William Odongo Omamo will go down in history as a smooth operator, one of the few Cabinet ministers who served in the first and second governments as a Member of Parliament in an opposition zone.
Like his nickname, Kaliech (like an elephant), Omamo’s contribution to Kenya’s political landscape was gigantic. On top of this, he was one of the most eloquent and polished politicians Kenya has ever had.
Omamo was first appointed to the Cabinet by Founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and later by his successor President Daniel arap Moi. He served both leaders with loyalty and commitment in several ministries.
Standing at nearly six feet tall and weighing over 200 kg, Omamo had a great sense of humour and could speak for hours without boring his audience or hosts.
His loyalty to Moi was unquestionable and he has been quoted saying, “My day is incomplete unless I start off by seeing Wuod Odongo (nickname for his boss, Moi).”
Omamo was one of the few ministers in Moi’s 24-year tenure who survived the frequent Cabinet reshuffles because he worked hard and was a results-oriented, development-conscious leader and politician.
Describing his relationship with his former boss, Omamo said, “Moi was like an African chief — decisive, dignified, consulting, and had an open-door policy in the office and in his home.”
The Bondo Member of Parliament (MP) served through three presidencies and served in two Cabinets of two different presidents. He died on 27 April 2010 at the age of 82, leaving his peers and all who knew him with fond memories of their interactions with him.
In his usual humorous style, when MPs had difficulties relating a pothole to a crack in the road, Omamo came up with a perfect definition: “A pothole is a crack on the road large enough to rest a pot on!”
His sense of humour was unmatched. He once declared to Moi at a public rally, “As much as I can tell the amount of honey Kenya produced, I cannot tell His Excellency the number of bees that produced the honey!” accompanied by an uproarious laugh.
While on the campaign trail on another occasion, just before a by-election, he was hard pressed by his Bondo constituents in Siaya County to identify the development projects he had initiated as their representative in Parliament. Omamo retorted that his name was in every school, church and women’s group, while his rival’s name was in every bar in the expansive constituency!
Omamo attended Maranda Sector School (now called Maranda High School). His oratory skills endeared him to his teachers and they groomed him to be a leader. One of his former classmates noted that Omamo “…was a bright student and stood out like a cockerel among chickens.” His hobbies were hunting and planting trees and flowers. These hobbies aptly prepared him for the ministerial portfolios he was to later hold.
He proceeded to Maseno School, where he fell in love with agriculture as a subject. This prepared him to serve as Minister for Agriculture under Kenyatta and Moi.
In a media interview, Omamo narrated how from Maseno School he won a scholarship to travel to India on an Indian government scholarship. “I went to Punjab Agricultural College for two years, and then I moved to Madras Agricultural College, where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agriculture in 1955,” Omamo recalled with pride. He said it was through the support of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, one of the panellists vetting the students, that he was awarded the scholarship. That first encounter with Odinga, who later became the first Vice President of Kenya, made a lasting impression on his life.
The only Kenyan he remembers meeting in India was Titus Mbathi, who was studying in the neighbouring Madras Christian College, and who would later also serve in the Cabinet in the Kenyatta and Moi governments.
Back in Kenya, Omamo was appointed as an Assistant Agricultural Officer and was posted as a lecturer to Siriba Teachers College in Western Province (the area now covered by Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia and Vihiga counties). But his thirst for further education compelled him to resign after two years to pursue a postgraduate degree in Agricultural Economics at Lahore University, Pakistan, for two years.
Omamo worked hard, and was a results-oriented and development-conscious leader and politician
Armed with a Master’s Degree in Science, he was re-absorbed in the civil service and posted to Embu District (now Embu County) as an Assistant Agricultural Officer in charge of extension services, with a brief to promote bee-keeping, grade cattle rearing, coffee, tea and pyrethrum farming in the area.
In 1960 he resigned again to pursue another Master’s degree in the USA, this time in Agriculture. Again, he was re-hired on his return to Kenya and posted to Nyeri District (now Nyeri County) in Mount Kenya region where he was promoted to Central Provincial Officer in charge of agricultural economics surveys.
Omamo’s star continued to rise as he was transferred to Homa Bay District (now Homa Bay County) in Nyanza with the same responsibilities. He was later moved to Kisumu District (Kisumu County) and promoted to Nyanza Provincial Agricultural Officer and then to Nyanza Regional Agricultural Officer.
In 1965 the Deputy Principal’s post at Egerton Agricultural College (now Egerton University) in Nakuru District (Nakuru County) fell vacant. Omamo was interviewed and became the first African to occupy that office. Six months later his boss, Mike Baretti, retired and Omamo became the first African to head the prestigious college which had 300 enrolled students at the time.
But Kaliech was itching for better things. Three years later he resigned to contest the Bondo parliamentary seat previously held by his mentor, Odinga.
“I believed I had developed a plan for the college and it was therefore time to move on,” said Omamo. “I had no plans to go into politics, but the tragic events of 1969 made me change my mind.”
He was referring to a road accident that killed Foreign Affairs Minister Clement Argwings-Kodhek in Nairobi, the assassination of Economic Planning Minister Tom Mboya, and the outlawing of Odinga’s opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU).
Omamo said, “I joined politics because of what I saw as a leadership vacuum dangerous for our community following the three unfortunate developments.”
As he was leaving Egerton College, Omamo had in his possession a letter of appointment to head the Natural Resources Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He turned down that offer and headed to Bondo to start campaigning for the seat that had fallen vacant following the arrest and detention of Odinga.
After Moi became President, Omamo was appointed Chairman of the University of Nairobi Council and later as head of the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) because of his academic and work experience and political connections.
However, he resigned in 1980 after the Bondo MP, Jonah Hezekiah Ougo Ochieng, resigned in favour of Odinga, who had been appointed Chairman of the Cotton Marketing Board.
But the ruling party, which was the sole political party in the country at the time, turned down Odinga’s application for nomination on grounds that he was “not KANU enough!” This was shortly after he had accused Kenyatta of being a “land-grabber” at a public function in Mombasa.
Omamo won the seat and Moi appointed him Minister for Environment and Natural Resources because of his unswerving loyalty — that was 10 days after the Moi government had crushed the aborted coup attempt in August 1982.
In the subsequent snap elections held in 1983, Omamo recaptured the Bondo seat and was appointed Minister for Agriculture and Livestock Development, an office he had held before and had a passion for.
In 1987 the Bondo MP was transferred to the Ministry of Science and Technology, but was soon relieved of his duties. In an interview conducted shortly thereafter, Omamo accused his detractors of misleading the President. Apparently his opponents had told Moi that he had praised Odinga for supporting his application for the scholarship to study in India for his undergraduate degree in the 1950s at a thanksgiving party after the Indian university gave him an honorary degree.
Moi pardoned him after the truth of what had transpired at the party emerged. Omamo was appointed to head several commissions, including one on local authorities that recommended that Mombasa and Kisumu be elevated to city status and that the capital city be divided into boroughs.
But Omamo’s attempts to recapture his Bondo seat in 1988 and 1992 were futile because of the popularity of the opposition in Luo Nyanza. He failed yet again in the 1994 by-elections following the death of Odinga.
In 1997, when he defected from KANU to the National Development Party (NDP) formed and led by Jaramogi’s son Raila Odinga, he captured the Muhoroni seat in Kisumu County where he served for one five-year term. Omamo resigned from politics in 2002, saying he was “like a balloon”, which at one time or another must be deflated.