What comes to mind when one converses with James Charles Nakhwanga Osogo is William Shakespeare’s dictum in the play titled As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”
At his Kilimani Estate home in Nairobi, evidence of Osogo’s graceful ageing is a doting granddaughter who won’t leave the old man alone. The young girl will one day understand that her grandfather was a pioneering political leader who contributed greatly to shaping the political theatre that Kenya is.
Osogo fought many political battles in his day and even stuck his neck out sometimes in the most charged of circumstances. In 1975 for instance, following the mysterious death of Nyandarua MP Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (popularly known as J.M.), Osogo, then the Minister for Health, led the government’s attempt to scuttle the report by the Parliamentary Select Committee, chaired by Elijah Mwangale, that implicated Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga and General Service Unit Commandant Benjamin Gethi in the killing.
The Busia South (now Bunyala) MP moved an amendment motion urging the House to “… note and understand rather than accept the report”. The motion was defeated; MPs were so incensed that they could not entertain anything that would water down the report. Osogo explained the circumstances in which he moved the motion.
“I had no ulterior motives. All I wanted was to save the Mwangale Report. What had happened was that an initial report, which I happened to have seen, had many more names (of people implicated) compared with the one Mwangale presented in Parliament. It appeared that Mwangale had been forced to withdraw the first report because the names of some very senior politicians were in it, but some of us had seen this very report.”
Osogo was born in the little village of Bukani in Bunyala District in 1932, the second of 10 children. He was raised in a strict Catholic family, his father being an official of the local church. In fact, as a child his desire was to join a seminary and become a priest. He ended up at St Mary’s Yala School, the famous Catholic Church-sponsored institution that nurtured many a talent in Kenya’s formative years. One of his school mates was Thomas Joseph Mboya, who would become the Minister for Economic Planning and Development.
After school, Osogo had a lingering ambition for the military, specifically the Royal Navy. But opportunities in this area were scarce so he took up an opportunity to work with the East African Railways – a major employer then. This required training at the East African Railways and Harbours Institute (today’s Kenya Railways Training Institute) in Nairobi.
If Osogo’s political consciousness, particularly against the colonialists, had been pricked while he was at Yala, joining the Railways Institute brought him face to face with the brutal face of imperialism. He would witness and participate in the riots called by such fiery trade union leaders as Markhan Singh and Kung’u Karumba.
After his training, he was employed as an Assistant Station Master at various railway stations in Kenya and Uganda.
“This gave me an opportunity to traverse the two countries, in the course of which I met and interacted with very many people,” he recalled. However, his heart was never really in Railways. His passion was teaching “which for me was the closest thing to politics since by imparting knowledge, you influence people towards development”.
What accelerated his departure from Railways were the many instances of discrimination against Africans, which he could not stomach. He himself had many run-ins with the white managers. Thus, in 1953, he enrolled at Kagumo Teachers’ Training College from where he would graduate three years later. Like the Railways Institute, Kagumo had the effect of expanding his knowledge of Kenya’s leadership challenges at the time, mainly the Mau Mau uprising and the fact that Kagumo was in the heartland of Kikuyu country, where a brutal purge was going on.
After graduating, Osogo was posted to Sigalame Intermediate School in Busia District (now Busia County) where he got engaged in politics, becoming a councillor in the Nyanza African District Council. But the council was dissolved two years later, ostensibly because Osogo and his colleagues were very critical of the colonial administration. In 1959, he was transferred to Port Victoria Intermediate School on the shores of Lake Victoria. This was also the year he married his first wife, Maria. His stay at Port Victoria would be cut short as within the year, he had run afoul of the colonial administration for being outspoken about the fishing rights of his Bunyala people.
For his agitation, the colonial administration transferred him to Kabasaka Intermediate School in Nandi District (since renamed Nandi County).
“This infuriated me but I took it in my stride, knowing that the transfer would be a temporary stop before I left to serve the people full time,” he recalled.
When the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party was formed in 1960, Osogo was one of the first people to join. He would stick with KANU even when the Luhya community decamped to the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), in part because one of its leading lights was Masinde Muliro, the sole representative of Elgon Nyanza (Western Province) in the Legislative Council.
“I felt very strongly that we needed a national party that would bring together all Kenyans as a force to defeat the colonialists and believed that divisions would make us weak,” he explained.
