and Nyang’ori School before proceeding to Siriba Teachers Training College. He worked as a primary school teacher and later as a Revenue Officer in Kisii District (now Kisii County). In 1958 his dream of going back to school came true when he was admitted to Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, graduating in 1962 with a degree in Public Administration, Economics and Political Science.

Ouko’s passion for education led him to the prestigious Makerere University in neighbouring Uganda to pursue a Diploma in International Relations and Diplomacy. He received an honorary Doctorate from the Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle, USA, in 1971.

On the eve of Kenya’s independence in 1963, Ouko worked as an Assistant Secretary in the office of the Governor before his skills were recognised. He had a stint as Permanent Secretary in two ministries: Works and, most important, Foreign Affairs.

During his career, Ouko wore many hats: he served as Chairman of the Governing Council of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the 1970s and was a recipient of South Korea’s highest award in which he was described as “a brilliant and articulate politician”. He later served as the Vice Chairman of the Non Aligned Movement’s Ministerial Conference in 1981.

In 1969 when the East African Community was formed he was appointed Community Minister for Finance and Administration, itself a prominent position in the fledgling grouping of the neighbouring states of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Ouko’s star was on the rise in the realm of the Community and his stature at home was growing. But when the East African Community collapsed in 1977, he was recalled and later nominated as an MP by President Kenyatta, who also appointed him the Minister for Economic Planning and Community Affairs.

Moi, who succeeded Kenyatta after his death in August 1978, retained Ouko in his Cabinet after recognising his ministerial experience in the community and his knowledge of community affairs. By then the bug of politics had bitten him and the career diplomat officially plunged into politics in 1979 and successfully vied for the Kisumu Rural constituency. He defended the hotly contested seat in the next polls in 1983 and retained it.

But as the Kisumu politics became more competitive, Ouko switched his constituency from Kisumu Rural to Kisumu Town in the 1988 elections and was re-elected to Parliament. During that stint in the august House, the Kisumu Town MP served in the ministries of Labour, Planning and National Development, and Industry.

On 27 January 1990, Ouko was part of a delegation of 83 ministers and officials led by the President, to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC hosted by the Assistant US Foreign Secretary in charge of Africa desk, Herman J. Cohen. The delegation returned to Nairobi on 4 February. On 13 February the mutilated body of Ouko was discovered in a thicket near Got Alila. His right was leg broken in two places and his body partially burned.

To date, an unresolved question during the Ouko murder inquiry is whether the Minister was secretly hosted at the White House during the presidential trip to Washington, just over a week before he was abducted and murdered. Authorities in the US repeatedly denied such a meeting ever took place. A year after Ouko’s murder, the White House Chief of Protocol sent the US Ambassador to Kenya, Smith Hempstone, a photograph of Ouko with the US President George Bush taken at the White House.

The story of the mysterious photograph was later revived by his widow, Christabel Ouko, on the 25th anniversary of his death in September 2017, when she opened up and shared the most guarded secrets about her husband. She confirmed that he met the US President as per a photo sent to her a year after his murder.

The secret meeting with Ouko was reportedly set up by the White House Chief of Protocol, Joseph Verner Reed who, like President Bush, personally knew Ouko. The US President had met Ouko when he was his country’s Ambassador to the UN, while Reed had met Ouko when he was US Ambassador to Morocco.

At the Ouko Commission of Inquiry into his death a year later his sister, Dorothy Randiak, revealed that a few hours before her brother was picked up from his home, never to be seen alive again, he had confided that while in the US, he had been hosted by President Bush. That had caused much bad blood between him and a Cabinet colleague.

The mystery would be partially revealed by Hempstone, who later wrote in his memoir, The Rogue Ambassador, thus: “About a year after Ouko’s death, I received, from my friend Joseph Verner Reed, President Bush’s long time friend and White House chief of protocol, a manila envelope containing an undated photograph of a smiling President Bush shaking hands with an equally happy Ouko at the steps of the White House.” This is according to a media report carried by the Daily Nation.

