Isaac Omolo Okero – The hairy bearded one

For a decade from 1969, Isaac Omolo Okero’s name was synonymous with national politics as a powerful government official and National Assembly representative.

Omolo Okero, as he was more commonly known, proved to be a smart and perceptive politician who knew how to manoeuvre his way around the political labyrinth. But his principled leadership and independent-mindedness did not go down well with some of his Cabinet colleagues and his fellow leaders in the ruling KANU party, which he headed from 1978 to 1979 as National Chairman.

Popularly known as ‘Rayier’ (hairy bearded one), Okero had a relatively successful political career between 1969 and 1979 as a Cabinet minister and as a Member of Parliament for Gem Constituency in Nyanza Province. He had worked in various ministries under President Jomo Kenyatta (1969-1978) and briefly under President Daniel arap Moi, who took over following Kenyatta’s death. Okero was appointed to head the Ministry of Power and Communications for about a year.

Throughout his 10 years as an MP he was on the front bench in Parliament as Minister for Health (1969-1973), Minister for Power and Communications (1973-1977) and in the same docket for his final term (1978-1979) under the Moi administration.

Asked to share his experience under the Moi regime, the 89-year-old Okero was cautious, stating that he did not have enough time to know the President well. He attributed this to his brief tenure in the transition government before the next General Election was called. He said giving an opinion “would be guesswork” since at the time the President was still settling down with the ministers appointed by his predecessor. Some of them had apparently dismissed Moi before he took over, never imagining that he would ever take over as Head of State.

Like most local politicians, Rayier is convinced beyond any shadow of doubt that he was rigged out of the 1979 elections by the powers that be, because of his principled leadership and distaste for sycophancy after surviving the opposition wave in 1974.

“When I got into politics and was appointed to the Cabinet, I learnt very quickly that politicians do not like one who has an independent mind. My predecessor in Gem, C.M.G. Argwings Kodhek, was also a principled person and Gem voters did not like representatives who could be manipulated.”

Even after being out in the political cold, Okero’s principles, loyalty to Moi and impeccable legal and managerial track record paid dividends, leading to his appointment as Chairman of the Board of Kenya Airways for almost a decade, from 1996 to 2005, during its most turbulent years and successful privatisation programme. This was when the national airline had teamed up with the Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) as a privatised entity and finally started to make profits. His legacy at KQ is that he was part of the team that midwifed the process, turning the loss-making carrier into a leading one in the region and across the African continent.

In a recent interview the former minister, whose hobbies include flying and playing golf, preferred not to talk about the legacy he left as Gem MP.

“Let others talk about my legacy. I don’t talk about it because there is a tendency to praise oneself. That is natural. My approach is different. A legacy is history and it is for those who come after you to see and talk about it lest some say what you are saying is a lie.”

Okero recalled how he was appointed the KANU National Chairman in 1978 during party national elections together with acting President Moi and Vice President Mwai Kibaki, who were the party President and Vice President respectively. The three received the same number of votes, thanks to the queue-voting electoral system adopted by the thousands of delegates from the five provinces in the country at the time.

“During the visit to Kabarak (Moi’s upcountry home), I insisted that I retain my post as Chairman. We discussed it with Moi, and between Assistant Minister David Okiki Amayo and I, agreed that we would go for the slot and nothing else on the basis that we, as a community, had a big stake in the leadership of the country,” he said.

Little did he know that there was brewing opposition to his leadership by powerful forces in the KANU hierarchy at that crucial time in Kenya’s history. The deal, it later transpired, must have been sealed long before D-Day. When the party elections finally came up, an expectant Okero and his supporters assembled at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) for the KANU National Delegates’ Conference. They were, however, shocked to learn that delegates from Nyanza Province had met behind his back the previous night and decided to vote for Amayo.

The shock and trauma Okero suffered that day must have been severe, considering the announcement came only a few minutes after he and Mombasa KANU Branch Chairman, Shariff Nassir, had been loudly cheered by what appeared to be a majority of delegates as the duo walked down the aisle to propose and second the election of Moi as party President.

But his principles would not allow him to be a sore loser. After the initial shock he stood up, strode confidently to the dais and took the microphone to make his feelings known.

“I am aware that a night meeting was held to support Okiki Amayo. Since I also come from Nyanza Province, I cannot oppose their decision. I wish Okiki the best,” he declared before returning to his seat.

When the next KANU elections were called, Okero was no longer a minister, as he had lost his Gem seat in the 1979 polls to Aggrey Otieno Ambala.

Okero joined politics on his 40th birthday, following in the footsteps of other key figures who had represented Gem Constituency like Kodhek, who had served as the Minister for Foreign Affairs Minister before his mysterious death in a road accident in Nairobi in February 1969.

