It is not for nothing that Kenya has been dubbed the most peaceful and stable country in black africa. The most recent moment of political tension was at the passing of Kenya's venerable founder and first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and the brief but sharp concern about his successor. That chapter ended calmly and rationally in the election of President Daniel arap Moi, who had been Kenyatta's vice-president.
One other big and colorful name apart from that of Kenyatta has always been associated with Kenya, and that is the name of Oginga Odinga, the country's first vice-president, whose radical views and actions got him detained for two years by Kenyatta on charges of subversion.
Oginga Odinga, a leading Luo tribesman known to many as "Mr. Double-O," was then opposed to the capitalist way of life into which Kenyatta was taking Kenya. His enemies called him a communist. He was outspoken and highly intelligent.
After Odinga's release from detention, he bega to change his ways and his beliefs, tried hard to get back into the Kenyatta establishment, wanted to go back into politics. He joined the ruling party KANU.
After Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, died, President Moi started a campaign to weld the tribes together. He found great support, as a non-Kikuyu himself, among the Luo people of western Kenya, the second biggest tribal group after the Kikuyu, and other smaller tribes. Among Mr. Moi's actions was to bring Oginga Odinga back into the establishment fold, giving him a minor appointment as chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board. Odinga was a cotton farmer and a cotton expert.
The way seemed set for Oginga Odinga to go further and move into the political scene. He had friends at court, true, but he also still had many enemies among the Kikuyu community.
But Odinga seemed to be losing his former political prowess and shrewdness because he chose a public meeting to launch an attack on Kenyatta. In spite of Kenyatta's many faults, he has become virtually deified as the leader of Kenya's independence thrust, and the founder of the state. President Moi himself, faithful aide to Kenyatta for more than 10 years, has done more than anyone else to maintain the Kenyatta legend.
Odinga revealed in his speech how he had once clashed with Kenyatta "because he wanted to grab land, and he asked me to do the same, and I refused." That was a bad enough gaffe. His next fumble was his tale of how Moi had asked him to come back into the political fold. He said Moi had told him "Come, Baba, join me and let us work for the country." "Baba" means "father" in Swahili.
President Moi's reaction was fierce, and to Odinga was surely predictable. First Moi said that any leader who believed Kenyatta's administration was malevolent was not likely to appreciate his "love, peace, and unity" government, let alone fit to serve in it. He also said that he at no time had referred to anybody, other than Kenyatta, as father.
Now the heavens have fallen on Odinga. Attacks have come from all directions , including sections of the press. Odinga has apologized humbly, even in writing to the President, bus so far to no avail.
For Odinga, the situation is particularly ironic because the member of Parliament for the Bondo constituency, Hezekiah Ougo, had alread given up his seat for Odinga, and at the coming by-election looked to be unopposed. With Odinga on Parliament, he could have gone easily to a government ministry.
The KANU party, Kenya's only party, has to clear all candidates for election. The party executive now has refused to clear Odinga, and the Luo leader is back to square one. Two other candidates have been cleared to fight the by-election.
Kenya now is nearing the political boiling point. Luo university students are protesting, and other objections to the treatment of Odinga have come from the Luo community.
It shows how in Kenya a few ill-chosen words can endanger a political career, especially a second career, which Oginga Odinga had spent years building.