John Henry Okwanyo was one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament for Migori in Nyanza region. He was also a close friend and point man of President Daniel arap Moi whom he served with total loyalty as a friend, confidant and Cabinet minister for decades. The no-nonsense minister is best remembered for his anti-majimbo (federalism) stance from independence in 1963 onwards, and for being bold enough to lead the anti-Jaramogi Oginga Odinga wave in Southern Nyanza.
Okwanyo was abrasive and spoke his mind freely. He shot from the hip as he opposed those calling for the re-introduction of majimbo and later others who lobbied for the return of a multiparty State. He held that majimbo would be divisive for a young nation like Kenya, besides being expensive and cumbersome.
“Majimbo process is not good. It will divide our people. We are not ripe for it because we are still a poor nation. Those advocating for it have a hidden political agenda,” Okwanyo told the Daily Nation during an interview after he had retired from 38 years of active politics in 1994. He died two years later.
Okwanyo plunged into politics in 1963 by successfully contesting for the Migori parliamentary seat on a Kenya African National Union (KANU) party ticket. He lost the seat to Lawrence Oguda in the subsequent and hotly-contested 1969 polls. Election campaigns during that time were exciting because all politicians shared one platform and the best orator always carried the day.
After losing one term to Oguda, Okwanyo bounced back in 1974 with a landslide victory. He retained his seat again in 1979 but lost in 1983 to Gor Misiani, only to recapture it in the 1988 controversial mlolongo (queue) voting where losers and winners were promptly announced during the one-day exercise.
Okwanyo became widely known early in his political career due to his sense of humour that he used to liven debates both within and outside Parliament. He became famous for his trademark refrain, “What about Migori?” which would became his nickname. He was zealous in his efforts to promote his constituency and his electorate at every opportunity he could find during parliamentary debates.
A story is told that one day while in Parliament, Okwanyo dozed off as other MPs debated and presented problems acing their constituencies. When a colleague woke him up, Okwanyo is said to have shouted, “And what about Migori?” The joke stuck to him like glue. He later explained, “I had taken a brief afternoon nap and when I woke up, I wanted to find out if they had discussed anything about Migori that I needed to know.”
Okwanyo counted his greatest moment in the Cabinet as hosting the week-long United Nations Energy Conference in Nairobi in 1981 while he served as Minister for Energy. He was automatically appointed Conference President by virtue of serving as the hosting minister. The conference brought together senior government officials, scientists and researchers from all over the world.
“My best moment as a Cabinet minister was when I hosted the UN Energy Conference in Nairobi which was a great success and made Moi very happy with me. He told me I had done a good job and that the delegates had praised me and my team for a job well done,” the Migori MP recalled in one of his last media interviews. After the Energy Conference, he was invited to New York to address another UN conference.
A Moi loyalist, Okwanyo never spared anyone who dared to criticise his mentor and boss. He was known by his supporters as a vehement opponent of ‘Odingaism’ – the Luo people’s perceived obsession with the late Jaramogi, a man who commanded fanatical support from his community and across many parts of the country. Okwanyo’s political animosity towards Odinga partly stemmed from the fact that he was former Planning Minister Tom Mboya’s key ally in Luo land. He had mobilised support for Mboya during President Jomo Kenyatta’s regime, at a time when Mboya and Odinga could not see eye to eye.
Martin Odeny, a former civic leader in the now defunct South Nyanza County Council, remarked that Okwanyo was Mboya’s point man in South Nyanza and his frequent public attacks on Jaramogi later endeared him further to Moi, who harboured hostility towards the doyen of the Opposition.
Whenever fellow Luo leaders were too shy to take on Jaramogi directly and in public, Okwanyo went for him with bare knuckles, according to Jackson Rono, a retired District Officer who worked in Migori for five years in the 1990s. Rono vividly recalled an incident when Okwanyo was unwell but insisted on being driven all the way to Nairobi, some 500km away, to attend a KANU meeting chaired by the President.