Thanks to the passing of the Lancaster Constitution in 1961, elections were called throughout the country. Osogo’s Bunyala region was in Central Nyanza District and attracted eight parliamentary candidates. He thought he had a chance but when the results came in, he was third after Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who became Kenya’s Vice President, and Argwings Kodhek. After the elections, he lobbied for nomination by KANU but the slot went to Walter Odede instead while KADU nominated Peter Habenga Okondo, the man who would become Osogo’s nemesis.
The first duel in the Osogo-Okondo rivalry would play out in 1963 as part of the comprehensive political reforms accompanying Kenya’s independence. In the battle for Ruwambwa Constituency, Osogo emerged victorious, notwithstanding the fact that Okondo had had a head start as a nominated MP in the previous Parliament and was the more educated of the two men. Okondo had a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and had also worked as a senior government official in the Ministry of Finance in Uganda.
When he made his debut in Parliament, Osogo was appointed the Ministry of Agriculture’s Parliamentary Secretary (assistant minister). The Minister for Agriculture was Bruce McKenzie. When the relationship between President Jomo Kenyatta and Vice President Odinga soured, Osogo was the beneficiary. In the 1966 reshuffle, he replaced Achieng Oneko as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting.
The Osogo-Okondo political battle was replayed in 1969 and Osogo once again trounced Okondo, although this time by a thin margin of 600 votes. Kenyatta appointed him Minister for Commerce and Industry and from there moved him to the Ministry of Local Government, where he oversaw the transformation of many market and urban centres into town councils.
In 1974, Okondo tactfully decided not to contest the Busia South seat and instead threw his weight behind James Ombere Okoch, a relative of Osogo’s. The contest was bruising but Osogo managed to scrape through and was appointed Minister for Health at a time when the sector was going through many difficulties.
Kenyatta National Hospital, the country’s only referral facility at the time, was in a shambles. Doctors were threatening industrial action against poor living and working conditions. The minister had his hands full addressing these mounting problems while also overseeing an ambitious expansion of medical facilities across the country.
When Kenyatta died in 1978, Osogo’s fortunes started to plummet and he found himself facing new challenges. In the 1979 elections, all indications were that President Daniel arap Moi was intent on getting new faces across the nation as he sought to consolidate his power base. Many political careers ended abruptly as newcomers with demonstrated loyalty to the new President romped home.
Osogo managed to stave off a spirited battle from his perpetual nemesis, Okondo, and on his return to Parliament, he was appointed Minister for Agriculture while retaining the Deputy Leader of Government Business position he had held since June 1975.
If signs that things were not rosy for Osogo in the new dispensation were discernible, the clearest indication was in the 1980s, when his Agriculture portfolio was split into two and he was moved to the newly created Ministry of Livestock.
As his duties and functions were being clipped, he had another worry in the form of a petition by a voter who claimed he had won the last election by administering an oath. Osogo lost his parliamentary seat in 1981 with a heavy price — he was legally barred from contesting the seat for five years. In the ensuing by-election, he threw his weight behind a retired army officer named William Diffu.
But the KANU machinery was determined to ensure that Okondo made it to Parliament. Diffu was barred from contesting and Okondo sailed through unopposed. He would win again in 1983 and 1988 against Osogo, who petitioned and pointed out oath-taking as the main grounds. The court dismissed the petition.
Not long after this, Okondo was involved in an altercation with the outspoken Anglican Bishop, Alexander Muge. When Muge, a vocal critic of Moi’s government, died in a car crash shortly after Okondo had publicly threatened that he would not live should he visit the MP’s home district of Busia, public pressure hounded him out of his ministerial position.
When the wave of multipartism gained momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Osogo joined FORD-Kenya and became the party’s Busia Branch chairman. But he was soon persuaded by Moi to rejoin KANU.
“I was all for the Opposition but when the leaders could not agree to field one candidate against Moi, I had to be realistic. I knew that divided, they would not beat Moi. I tried to advise but the Opposition was full of ambitious people who would not make room for one another. These were the circumstances in which I rejoined KANU,” he explained.
He easily won the Bunyala seat and on returning to Parliament after a decade in the cold, he was appointed Assistant Minister for Commerce. In 1997, Osogo and Oneko were co-chairmen of the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group that successfully negotiated minimum reforms before that year’s elections. But in the 2002 General Election, he lost to a newcomer, Raphael Wanjala, for the now renamed Budalang’i Constituency. After the loss, Osogo hung up his political boots for good. Today he shuttles between his Nairobi and Busia homes attending to personal business.