By Joshua Odhiambo Nyamori.
On 28th December 2013, in my daily dawn reading session as I continued to read R.H. Raila Odinga’s ‘Flames of Freedom’, I thought of looking for Prof. William R. Ochieng’ to share some of the interesting aspects of the autobiography and to get his perspectives as a historian on some of these issues. Little did I know that the sun that rose that the morning would not set with Prof. William R. Ochieng’ still breathing.
I send my heartfelt condolence to Mrs. Ochieng, his son Edward and the daughters Yvonne-Khamati and Diana. I pray that God gives them strength, solace and fortitude to walk through this disaster and still be able to pick the pieces and move on. Having lost a father, I can imagine the level of pain that the family is currently going through.
I got to know the late Professor when I joined Maseno University as a first year student in early 1997, in a lot that should have joined in 1996. My first encounter with the professor was when he addressed us as freshers during our inauguration into the University College, him being the then Principal. He gave a candid talk on the socio-economic and political dynamics of Kenya and Africa as part of a world going through the then new globalization dynamics, urging us as new students to “think global but act local”. He encouraged us that although we were joining a small and still emerging University, Maseno was being developed to be a critical player in research and dissemination of knowledge and innovation in Kenya and the region.
But as usual with students then, the point that we took home was his controversial political statement, when he declared at the end of his address, ” I am happily in KANU. You are free to join any political party of choice, but please keep your political party’s politics out of Maseno University College.” We joined university at a particularly constitutional and political moment, with the rallying call throughout the country being “no reforms, no elections”. Prof. Ochieng’s statement, coupled by his publicly known closeness to President Moi was therefore unacceptable to our fresh minds, still idealistic and naive to the core.
Soon we were to hear several version from older students about this rarely seen Professor. He was depicted to us as a KANU leaning tyrant who brooks no reasoning from students and would not hesitate to expel us incase of any activism. Indeed there were incidents that scared the hell out of us.
In our first year first semester, demonstrations against the killing of a UoN student leader, Solomon Muruli, led to the suspension of “ring-leaders”, one of them being a bright and courageous 3rd Year orator, Collins Harrison Odhiambo. We had been told of the suspension of the radical student leader Ndolo Asasa (who I later met, became friends with and worked with in the civil society) just before we joined, and many others before him. All over the campus, students talked in low tones fearing the secrete “student police” who would allegedly gather information on “dissident” activities in the halls of residents, lecture halls and beer dens. A number of students were then summoned to to the disciplinary committee, on trumped up charges by the security department that we nick-named the ‘Gestapo’. Rarely would they escape warnings and suspensions.
Then in the second semester of our first year of study, we went through baptism of fire. What began as a rumour amongst third year Bachelors of Education students that the University had unprocedurally deducted part of their teaching practice upkeep allowance from Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) turned into three days of lecture boycotts and then an all out riots when other students joined in comradeship of protest. Prof. WR Ochieng’ sent out a circular which explained that the “sweet swirling rumours” were unfounded and warned that, “if you do not resume classes by end of the day today, our fourth year students will not graduate with fourth year students in other universities.” Students ignored this and pressed on with riots.
On hindsight, I realize that the so called deduction was just a spark in a students body that was undergoing stress related to CATs, impending exams, brokenness, lack of sufficient recreation and lack of space for airing dissenting opinion. Further, my lot – the first years – who forcefully took over the initially peaceful protest by third year students, were riot happy, our ideals on the power of comradeship not having been tempered with by suspension or expulsion of any of our year mates. To date, I have not received evidence that rumours of the alleged unprocedural deductions were factual.
When we stormed the university administration block, Prof. Ochieng came out in his character. He dismissed the students demands, quoting a faxed letter from Prof. Chacha Nyagoti Chacha of HELB that the students’ claims were baseless. He went on to tell us that “I cannot discuss anything with you. You are like my grand children. I taught fathers of some of you…..you behave badly like monkeys in the amphitheater….before I can sit down with you to discuss anything, you will have to pay for my fences, trees and other property that you have destroyed.” Some students had vandalized university property and the whole crowd of almost 3000 was carrying twigs from the university trees and live fence.
