By Fwamba NC Fwamba
Karl Marxâ€™s (Christopher Owiro)Â struggle in context
Ordinarily, during student gatherings famously known as Kamukunjis, it was routine for the Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU) secretary general to speak last summarising the conclusions and resolutions of the studentsâ€™ political rally.
Kamukunji was a political term coined after the dare devil rally that was organized by Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) founders under the leadership of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Ahmed Salim Bahmariz, Martin Shikuku, George Nthenge and Philip Gachoka in November 1991 at the Kamukunji grounds where rally enthusiasts were brutally dispersed by the then President Moi regime during the agitation for multi party in Kenya. The University of Nairobi students, due to the nature of defiance of the student gatherings against the university administration likened these political gatherings to the defiant FORD rallies.
When I joined the University of Nairobi on October 16th 2000, David ole Sankok was the SONU Chairman deputized by Irungu Kangâ€™ata. George Omondi who was the secretary General of SONU was in accordance to tradition the official spokesman of the student union.
As a first year student, I shared a room with Augustine Njuguna who had enrolled as a student of land economics while I had enrolled as a student of design in a traditionally apolitical faculty of Architecture Design and Development since the days of former SONU Chairman Tito Adungosi. As a way of knowing each other we often talked about many issues including the kind of advice we received before joining university. I was not surprised that Augustine, just like me had been warned to pursue his academic career and not to be like one â€˜Karl Marxâ€™. At that time, little did I know that in reality â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was such an inspiration for many young people of his age that made him an envy of the old majority of whom served the Moi regime. I wondered why someone from Gatundu would be given same warnings about the same person I had been warned about all the way from Bungoma. This created more anxiety on knowing who this â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was. Before joining university, we had heard a lot about â€˜Karl Marxâ€™s role in leading students to reclaim Karura forest .Very few knew his real name, the fame of â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ eclipsed the real identity of Christopher Owiro. I had personally read in the papers about â€˜Karl Marxâ€™â€™s ambition to be Kenyaâ€™s president one day.
During our orientation as freshers,George Omondi and the Main campus representative Otieno Kâ€™ojwangâ€™ had appeared to be the most skilled orators and student politicians but I was really desperate to catch a glimpse of this enigma who today and many years later will remain a legend in student activism and pursuit of justice by any means necessary.
It however happened that more of the orientation was to come which was usually referred to as baptism with fire. Through silent talks it became apparent that every freshman wanted to know who â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was. â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ had the fame of that student leader who was considered very radical and also very good academically.
The opportunity presented itself on the evening of 28th November 2000.I remember the then SONU Vice Chairman Irungu Kangâ€™ata blowing a whistle calling for a Kamukunji. We as first years discovered that it was an opportunity to know who â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was. The student leadership had decided to fight against the introduction of the parallel degree program arguing that it was not good for the quality of university education and that it took away opportunities from poor but bright students. The leaders argued that the parallel degree program was moving the country towards commercialization of education and disregard of the value of intellectual prowess. That same evening it was also rumoured that two of our students had been arrested and it was not clear whether they were being held at Central police station or at the industrial area remand prison. We did not understand why the students could be arrested yet during orientation we had been told by our student leaders that apart from the president, University students were above the law!
At the Kamukunji, I remember us being addressed by all elected student leaders outside hall nine. Some of the people who addressed that Kamukunji included Irungu Kangâ€™ata, Otieno CD, David ole Sankok, Otieno Kenyatta and George Omondi among others .As per the tradition, George Omondi who was a very popular student leader with excellent oratory skills started the summary of the resolutions of the Kamukunji as it ended .Apparently, majority of the over 5,000 students who attended the Kamukunji wanted â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ to give the way forward. Students started shouting in chorus â€˜Let â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ speakâ€™,â€™ Wacha â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ aongeeâ€™.â€™ â€˜Karl Marxâ€™â€™ came to the podium and in an authoritative voice uttered one sentence. â€˜Comrades, itâ€™s now or never, we goo, we goâ€™. The whole crowd answered in chorus responding and chanting â€˜we goâ€™. â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ became the leader of the march as the whole crowd snaked out of the venue via the state house road tunnel towards main campus and to central police where George Omondi attempted to address another Kamukunji at the central police station. A lot happened that night; lots of tear gasâ€¦.The anxiety of knowing who â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was had come to pass. The following day 29th November 2000, the University was closed.