Wasonga Sijeyo held the seat briefly after Kodhek before he was arrested and detained for being a member of the opposition Kenya People’s Union (KPU), making way for Okero’s entry into politics in 1969.

The former minister was born in Ulumbi Village in Gem near the home of the famous no-nonsense Chief Odera Kang’o, who had ensured that education was encouraged in Gem and that every able child was in school by all means possible. “At that time, education was crucial and you were nothing without it,” said Okero.

An alumnus of Ambira and Maseno schools in Siaya and Kisumu districts respectively, Okero proceeded to Alliance High School in Kiambu District then to Makerere University in Uganda. His academic progression was interrupted in 1952 when the hot-headed undergraduate led a students’ strike, leading to his expulsion. In 1953, Okero got a scholarship from the Indian High Commission to study law at the University of Bombay from where he graduated with honours in 1956. Later that year, he landed a job as Associate Secretary to the International Students Organisation (ISO) in Leiden, The Netherlands, where he worked until 1959.

Driven by a thirst for achievement in other spheres of life, the energetic Okero tried his hand at music, teaming up with compatriot Polycarp Akoko in Bombay to record four political songs in praise of Kenyan nationalists at the peak of the Mau Mau freedom struggle. The colonial government branded the two as agitators and banned the songs from being played on air in Kenya.

But that did not deter Rayier from chasing his dream of becoming a qualified lawyer. In February 1959, he left Holland for London and joined the prestigious Middle Temple, one of the Four Inns of Court, and after qualifying as a barrister, he was appointed by the colonial government to join the Attorney General’s Office in Nairobi as a State Counsel. This was in 1962, just before Kenya’s independence.

That this was a good omen for the fast-rising barrister from Ulumbi Village, Gem Location, was obvious to all. From then on, Okero’s star continued to rise in the civil service when he got a job as Deputy Public Prosecutor (1963-1965) and thereafter Commissioner General of Customs and Excise (1965-1969) headquartered in Mombasa.

But his passion was legal practice. It thus came as no surprise when, in 1969, he opened a private law firm in Kisumu Town with his friend, James Miruka Owuor, who later became the MP for Nyando.

His plans were, however, rudely interrupted by a series of dramatic events in the country that year that left his composure and confidence, alongside the hopes and aspirations of the entire Luo community and the Gem constituents, in tatters. These were the fatal road accident of Gem MP Kodhek, the assassination of Tom Mboya, who was the Minister for Economic Planning, the banning of the KPU party and the arrest and detention of its leaders and members.

After the death of Kodhek, the first African lawyer to practise in Kenya and one who was bold enough to represent Mau Mau suspects in court, Gem constituents wanted another lawyer to represent them in the august House.

“I yielded to public pressure and decided to plunge into politics in 1969,” Okero recalled, saying that this historic decision changed his life forever. By-elections were called in all the constituencies whose MPs had been detained, among them Gem. Okero ran for the seat and emerged victorious.

President Kenyatta then appointed him Minister for Health and before long, his star was rising again. In the 1973 Cabinet reshuffle, he was moved to the huge Power and Communication docket. Among the many government parastatals under this ministry were the lucrative Kenya Posts and Telecommunications and the Kenya Railways and Harbours Corporations, which held a lot of clout in the country’s economy.

The political layout in Luoland was overhauled significantly when political detainees, who included Odinga and his comrades, Sijeyo and Luke Obok, former MP for Alego Usonga, were released. In the 1974 General Election, Okero was the only Luo Cabinet minister to survive the electoral purge; the victim was William Odongo Omamo in neighbouring Bondo Constituency.

In 1977, Okero was moved in a surprise reshuffle to head the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for a year. After Kenyatta died and Moi took over the following year, Okero was redeployed to the Ministry of Power and Communication. His return to this ministry was well received by observers, given his reputation as a results-oriented manager wherever he worked; this accolade remained intact up to the conclusion of his second term as an MP.

In the 1979 polls, the first after Kenyatta’s death, Okero lost to newcomer Ambala in a contest he still strongly believes was rigged by the new administration. He declined to elaborate. Looking back, the former minister maintained that he admired Kenyatta for not rigging polls in favour of any candidate during his 15-year tenure as Head of State and as KANU Chairman.

One of Okero’s legacies is the establishment of Siaya District Hospital and the realisation of rural electrification in Yala and Siaya District as a whole. He recalled pulling his boss aside after a Cabinet meeting at State House Nairobi and requesting him to authorise the hospital project. President Kenyatta retorted, “Aren’t you the Minister for Health?” The matter ended there and the project kicked off shortly thereafter.

Okero is married to Jane Margaret Anyango and they have six children; four sons and two daughters.




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