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Sunday, 13 October 2013

The life and times of veteran politician Prof. Julia Ojiambo

The People in National October 13, 2013
She is an achiever extraordinaire and the first woman Assistant Minister in Kenya. She has worked with and served under all the four post-independence Kenyan presidents – Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. She is the chairperson of the Kenya Nutritionists and Dieticians Institute (KNDI), a statutory regulatory body created by an Act of parliament responsible for the implementation of laws relating to quality assurance as well as the training, registration and licensing of institutions and qualified personnel.

She has wined and dined with the high and mighty, ranging from the world of academia to politics, including the titular head of the Commonwealth Queen Elizabeth II. Despite all, Prof Julia Ojiambo remains simple in all aspects. She was on her way to Egerton University to inspect how the institution is embracing and faring on with the nutrition related laws and syllabus when we caught up with her. She was a trusted errands-runner for Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. When he was not sending her to his Ichaweri home in Gatundu to meet the Nyakinywa Women Group Dancers, he was sending her to lead government delegations at international fora.
“Mzee trusted me. He gave me a lot of responsibilities. Unlike his successor, Mzee had respect for women,” she says. A meeting in 1974 with President Jomo Kenyatta changed her life completely. Julia, then a young woman in her 30s had just resigned as an associate professor at the University of Nairobi and joined politics. President Kenyatta was the university’s chancellor and therefore all resignations had to be forwarded to him. On receiving the letter, Kenyatta summoned her and also called in two of his most trusted and powerful lieutenants, Defence Minister James Gichuru and the Minister of State in the office of the President in charge of National Security, Mbiyu Koinange. After the two ministers had taken their seats in Kenyatta’s Harambee House office, the president announced to them, “Msichana anaenda, Kasichana kanaenda. Tutafanya nini (The girl is going. The little girl is going. What do we do)?” That kasichana was of course Julia, the wife of Kenya’s first cardiologist, the late Prof Hillary Ojiambo. Kenyatta and his two ministers tried to persuade her not to join politics, saying she was still young and had a bright future as a university lecturer, but Ojiambo had made up her mind.
Realising this, Kenyatta reluctantly let her go but not without a warning. “Ukienda uanguke kura usirudi kunililia ati unataka kazi (don’t come back to me looking for a job if you lose the election),” he warned. Ironically, Prof Ojiambo was going to face Kenyatta’s son-in-law, Dr Arthur Ochwada (he passed away two months ago). A determined Prof Ojiambo went on to beat Ochwada to become MP for Samia constituency.
President Kenyatta was so impressed that he appointed her Assistant Minister for Education, becoming the first Kenyan women to hold such a position. Hers was an achievement never witnessed before as it broke the glassceiling and women all over the country celebrated her appointment. “In fact the whole country came for my swearing-in ceremony at Uhuru Park,” she said. She has never looked back ever since. She has moved on to achieve one feat after another and at one point contemplated running for president in 2007 as you will find out later.
In the run up to the March 4 General Election, her Labour Party of Kenya (LPK) intended to field Kingwa Kamenchu to run for president. Though Kamenchu did not contest, Prof Ojiambo says, “We provided her with a platform which no one else was giving. She is still young and it is now up to her to nurture her ambition.” LPK, she notes, is the only party from East African that is a member of the Socialist International political ensemble, the others from Africa are South Africa’s ruling party African National Congress and the opposition parties of Cameroon, Morocco and Algeria.
As an Assistant Minister, Ojiambo was to lead the Kenya Government delegation to Mexico during the 1975 UN Women Conference as well as the 1985 one in Nairobi whose theme was: “Forward Looking Strategies.” Though Prof Ojiambo was from a rather poor background, she was lucky to attend the best schools and colleges both in and out of Kenya.
“I grew up like any other ordinary girl. I went to local primary schools and we did all the menial jobs that every other girl and boy of my generation was doing. My parents were committed Christians. Being missionaries, they were very strict on discipline and they never discriminated between their sons and daughters. They wanted all of us have a good education,” she said. She said her parents were never cowed by the harsh environment under which they brought up their children and strongly believed that every child had a right to education. She did her O-levels at Butere Girls’ High School. The school has also produced some other renown women achievers such Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Aminah Mohammed, former Gender Minister Dr Naomi Shabaan (now MP for Taveta) and retired Justice Effie Owuor. She then went to Alliance High School, University of Nairobi, Harvard University in the United States and McGill University in Canada.
