James Orengo: as contrary as he is iconic

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Kenya's coalition National Super Alliance (NASA) Chief Election Agent James Orengo (C) speaks to media after meeting with Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman at the Bomas of Kenya cultural center in Nairobi, on October 3, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / YASUYOSHI CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

By David Onjili

It is not an ideal world. If it were, James Aggrey Orengo would not just be or have been president; according to some observers, he’d also be the undisputed kingpin of the Luo nation. 

Politics, admittedly, is a contest and in Kenya it defies the laws of human nature and hierarchy. In the midst of the enduring anomaly that is our brand of politics, the second-term senator has had to adjust to be content with being one of the leading minds of opposition politics, parliament and the corridors of justice. His constituents consider him a gift to the country, one they’d be content exporting from Siaya to the rest of the country.

For decades, he has been in the trenches fighting for multipartysm and to expand the democratic space we enjoy today. An astute debater and a public intellectual, his contribution to public discourse has been immense.

Orengo was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s blued-eyed boy. Odinga, hailed by former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga as “our political father during the clamour for multi-party democracy” had a soft spot for Jimmy, as he fondly calls the senator. 

“He was always close to Jaramogi. I formed the opinion that he was actually Jaramogi’s heir apparent, but how didn’t come to be is a conversation to be had between him and Odinga’s son, Raila,” notes Dr Mutunga. 

Mutunga’s sentiments are echoed by Professor Herman Manyora of the University of Nairobi. He recalls an event in Luo Nyanza where the late Odinga addressing a market crowd, waving his trademark fly whisk, introduced a then young Orengo. “It was a subtle yet powerful endorsement,” says Manyora. 

The man behind the men

“Raila then was quite radical but also naïve, and that Orengo’s smarts must have endeared him to Jaramogi, who saw him as the ideal heir.”

Manyora hails Orengo as the most iconic think-tank for the Luo nation. 

“You cannot begrudge him that. Even at moments when Jaramogi or his son Raila have been at the top of their political game, there has been very obvious Orengo input,” Manyora offers. 

Yet, sadly too, as is often the place of intellectuals, Orengo has been relegated to the side-lines, sharpening and lifting up the men who go on to outshine him. As Manyora notes, when the chips are down, it is Raila who has acted and received the credit for things that Orengo might have actually engineered behind the scenes.” 

From his days as a student leader at the University of Nairobi, it was always clear from those who encountered him that this was truly a brilliant man. 

Mutunga describes him as articulate, bright and with a thirst for political power. “He is also a brilliant litigator, one who does not suffer foolish lawyers gladly!”

After his student days, he vied and became MP in 1976. From then on, there was no stopping the man. In parliament, he became one of the seven “bearded sisters” – together with Mwachofi Machengu, Koigi wa Wamwere, George Anyona, Abuya Abuya, Lawrence Sifuna, Dr Chibule wa Tsuma and, ironically, the only woman member of the clique, Chelagat Mutai. 

‘Seven bearded sisters’ was a phrase coined by Charles Njonjo then because of how formidable they were as an opposition during the KANE era. Dr Mutunga describes them as tenacious, patriotic, resilient and courageous, attributes that caused them to be variously exiled, detained or altogether silenced by the State.

To appreciate Orengo’s status, one must first understand the circumstances that inspired a legion of young and educated Kenyans to stand up to the excesses of the dictatorship perpetrated by the ruling KANU regime. They comprised politicians, members of both the academia and civil society. Theirs was a singular aim to overthrow the regime at whatever cost.

Current portrait

“The Orengo of old would first ask questions about the benefit and viability of the upcoming referendum to be framed before lending it his support,” notes communication specialist Barrack Muluka somewhat wistfully. 

“That he now is without question, singing his masters’ praises baffles more than just myself. I cannot fathom how this summersault augurs with a man who spent all his life fighting for democracy at very great cost and risk to himself,” Muluka points out. 

“I think – and I am not judging him, not at all – the prevailing catchphrase is, ‘why struggle when you can sit at the table and have your fill?’ He cuts the perfect symbol of Winston Smith character in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four.”

But activist Wafula Buke surmises Orengo’s current disposition as pragmatism, as does Professor Manyora. According to Buke, “Orengo is simply being tactical. At times you need to accept to work with the ‘devil’ in the hope of changing things internally.” He reckons it is an acceptable political risk.

“We can reasonable expect – given his track record – that Orengo will be at the heart of drafting the referendum bill. How he words and shapes it will be a reflection of his entire life’s work.”

Lacking social capital

What Buke cannot get about the man is the low premium he places on personal relationships. Perhaps a trait of nature through no fault of his own, Buke notes that unlike his political benefactor and party leader Raila, Orengo is extremely inept at sustaining relationships. Perhaps this aridity of social capital is his biggest undoing. 

“Once he rises, he seldom remembers the people who gave him company in the struggle. He has lost many a loyal friend this way.” 

There is also the matter of his questionable integrity credential, despite the accolades he has earned as legislator, liberator and attorney. While minister for Land, his name was adversely mentioned in notable scandals, at some point or the other being labelled a boardroom deal maker who isn’t too shy to compromise his values for a ‘fat envelope’.

Despite his flaws – and his recent less-than-ideal dalliances with the same powers he has spent his life fighting – Orengo is a man greatly admired by his peers and followers alike. 

“I believe that the baronial KANU dictatorship, which is still alive and well since 1963, will never give us the peace, humility on service, non-violence, prosperity, equality and freedom we desire. While I search for alternative political leadership, he – Orengo – seems to
be part of the leadership we must change. Having been comrades in the struggle in the past, we may end up crossing swords if he stays in the enemy camp,” concludes Dr Mutunga.

It remains to be seen how he will expend the time and strength he has left.  (

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