The soft side of the Kenyattas and Odingas

Raila Odinga with Uhuru Kenyatta

The camaraderie between the Kenyattas and the Odingas began long before Kenya got her independence. Although the two families fiercely attack one another at public political rallies, they have always had a soft underbelly that often comes out when they meet in public.

In the biography, ‘Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics’, the author notes that Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Jomo Kenyatta, were at one point trusted allies before they fell out.

One of the earliest displays of this happened in 1954, when Jaramogi gave an important message to the effect that organising as a Luo, must not be at the expense of the greater goal of being Kenyan.

It was at this time when a Nairobi councillor, Ambrose Ofafa, was assassinated by Mau Mau fighters in Nairobi’s Kaloleni estate.

Mr Ofafa, who was also the treasurer of the Luo Union, had been accused of collaborating with the colonialists as he was one of the Africans who, when Kikuyus were being deported from Nairobi, took over some of the shops previously used by Kikuyus.

The colonial government saw the tension that this assassination created between the two communities and tried to exploit it by urging the Luos to join the Gikuyu Home Guards.


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According to Jaramogi, this constituted an encouragement to Luos to avenge Ofafa’s death.

“Oginga Odinga travelled to Nairobi from Kisumu and succeeded in thwarting such a volatile relationship between the Luo and the Kikuyu. He managed to make the Luos see what had brought about the actions of the Mau Mau fighters,” the book narrates.

Rather than kill fellow Kenyans in revenge, the senior Oginga turned the situation around for the better and instead proposed that Luos should build a memorial in the name of Ofafa.

The memorial was completed in Kisumu in 1957 and the Ofafa Hall also served as the headquarters of the Luo nation.

Numerous other examples are told of instances when Jaramogi came out to stand with Kenya’s founding president even when it made him a little unpopular among his loyal Luo supporters.

At one time, the senior Oginga fought against the detention of Jomo Kenyatta from 1952 to 1961.

But nothing stands above the time when he refused to take over the Government, as had been offered by the colonial masters, until Kenyatta was released.


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Oginga, working with others, refused to compromise on who was to lead Kenya into independence. They found ways of keeping the spirit of Jomo Kenyatta alive even while he was in detention. This just sealed their bond.

“Whatever might have remained of anti-Luo feeling among the Kikuyus must have dwindled if not completely evaporated, as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga refused the offer by the British to assume the leadership of Kenya at the expense of the detained Kenyatta,” reads the book.

In his biography, ‘Not Yet Uhuru, ‘Jaramogi notes that Kenyatta was not only the leader, he was the symbol of people’s political aspirations and as long as he was not free, the people could not freely express their aspirations.

To honour this loyalty, Kenyatta named him the first vice president of Kenya. At that time, it was clear to the leaders then that if they could make their communities work as one, they would unlock one of biggest hurdles for national integration and development. [Paul Wafula]

One of the biggest fallouts between the senior Oginga and Kenyatta came when Tom Mboya, another Luo, was assassinated.

As expected, the Luo’s reaction to Mboya’s assassination was swift. Violent protests erupted in Kisumu. But the climax came when Jomo Kenyatta visited Kisumu in October 1969.

The protests in Kisumu in the face of Kenyatta, led to the detention of several Luo leaders. Kenyatta was enraged and he placed Jaramogi under house arrest, together with his family. It is understood that the only reason why Kenyatta was not jailed was because of the bond that the two had once shared.


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Another cause of misunderstanding between Kenyatta and Oginga was over the military training of students in socialist countries, since Britain would not accept to train African soldiers at the time.

“When the trainees started to return, the slander was spread that they were Odinga’s boys and I would use them against the government,” Oginga says in his book.

This only served to fuel the love hate relationship that existed between the two leaders.

The competition for power over the years has however seen their families become the biggest protagonists in the Luo-Kikuyu rivalry, a rivalry that was passed down to their sons.

Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta have had their fair share of fights but they have in many times remained cordial especially whenever they meet face to face. Often, they refer to one another as ‘ndugu’, which means brother.

They even hug at times when they meet in public or give one another a pat on their backs as they introduce one another to take the stage.

And whenever they are seated together, next to each other, their body language is far from the sworn enemies that we see when they take on the stage.

It was therefore no surprise to the Odinga’s when President Uhuru Kenyatta asked the military to fly the body of Fidel Odinga, the son the former Prime Minister to Kisumu when he passed on in 2015.


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There is also some unwritten rule that they do not attack one another when they meet in one occasion, where they mostly trade soft jibes at one another.

They however are free to throw heavier attacks when in different places, like was the recent case where Uhuru accused his political rival of having played a key role in the 2007 post poll violence. Raila swiftly responded, denying any role.

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