By John Oywa
Kenya today bids farewell to Independence struggle hero and political icon. His death a week ago turned a new leaf on the history of Kenya. He was 87.A pioneer Kenyan newspaper editor, a freedom fighter, a controversial politician and a businessman, Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko leaves behind a rich legacy.
He was a disciplinarian and had a penchant for neatness. For this, his peers nicknamed him Nyakech (gazelle).
"Oneko was a smart man. He liked well-pressed suits and one hardly spotted dirt on his shorts, even on a muddy day. He always walked gracefully, with calculated steps, hence the name Nyakech," says Mr Odungi Randa, who knew Oneko from childhood.
He was the last of the famous Kapenguria Six – the freedom fighters arrested and detained by colonialists, at the height of the emergency in the 1950s.
As Kenyans troop to Kunya village to bury him, the names of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and his comrade-turned-foe, and Kenya’s first Vice- President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, are on the lips.
It was Oneko who introduced Odinga to Kenyatta in June 1952 in a dingy shop in Kisumu. In his book, Not Yet Uhuru, Jaramogi reveals how Oneko who was his former student at Maseno school, introduced him to Kenyatta.
In a letter he wrote to Kenyatta on June 27, 1952, Jaramogi showered Oneko with praises: "Achieng’ Oneko had been my right hand man and I could have lost all the world but Achieng’."
"Oneko was with me at Maseno in 1940. I became a housemaster and he was a dormitory prefect. I was athletics master, he was a good sprinter," says Jaramogi in his book.
Four months after the meeting, Kenyatta and Oneko were arrested and detained in Kapenguria alongside four other freedom fighters – Kung’u Karumba, Bildad Kaggia, Paul Ngei and Fred Kubai, for allegedly supporting the Mau Mau movement.
In the clamour for Independence, Oneko was more of a radical politician than Jaramogi and Kenyatta, yet there is little to show for this heroism today.
He lived a simple life at his rural home in Kunya, Bondo. Apart from his old dark Subaru saloon car and a blockhouse, Oneko was no different from a peasant farmer.
In 1951, Oneko and the late Mbiyu Koinange led a delegation to London to discuss land issues.
"Oneko believed in fair distribution of resources and this is what made him differ with many of his friends," says Randa.
Randa, a former aide to the late Jaramogi, says he first saw Oneko during a political rally in Kisumu that was attended by former Presidents – Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Milton Obote (Uganda) and Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) – all then for the independence for their countries.
"I saw a slender, tall and handsome man. He was smartly dressed and I heard people calling him Nyakech Oluoro Chuodho (The gazelle loathes the mud),’’ says Randa 67, who was in class three at the time.
Pall bearers carry the remains of Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko at his Rarieda home in Bondo upon arrival on Friday. Picture by Titus Munala
He adds: "I later came to know him better as a freedom fighter because of his friendship with Jaramogi. They remained great friends until Jaramogi died in 1994."
In his book, Jaramogi reveals how he and Oneko started the Luo Thrift Trading Company that later thrived through East Africa.
Later, Jaramogi and Oneko moved a printing press, which they had installed in Nairobi to Kisumu and the famous Ramogi Press was born.
"When Oneko returned from Nairobi to work with me in Nyanza we constantly argued over priorities. Oneko wanted direct politics but I was cautious. While in Kisumu, Oneko edited the Ramogi and Nyanza Times, both mouthpieces for the Kenya African Union (KAU). His weekly columns always pricked colonialists.
He was also involved in the organisation of KAU branch in Nairobi and later started a Kisumu Residents Association.
On arrest Oneko was the only one who won on appeal on 1961, but later spent the rest of the emergency under restriction. When Kenyatta finally took over the Government in 1963, he appointed Oneko the Minister for Information, Broadcasting and Tourism. He was the MP for Nakuru Town. But their friendship with Kenyatta did not last.
In 1966, he resigned from Kanu and the Cabinet and joined the Kenya People’s Union party.
In his letter of resignation, Oneko recalled the days he and Kenyatta spent in detention. He said his continued stay in the Government was an embarrassment to his friends and accused a ‘clique of individuals’ of causing disunity in Kanu.
"He was unhappy with certain policies on foreign affairs, land, agriculture, land and foreign loans. He also accused Kanu of failing to fulfill promises it made in its election manifesto," says Jaramogi.
Oneko was also unhappy that the then Voice of Kenya, which was under him, was being used to attack and undermine him.
In 1969, Oneko become the only member of the Kapenguria Six to spend a second stint in detention. Kenyatta detained him following chaos that rocked Kisumu. Kenyatta had visited the town to open Russia Hospital – now the Nyanza Provincial General Hospital. He was detained until 1975.
Ironically, it was in Kisumu, the scene of a bloody confrontation where the three first met to plot against the colonial government 17 years earlier.
He remained behind the shadows until 1992 when he teamed up with Jaramogi again to launch the struggle for s second liberation through the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), which later broke into three parties – Ford-Asili, Ford-Kenya and Ford-People.
Oneko contested and won the Rarieda seat on a Ford-Kenya ticket. But he was ousted in 1997. He did not contest the seat in 2002, but retained his position at Ford-Kenya as its national treasurer.
Randa says Oneko fell out with Jaramogi’s son Raila when the latter abandoned Ford-Kenya to start the National Democratic Party.
Randa points out that he was not surprised by Oneko’s refusal to join Raila. "He was a principled man and we respected his decision," says Randa.
Oneko’s fortunes did not change in the Kanu era. At one time, then President Moi appointed Oneko chairman of the Kenya Film Corporation, but was to be dropped soon after.
He was a great leader and a symbol of struggle for Independence. The late Oneko leaves behind a widow Loyce and 10 children. He lost his eldest wife, Jedida, in 1992.