Moi retained Okwanyo in his Cabinet as long as he was an MP. He worked in the ministries of Energy, Water Development, Commerce, and finally, Regional Development.
In 1990, a year before the landmark repeal of Section 2A of the constitution, the Migori MP ran into trouble with his fellow Luo leaders – especially those in the Opposition and the Church – when he led a large delegation of elected MPs, KANU officials and civic leaders in a visit to Moi at his Kabarak home in Nakuru District (now Nakuru County). During the visit that was well publicised by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), Okwanyo was in his element, showering praise on Moi while chastising other Luo leaders for embracing opposition politics.
The firebrand minister was quoted by KBC as saying, “Mtukufu Rais (Your Excellency) don’t be misled; Luos still love you despite Jaramogi’s opposition.”
Other leaders who were in the delegation were Cabinet colleagues Charles Onyango Midika (MP for Nyando), Wilson Ndolo Ayah (Kisumu Rural) and Dalmas Otieno (Rongo). The agenda of the meeting was very clear: to denounce outspoken Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Bishop Henry Okullu and Odinga for being a thorn in the flesh of the KANU government and for always campaigning for a multiparty system of governance.
Okwanyo’s delegation also had KANU officials from all over Nyanza who had been transported there in scores of school buses and matatus (minibuses). Speaker after speaker pledged loyalty to the President and denounced Odinga and Okullu.
As leader of the delegation, the Migori MP’s fiery speech assured Moi that Nyanza leaders would not allow the likes of Odinga and the bishop to destabilise his government. The delegates did not walk away empty-handed; each was given KES 500 as a token of appreciation. They enthusiastically sang, “Jogoo (cockerel) juu! KANU yajenga nchi!” (The cock was the party symbol and their words proclaimed that nation-building was assured in the hands of KANU).
The visit came at a pivotal moment when the country was at a crossroads as the clamour for re-introduction of multipartism was in top gear, and demands for the arrest and prosecution of the killers of Robert John Ouko, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, was the chorus of the day. Okwanyo said during the live KBC coverage of the event, “Bishop Okullu and Jaramogi are the black sheep in the family. I am seeking permission from Your Excellency to deal with the duo!”
Okullu’s bold rejoinder was well-publicised in a press conference. He said, “Okwanyo should know that he is not a Luo community spokesman by any stretch of the imagination, and should therefore keep his mouth shut!”
In 1992, when most Luo leaders defected from KANU to join Odinga’s Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party, Okwanyo stayed put in KANU. He reportedly said scornfully at a press conference, “They are doing so because they lack political morals and principles.”
The KANU government has tried its best to help develop Nyanza, but the Luos are a difficult people who cannot be satisfied
Even with the changed political landscape that saw KANU lose its popularity to the wave of opposition, Okwanyo still believed until the last minute that by virtue of his long stay in the Cabinet, he was still the most popular leader in the area. His loss to FORD-Kenya’s Charles Owino Likowa in the 1992 multiparty elections marked his journey to political retirement.
A few months before he threw in the towel, the former minister called a press conference to bash the Luos: “The KANU government has tried its best to help develop Nyanza, but the Luos are a difficult people who cannot be satisfied,” he told journalists as he enumerated scores of projects that he praised the KANU government for implementing.
Okwanyo said he was retiring from the political and public service arenas as a proud man, having built the nation through his long service both as a Cabinet minister and as MP for Migori.
“I am happy that my total loyalty to Moi and the ruling party KANU helped Migori to benefit from many government projects,” he said.
Asked about his legacy, he listed the construction of the Migori Teachers’ Training College and the Ombo Mission Hospital, built with funds from the Dutch government through the Catholic Church, and construction of the Moi Institute of Technology (MIT) in Kitere, Rongo, which was later taken over by the current Rongo University.
Okwanyo was also behind the construction of the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) depot in Migori to help farmers address post-harvest losses.