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Events from today marking 50 years since minister of State for Foreign Affairs CMG Argwings Kodhek died will be more than a poignant family memorial and remembrance of an important public figure.

It will be an occasion to be looked at in terms of political schisms of his era that divide Kenyans to this day; and ongoing efforts by President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga to finally heal the rifts that have caused the country so much political turmoil.

Kenya was united in grief 50 years ago today on waking up to the news that Mr Kodhek had died in an early morning car crash.

That tragedy towards the close of the first month of 1969 perhaps served as a precursor for what still stands as one of the most tumultuous years in the history of independent Kenya.

One of the brightest young politicians to make the transition from an activist in agitation for freedom to assumption of leadership in a newly emergent nation, Mr Kodhek died at a time when the country was deeply rived between the authoritarian Kanu regime of President Jomo Kenyatta and an increasingly bold Opposition led by Mr Oginga Odinga of the Kenya People’s Union.

The ethno-political divide of 1969 — President Kenyatta and Vice-President Daniel arap Moi in a Mt Kenya-Rift Valley power elite resisting the onslaught of an opposition built around Mr Odinga’s Nyanza power base — is almost perfectly mirrored in the power equation of today that confirms a dynastic duel.

Today, it is Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, and Mr Moi’s successor at the helm of Rift Valley leadership, Deputy President William Ruto, paired up since the 2013 elections in resisting the perennial presidential quest of Odingas, first father and then the son.

When Mr Kodhek died in 1969, he was in the middle of an increasingly bitter political battle, playing a delicate balancing act in between loyalty to the Kenyatta government and his role as an MP for Gem, fiercely Odinga territory.

When Mr Odinga quit as Vice-President in 1966 to found the Opposition Kenya Peoples Union, Mr Kodhek was one of the senior figures in Luo Nyanza to defy the call towards the regional power bloc.

After the defection of Mr Odinga and 28 other Members of Parliament, the Kenyatta government had rammed through a constitutional amendment mandating that elected leaders who changed party allegiance seek a fresh mandate.

In the ensuing ‘Little General Election’, of 1966, KPU swept the Odinga strongholds. Mr Kodhek was spared because he had remained in Kanu and his seat was not up for the by-election.

But he was lonely as a Cabinet minister and Kanu MP in a strongly opposition region. A General Election was coming up in 1969. Mr Kodhek would have known that despite his status as a nationalist hero of the struggle for independence and stellar credentials, he would be in real danger of losing his seat.

He thus tried to play the role of conciliator, remaining loyal to Kenyatta, while maintaining cordial ties with Mr Odinga, with whom he had family connections going back to the 1930s.

Some in President Kenyatta’s court would have wanted to use Mr Kodhek as their spearhead in Mr Odinga’s home turf, but he resisted such moves, instead opting to be reconciler between the opposing sides.

That might explain why Mr Kodhek was genuinely mourned across the political divide.

President Kenyatta lamented the loss of a nationalist and a friend to all. Vice-President Moi moved a motion of adjournment in Parliament to pay tribute to a fallen colleague. That the motion was seconded by opposition leader Oginga Odinga stood as a testimony that Mr Kodhek was respected on both sides of the aisle, and also to the maturity of a multiparty Parliament at a time of otherwise hostile divides.

Although there were some violent protests when news broke of Mr Kodhek’s death, they soon petered out. Once it was generally accepted that he had died in a tragic car accident rather than foul play, events from the period of mourning, the funeral service in Nairobi onto the burial in Gem with mixed Christian and traditional rites proceeded placidly.


That turned out to have been the calm before the storm, as a series of calamitous events the same year affecting Nyanza and the nation at large served to dangerously poison the political atmosphere, with reverberations felt to this day.

First was the assassination of the brilliant Cabinet minister Tom Mboya; followed by the banning of KPU, imprisonment without trial of Mr Odinga and all the key opposition leaders; and regression of Kenya back into a de facto one-party state.

On July 5, 1969, a lone gunman fired bullets into the chest of Mr Mboya, then minister for Economic Planning and Development, as he walked out of Chaani’s Pharmacy on Government Road (Now Moi Avenue).

Widespread riots broke out in Nairobi and Kisumu amid suspicion that the Kenyatta government was responsible for the killing. There was an irony in that as opposition chief Odinga’s supporters broke out in grief and anger at the killing of one of their most promising son; they were also mourning one who had broken ranks with the community to serve the Kenyatta regimes machinations against their political champion.

It was Mr Mboya who in 1966 had orchestrated the manouevers that forced Mr Odinga to quit the vice presidency and Kanu to go into opposition.

He went on to become one of the most powerful figures in the Kanu government, and by 1969 was being seriously considered a potential successor to the ageing President Kenyatta.

That probably explained why he had to be eliminated, but that had the unintended effect of driving the Luo even more strongly into Mr Odinga’s camp.

Fast-forward to October 25, 1969. President Kenyatta went on an inspection tour of development projects, the highlight being the official opening of the New Nyanza General Hospital in Kisumu, Mr Odinga’s political capital.

That was not an innocent choice. Nicknamed ‘Russia’, the hospital was built largely with Soviet funds sourced by the eastern-leaning Mr Odinga, so the political undertones were clear.

The presidential convoy met hostility as soon as it entered Kisumu. At the venue itself, President Kenyatta from the podium and Mr Odinga seated on the terraces exchanged words. Stones were thrown, presidential guards opened fire into the crowd and amid the mayhem, President Kenyatta was whisked away.

What followed came to be known as the Kisumu Massacre. There has never been an official death toll but unverified reports have ranged from a dozen fatalities to 10 times that.

Over the course of the next three days, police rounded up scores of KPU leaders. Mr Odinga and his closest allies were put under detention without trial on national security regulations. At the end of the month, KPU was officially proscribed as “subversive both in its nature and in its objectives … dangerous to the government.”

Kenya became a one-party state, though not codified until the 1982 passage of the infamous Section 2A of the Constitution. Mr Odinga remained barred from politics until the section was repealed in 1992. But the alienation that Mr Odinga’s base feels it has been condemned to over successive regimes remains uncured.

If 1969 was the year everything came to a head, Mr Kodhek’s memorial 50 years later might just be the occasion for Kenyatta Jr and Odinga Jr to prove that the ‘handshake’ supposed to end a generation of hostility is for real.

There may also be a need to address the issues that have the Building Bridges Initiative viewed with suspicion, especially by DP Ruto’s wing of Jubilee.

President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga can do this with the firm message that it aims not just at political pact between two individuals and their respective family and community strongholds, but at a much more inclusive effort aimed at true peace, reconciliation and healing for all Kenyans.