â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ had branded his politics earlier as served as Organization of Nairobi University Science Students (ONUSS) Chairman before joining SONU politics. Though he never got elected as an official of SONU, there was no doubt he was the SONU de facto leader.Â When the University was reopened, in early 2001, all the student leaders including our hero â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ had been suspended, pending disciplinary action. The saddest thing was that the university administration had disbanded the student union to ensure the students had no organization through which they could channel their grievances.
To frustrate the cause, the university administration levelled trumped up charges against the leaders and through the so called disciplinary action, many were given punishments that ranged from expulsion to three years suspension. I had personally looked upon these fellows as heroes. I was convinced that an injustice had been done against them. I thought something was to be done about it. Its memorable that Lawrence Nyaguti who was the then Nairobi University Arts Students Association (NUARSA) Chairman was suspended too for six years when he questioned the Vice chancellor Prof Francis Gichaga on why the majority of the suspended and expelled students only came from one community.
In our first week of reopening university in 2001, while other student leaders who had been suspended had gone to their respective homes, â€˜Karl Marxâ€™, also known as Christopher Owiro attempted to convene a Kamukunji outside hall nine. That was on the 5th of February 2001,a time when Kanu and NDP were cooperating, a cooperation that later led to Raila Odinga being made Minister for Energy and Kanu Secretary General on the 18th March 2002 political merger.
During the time of the suspensions, I came to interact with the suspended student leaders at a more personal level because personally I considered them heroes. With all the risks associated, I could occasionally accommodate in my room in prefabs 9 room 14.That time I felt proud to have people like â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ sleep in my room.
The suspended students felt that their suspensions were an infringement on their rights and they took the matter to court. They argued that they were playing their role as representatives of the students. It was a historical moment. The current Law Society of Kenya Chairman Eric Mutua represented the leaders pro bono, while Mutula Kilonzo who was also Moiâ€™s personal lawyer represented the University administration arguing that the University was justified to suspend the leaders. They appeared before Justice Kasanga Mulwa who ruled that the matter be settled at the University. The student leaders through Eric Mutua appealed the Kasanga Mulwa ruling arguing that they didnâ€™t expect the University to be fair, given the trend of argument the University lawyer Mutula Kilonzo had taken in court .I made it a duty to always go with the leaders every time they were to appear in court. I remember Mutula Kilonzo making a reference; citing a case in Britain where he justified suspension of students from University for up to like 55 years. I remember Eric Mutua arguing that if a son errors, it is imprudent for a parent to punish the son by killing him. The kind of supposed punishment meted on the student leaders was something close to a death sentence to their ambitions and dreams.
The student leaders ultimately lost this case even on appeal, Justice Tonui, Justice Bosire and Justice Okubasu upheld the Justice Kasanga Mulwa ruling.
My close interaction with this group gave me an opportunity to know Christopher Owiro more closely. He argued that the courts were never going to give them justice. â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ believed that the only way to work out a method of to be readmitted was involving the students in their cause, something I totally agreed with because the courts belonged to Moi and his henchmen including the Judges.
One of his planned Kamukunjis saw him violently attacked and badly brutalised by the university security officers .Despite this â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was resilient.
After insisting on holding Kamukunjis on campus despite the suspension and an order never to step on campus precincts, the university administration decided to give â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ an expulsion as a punishment for his defiance.