The report further noted that the envelope had a cover note asking Hempstone to pass on the photograph to Ouko. Reportedly, Hempstone replied it would not be possible since Ouko had been dead for a year, but promised to give the photograph to his widow, which he did. There was no further communication either from the White House official or from Ouko’s widow.

Much later, Cohen corroborated this by also revealing in his memoirs that, indeed, Ouko secretly met Bush while on a visit to Washington with Moi. He said in part: “The White House breakfast had been arranged following a call by Ouko, a friend of the US President. President Moi didn’t know of the Bush-Ouko meeting in advance, and I could imagine his fury when he learnt of it.”

Indeed, 29 years after Ouko’s murder, the pledge by the Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta governments that “no stone will be left unturned” rings hollow as the case has never been solved.

Moi is on record describing Ouko as “a true friend and confidant”. He also denied claims that his government played any role in the murder.

Most of the State witnesses who testified during the Ouko Commission of Inquiry and at the Anguka murder trial have since died. The list includes Ouko’s widow, who died in a road accident along the Kisumu-Kericho highway on 21 August 2017, and his Foreign Affairs PS, Bethwel Kiplagat, on 14 July 2017, after serving as Chairman of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) which also probed the Ouko murder mystery and had nothing new to tell the public.

Several foreigners were also summoned to testify, the most prominent being Marianne Brinner. She flew into the country from Italy to testify at the parliamentary commission and linked Ouko’s death to an alleged multi-billion shilling foreign deal involving the stalled controversial Kisumu Molasses Plant which had gone sour. But she reportedly had to leave hurriedly, citing fears for her safety and her life after she started to mention big names in the Moi government.

The closest the authorities ever got to zeroing in on the suspect(s) was when three prominent leaders were arrested and locked up for over a week as investigators recorded their statements. They were thereafter released. The three were Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott, Internal Security PS Hezekiah Oyugi and Nakuru District Commissioner Jonah Anguka. The names of the three were provided by a team of New Scotland Yard sleuths led by Superitendent John Troon, who were called in by public demand to probe the murder after the government claimed that the minister had committed suicide.

Moi had also set up a public Commission of Inquiry lead by Justice Evans Gicheru in October 1990. The President, however, disbanded it in November 1991 claiming that it had lost direction and was on a wild goose chase promoting politics, rumours and innuendo.

In March 2003 just after Kibaki became President, a Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed to investigate the murder. The Committee, chaired by Kisumu East MP Gor Sungu, held 140 public hearings and interviewed over 100 witnesses locally and abroad with evidence showing that a hit squad was paid KES 8 million to kidnap and murder the minister. The report was rejected by Parliament.

Several books have been published about the murder. Absolute Power, The Ouko Murder Story was written by onah Anguka soon after he was acquitted by Justice Daniel Aganyanya on grounds that “…the murder was so complex that it could not have been executed by an individual”. The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of Hon. Dr Robert Ouko was written by David William Cohen and E.S. Atieno Odhiambo. A third, Dr Ian West Case Book, was documented by a member of the New Scotland Yard team who was later successfully sued by Biwott for defamation.

Until her last breath, Christabel Ouko refused to speculate on who did it, despite the many rumours about the likely killers of her husband. In a rare media interview in 2010, the mother of seven said she had no power to judge anybody despite all the signs of political assassination in her husband’s death. “I don’t want to apportion blame, though I have gone through hell,” she disclosed, adding that she did not wish to bear false witness. She was, however, relentless in her demand that justice be done concerning the masterminds of the death of her husband.

One of the most impactful legacies Ouko would have left behind was the proposed multi-billion shilling Kisumu Molasses Plant in Kisumu city, which he had lobbied Moi and the government to build. According to the minister, the plant would create jobs and wealth, and support the agriculture sector, especially cane farmers, in the production of molasses, alcohol and ethanol among other by-products for local and foreign exports. But his dream was not to be; the project never materialised.

In his memory, his widow and children built an ultra-modern community library and a state-of-the-art primary school in his honour at his Koru home.

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