In Summary
  • Prof John Joseph Okumu, who died on July 10 after a three-year battle with prostate cancer, was stubborn and fearless to the end.
  • Prof Okumu joined Moi University from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where he had lived and taught in exile.
  • Long before his death, Prof Okumu had resigned himself to a largely private life.

The life and times of Prof John Joseph Okumu, who was never afraid of voicing his opinion on Kenya’s politics

Irrepressible. There is no better word to describe a man who lived his life with the same fervour and zest that he applied to politics, a subject he breathed, lived and taught.

Prof John Joseph Okumu, who died on July 10 after a three-year battle with prostate cancer, was stubborn and fearless to the end.

Once, in the early 1990s, he even told off goons from the Special Branch unit of the police who confronted him at Moi University for entertaining opposition politicians on his farm in Songhor, Nandi County.

“I am a hard-core oppositionist. I have always been and will not change even at the pain of death. You can go and say so to whoever sent you here,” he told them.

NYAYO HOUSE TORTURE

In those days, such utterances could easily earn one a stint at the dreaded Nyayo House torture cells in Nairobi. Those were the early years of agitation for multiparty politics and the Kanu regime had spies in universities.

Prof Okumu joined Moi University from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where he had lived and taught in exile over his political views that were at variance with those of the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi regimes. He had seen it all.

"You are babies and don't know what I went through in the sixties and seventies. You can't threaten me so many years later for no reason at all: I have a right to entertain whoever I like and choose in my home. Nobody selects friends and enemies for me,” he said.

Political science was the umbilical cord that connected Prof Okumu to the outside world. He enjoyed nothing better than analysing various regimes through history and isolating key characteristics that defined leader’s politics.

He was especially intrigued at the corrupting influence that absolute power wields over charismatic leaders.

BIOGRAPHY

It is hard for me to accept that he died before I could interview him for a biography I wanted to write on his life, but I can still reflect on our many interactions on the main campus of Moi University in Eldoret.

Like when I asked him if he could recollect a famous public lecture he once delivered that described Jomo Kenyatta as Kenya's last colonial governor.

He laughed. “What has changed except the skin colour in State House?”

He felt that despite achieving independence, gaining a national flag and ‘Africanising’ the political leadership, nothing had really changed because the new leadership maintained the colonial ideology on how to rule.

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