The time of suspension/expulsion destroyed â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ and reduced him to an ordinary drunkard. Sometimes he got too drunk and disorderly and could get arrested for unexplained reasons. I remember one day getting a note from him. He had sent someone to give me the note to ensure it reached Hon. James Orengo, to inform the latter that â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was being held at industrial area prison incommunicado where he had already spent over three weeks.
â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ believed that the NDP/KANU merger had a role in their political and academic tribulations.
Being close to the suspended group of student leaders who were over 100 in number inspired me to agitate for their reinstatement and the revival of SONU. This process took long for we had to organize many secret meetings for obvious reasons, that if the university administration discovered, the rest of us would be victimised.
There were mixed reactions in the student fraternity when Prof.Kiamba was appointed Vice Chancellor. While a number believed that Kiamba was going to be ruthless, many believed that Kiamba was going to be more lenient and parent like. â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ believed that exist of Kanu from power was the only saviour for him and his colleagues.
The end of the Moi regime and the NDP walkout from Kanu was a blessing in disguise. â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ and all other former student leaders believed that their reinstatement was directly attached to Moi and Kanu exiting from power. The student fraternity overwhelmingly supported Kibaki who was Kanuâ€™s main opponent under the Narc coalition. The Kibaki youth campaign was led by Thomas Mbewa who was one of the suspended students. Kibakiâ€™s victory on 31st December 2002 was the sweet revenge against Moi and his henchmen at the University of Nairobi.
After Kibakiâ€™s swearing in ceremony after the 2002 election, we reactivated our secret meetings. We eventually went public. The group used State House Road hostel room F3 as the operations centre. That was where I resided, therefore I was the host. The group turned itself into a committee of seventeen people with specific responsibilities. Among others in this group was Makokha Wanjala who had been very instrumental in the campaigns of Kibaki through the now defunct Narc Youth Congress. We went public and started holding Kamukunjis with defiance.
On the 22nd January 2003, Prof .Kiamba at a Kamukunji attended by over 10,000 students at the University of Nairobi great court lifted the ban on SONU and unconditionally declared reinstatement of all students who had been suspended and been expelled for political reasons.â€™Karl Marxâ€™ was among the group that was reinstated but for him, life was never the same. He had become too much addicted to alcohol. That is the time he could get drunk and address imaginary Kamukunjis.
In the subsequent election I was elected SONU vice chairman and as the executive we created an Ayatollah like structure dubbed SONU elders where â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ and other former student leaders who had served in the disbanded SONU were given quasi recognition as student leaders. The former leaders also formed a lobby named â€˜Consortium of Former Expelled and Suspended Studentsâ€™. This gave them a say and some critical role in student leadership.
Father Dr.Dominic Wamugunda, Prof.Godfrey Muriuki and the likes of Pastor Robert Ayonga tried to rehabilitate him.â€™ â€˜Karl Marxâ€™â€™ eventually graduated. Through, the efforts of the then Students Welfare Authority (SWA) Director, Prof Jasper Mumo (now deceased),â€™Karl Marxâ€™ got an attention as a special student. Professor Mumo encouraged him and helped him enrol for post graduate studies as an actuarial science student at Chiromo campus. Prof.Mumo introduced him to his church and family. This move transformed â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ into a church going individual. Ken Orengo helped to ensure that Owiro didnâ€™t miss church including some evening prayers. Occasionally together we would attend that church which was located in Westlands near Holiday inn.
At some point I remember â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ complaining of a lot of pain on the side of his chest. He felt like there were some injuries to his ribs. Ken Orengo, Ken Obura and Mbara Kambara intervened and prevailed upon Prof.George Magoha; the Vice Chancellor at that time to have Owiro get some medical attention. He received treatment and the doctor who attended to him said that there was nothing chronic. A number of Owiroâ€™s friends have always suspected that something must have gone wrong with Owiro after the Nyayo era stints in police cells.
In his postgraduate studies, â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ performed very well and succeeded without even a single re-sit or supplementary. He shared the good news with all his friends; that now he was eligible for good employment. He proudly told us how Kenya has a very limited number Actuaries and he was proud to be one.
