Kenya’s first cabinet outside Parliament building.
The death of pioneer Cabinet Minister Joseph Daniel Otiende Wednesday marked the end of an era characterised by dramatic and nostalgic political history.
Otiende’s death at dawn yesterday at the Avenue Hospital in Kisumu brings down the curtain on Kenya’s first Cabinet whose 15 eminent members helped founding President Jomo Kenyatta to lay the foundation of a young nation that has grown into today’s bustling economy of nearly 40 million people.
Otiende, or “JD”, as his peers and followers knew him, died at 4.30am at Avenue Hospital in Kisumu. He was 99 years old.
Otiende will be credited with writing volumes of policy and sessional papers that shaped the education, health, housing, and agriculture sectors.
As Kenya’s first Education minister, Otiende oversaw the tricky transition of the docket from the colonial system that was replete with racial discrimination to a homegrown system.
As plans for his burial kicked off in his sleepy village in Akelo, Kenyans will remember him as a man whose tough administrative approaches and scholarly mien saw him serve Mzee Kenyatta as minister in four different ministries – Education, Agriculture, Culture, and Health and Housing.
His tough stance on corruption and his stubborn decisions won him respect across East Africa.
So charismatic was JD that at one point in the early 1960s, Tanganyika’s (now Tanzania) founding Head of State, Julius Nyerere, suggested that he change his citizenship and succeed him as the country’s president.
“I almost became the president of Tanganyika. I was serving as the chairman of the East Africa’s Red Cross and I wielded a lot of power. Nyerere loved me so much,” Otiende said in an interview published by The Nairobian.
He added: “I worked closely with the Tanganyika African National Union and many Tanzanians thought I was one of them until Nyerere’s plans leaked.”
As the only Luhya minister in the first Cabinet, Otiende wielded power in western Kenya. His education also won him respect.
A principled man, Otiende, who was the first MP for Vihiga constituency, surprised friend and foe when he retired from politics after losing the seat to Peter Kibisu in 1969. He never contested again.
After quitting politics, the Makerere University-educated educationist kept a low profile until five years ago when he reluctantly agreed to chair the Luhya Council of Elders.
The son of a cleric and a teacher, Otiende lived an independent and dignified life at his rural home despite being poor.
During his time in government, members of the Cabinet earned a paltry Sh8,000. MPs earned Sh4,000.
Otiende was born in 1917 in Akelo village, Vihiga, along the border with Kisumu. His father ensured that he went to school early, conforming to the religion brought by the Missionary Society of Kenya.
He first went to Butere Normal School before joining Maseno School in 1926, where he found Kenya’s first Vice-President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
He later proceeded to Alliance High School after excelling in Maseno. The two served in Mzee Kenyatta’s first Cabinet.
Kenyatta’s first Cabinet, the leanest to date, had tough politicians who could weather his hot temper. Otiende once told reporters that Kenyatta was unpredictable and could convene a Cabinet meeting anywhere in the country, including at his home in Gatundu.
Sometimes he would reprimand the ministers like children.
“To serve under Kenyatta, you had to be tough because he had a quick temper and he always walked with his ‘bakora’,” he said.
Otiende was known for speaking his mind, even if it meant parting ways with his friends. He loathed politics because he claimed it had been invaded by corrupt and selfish individuals.
When put under pressure to help unite Luhya leaders, Otiende said the effort was a waste of time. “It will never be achieved. It will remain elusive forever,” he said.
At one time, he told opposition leader Raila Odinga to tread carefully because leaders from Mt Kenya region would never allow him to become president.
“Raila may never be president because the Mt Kenya leaders have sworn to never allow him.”