Until last year, Prof Ojiambo was the chairperson of the Kenya Plants Healths Institute (Kephis), a position she was appointed to in 2009 by retired President Kibaki. Ojiambo retained her parliamentary seat in the 1979 General Election, when the Moi era began. But things changed for her when former Vice President Moody Awori, a close ally of Moi was supported by the state machinery to controversially floor her in the 1983 snap-elections. The Moi regime ensured she remained in political oblivion untill the end of his reign in 2002,when she made a come back to parliament as a nominated MP. This was after her LPK teamed up with retired President Kibaki (DP), former Vice President the late Kijana Wamalwa (Ford Kenya), Charity Ngilu (SDP) and Raila Odinga (LDP) to form the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) that trounced Kanu from power after 40 years of dominance. Electoral machinery Contrary to popular belief that she stepped down from the Funyula parliamentary seat in favour of her political nemesis Awori, Prof Ojiambo says she was actually rigged out by the Narc nominations electoral machinery. However, being a calculating politician, she did not fuss about it.
Instead, she was enjoined in the Narc topnotch campaign organ – the presidential campaign team – that was headed by Raila Odinga and included Wamalwa, Ngilu, Musyoka, Awori, the late Prof George Saitoti and former Heritage Minister William ole Ntimama, among others. By 2007, she was ready to run for president. However, since hers was what she calls “a small party,” she teamed up with LDP to form the Orange Democratic Movement of Kenya (ODM-K). But things turned a sunder when they realised that another party with almost a similar name, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) had been registered by lawyer Gitobu Imanyara. That led to the split of the party, with the Raila wing moving to acquire ODM while Kalonzo Musyoka remained with ODM-K. Prof Ojiambo stuck with the Kalonzo group and entered into a pact in which she became Kalonzo’s running mate in the 2007 General Election. That went on pretty well but Musyoka did not win the presidency as he came third after Kibaki and Raila. And that was the last she saw or heard from Kalonzo.
She says the former Mwingi North MP started negotiating for power sharing with Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) without consulting or involving her and her LPK. Despite the betrayal, she is not bitter. “If I meet Kalonzo we shall have a cup of tea together. I have no bad feelings,” she said. Listening to her story one can tell she was groomed to become a leader early in life. While in School she was part of the Kenya Red Cross Mothers Health team, when she finished her ‘A’ levels at Alliance she became a Kanu youth winger and in 1961 she was already a women’s representative and remembers sharing a platform with African First Ladies and other top-level women such as Phoebe Asiyo, Jemimah Gichaga and Nyiva Mwendwa. In 1976, she received a UN FAO medal in recognition of her contribution to science, research and the fight against hunger. She was the national chairperson of the Kenya Girl Guides Association and the first chairperson of the Kenya Consumers Organisation.
On the current political trends, Ojiambo says, “It is time for Kenyans to put aside their political differences and rally behind the elected president. There can only be one president at a time. And today Uhuru Kenyatta is our president. That is the reality of the matter. We have to recognise that fact and work with him. That’s democracy, whether you like it or not you must recognise that there shall always be winners and losers and all of them should be respected. There is a government in power, whether we voted for them or not.” As MP Prof Ojiambo initiated many development projects, some of which are still stand. She says she started an adult education programme in the constituency, sunk boreholes for her constituents with the assistance of a Finnish-sponsored company Kefinco, unveiled a goat-milk project that was later to be emulated as far as Baringo and Kibwezia and built Sio Port police station.
She also initiated handicrafts, poultry and fishing projects, constructed Odiado Rehabilitation Centre for the Disabled, Busembe Integrated School for the Disabled, Ageng’a Family Health Training Centre, helped increase the number of primary schools from 27 to 57 and secondary schools from two to eight. She constructed several health centres and dispensaries including Ng’iya, Nagalal, Oboto, Busembe and Sio Port as well as initiated piped water programmes in Mundika, Bukangala, Busia towny, Bukhayo, started Nangoma and Bumbe polytechnics. Her parting shot to Kenyans: “We have a destiny together. We must jealously guard that destiny. I plead with Kenyans to always remember that for us to move forward we must always appreciate that this is our country. It’s our nation, our government.”

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