In 2007,George Nyongesa, Irungu Kangâ€™ata, Ken Orengo and I fronted â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ in a lobby group in support of Mwai Kibaki re election. He attributed his completion of his 8-4-4 education to Mwai Kibakiâ€™s 2003 amnesty to all suspended and expelled student leaders. We thought that could be used as an opportunity to revive our comrade to his former self. We however encountered so many obstacles including sabotage by his former University political rivals and ethnic chauvinism that compounded the Kibaki campaigns and administration. It became very hard for â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ to find his space in the campaign.
At some point he indicated that he had made contact with his friend Hon. James Orengo who had contacted somebody at the Retirement Benefits Authority (RBA) to find out a vacancy for him. Apparently, that job opportunity never landed on â€˜Karl Marxâ€™s way. Failure to get employment even with exceptional qualifications drove â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ into further frustration. He became uncontrollably too alcoholic. When sober he could listen to friendsâ€™ advice, when he was drunk, the situation was totally different. He was a disaster when drunk. That is the time you could find him addressing imaginary political crowds at Ambassador Bus stage. It was the time you could find him talking about how Raila Odinga frustrated him. Those were his words. Those are the same words he uttered when he together with, Irungu Kangâ€™ata, Ken Orengo, George Nyongesa, Antony Nyaga, I and others addressed a press conference in support of Mwai Kibaki for president in 2007. His words were well captured by NTVâ€™s Emmanuel Jumaâ€™s â€˜Bullâ€™z Eyeâ€™ dubbed â€˜the return of â€˜Karl Marxâ€™â€™.
I do not share a history where his differences with Raila originated, for that people like former SONU Chairman Moses Oburu, former Secretary general Joseph Kioko, former SONU Organizing secretary general Job Wamalwa, his fellow Chiromites like Otieno Kenyatta and the rest of his peers especially those who joined the University of Nairobi in 1996 are in the best position to give that account.
Towards, the end of 2009,â€™Karl Marxâ€™ had become too much of a trouble to himself. He got too drunk due to frustration. For that reason, George Nyongesa and Ken Orengo who have acted so much of a brotherâ€™s keeper on â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ decided to help him get to Kisumu. His life in Nairobi was getting too risky.
Recently, Otieno Kenyatta suggested that we look for â€˜Karl Marxâ€™, George Nyongesa and I didnâ€™t get too much into the discussion because we knew we had tried to some level. â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was destroyed by Kenyaâ€™s rotten political system. The political system that was destroyed by Moi, the system that gives no recognition to meritocracy, the system that destroys those who appear to be of some hope.
As Comrade Kingwa Kamnchu pointed out in a very poetic form on her face book posting on learning of â€˜Karl Marxâ€™â€™s death, I concur with her that we as the people of this generation have to collectively join hands and address some of the issues that make many promising people go to waste. In line with comrade Kingwa Kamenchuâ€™s words, the Kenyan political system dehumanized Christopher Owiro. The Kenyan political system is yet to recover from Moism; itâ€™s yet to recover from the fear of accommodating intellectual heavyweights. Little has been done in Kibakiâ€™s ten years of supposed change.Christopher Owiro is a victim of this system, many university graduates are, some have succumbed while others have been fighting and confronting it the hard way.
According to me â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ has died several times before his actual death. The 1st January 2013 was the ultimate death, the death of his body. What I and other friends tried need not be discussed here, but all I can say is that â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was let down by his peers; he was let down by his political associates of Muungano wa Mageuzi lobby; he was let down by the many who are purporting to be his friends now.
Rest in Peace Comrade. Rest in Peace Christopher Owiro. What we tried need not be discussed here, but all I can say is that â€˜Karl Marxâ€™ was let down by his peers; including his political associates of Muungano wa Mageuzi.
Pass our regards to Oulu GPO. R.I.P.