This was too much for the comrades. Stones were hurled at the good old Professor and I remember University security and other senior staff covering him as they ran back into the office. Students continued to riot, blocking the main Busia- Nairobi road for the rest of the day. In fact, at some moment third and forth year students, sensing danger, pleaded with the rioters to stop. But the riot happy first years, especially, would take non of that. By end of day, Professor Ochieng was driven out of the university under the cover of a hail of bullets being fired by security personnel to disperse students, even as a circular closing the University indefinitely was sent out and all of us had to pack under pressure from the police and flee from the University precincts.
Indeed, as Prof. William Ochieng had warned in his circular, fourth years who remained with only two weeks of classes to begin their final exams did not graduate with fourth years in other universities. Whilst first and second year students were recalled back in two weeks, third years and fourth years resumed after 6 and 11 months respectively, effectively costing them an academic year. When the forth years resumed, I remember that we called them “fifth years”, so as to differentiate them from the hitherto third years, with whom they now shared an academic year.
The purge on students who were active in riots went on for a while. Many, who were on campus, received letters of indefinite suspension pending appearance before the disciplinary committee. The ones who were out already because of blanket suspension were also summoned to appear before the disciplinary committee. Students on campus were scared to the core. The students union (MUCSO) was, save for the name a dead entity. Students were suspicious of the student leaders who they accused of collaborating with the university administration. There was no voice for the students body.
It is against this background that together with a few other courageous students we rolled out a campaign for revival of the students union through a free and fair election process. We pinned up articles on the same on bulletin boards in the dead of the night and secretly organized in the halls of residence, in lecture rooms, at the eateries and at drinking joints. Once we had sufficient numbers in support, we penned a memorandum to the university, detailing the rights of students as outlined in the University Statute, to organize under a democratically elected student’s government.
As the signatory to the memorandum, I expected a letter of suspension or summons to appear before the students disciplinary committee. I remember an older student warning me that I had sealed my fate and should wait for a letter of indefinite suspension. Whilst a spirit of defiance ruled me, I must admit that a level of fear for the reactions of Prof. William Ochieng’ and the ‘Gestapo’ also ruled my sleepless nights. The letter of suspension never came. At times, I feel that the well knit intelligence system that Prof. William Ochieng had put in place must have advised him that the level of organization that we had secretly undertaken could not be countered by suspensions or expulsions. He had no otherwise but to give in to our demands.
In the alternative, we received a surprise notice from the university administration calling for a general elections of new students leaders. The elections that followed were fiercely contested, ending up with my election as the chairperson and Njuiri Kimaru as the Vice Chair. The office also had Mathenge Kabui, Hanningtone Kataka, Dan Isaac Dan Onyancha, Mwalimu Mutinda Kavemba, Mengeech Kipkirong Rono, Michael Adongo, Mercy Wambui, Petrinila Were Lokorio, Earnest Mbuvi, etc.
A day after my election, even before my team was sworn in, I received an invitation to meet Prof. William Ochieng in his office. I enquired whether I could come along with my team but I was advised that the invitation was for me as the head of students government and that an opportunity would be availed for the entire team to meet with the university management. I must admit that, although I considered myself quite courageous, and despite being buoyed by an overwhelming approval of students at the elections, my heart lost a beat as I stepped into the red carpeted office and approached his desk located at the furthest corner. I expected to meet a pompous, arrogant, threatening and vindictive ogre as was painted by older students. I tried my level best to be as composed as possible. I was determined to stand up to Prof. William Ochieng’ were he to “blow up” as rumours had made as to believe he did to student leaders on first interaction.
But the man that I met that morning was a different person completely. This man that I had seen from a distance on very few occasions, and who had once told us that we “behaved badly like the monkeys in the amphitheater”, was not arrogant at all on this day. He stood up to greet me and declared, “Congratulations, Mt. Joshua Nyamori!…How did you make it? …It must have been a bruising battle!” After exchanging pleasantries, rather than moving straight into university business, Prof. Ochieng’ asked me my views on various global and national issues. I suspected that he was seizing me up, trying to intelligently determine my character and views. I was on my guard and put up a good show. He then went on to discuss with me various issues, and I must admit that I found him to be quite an intelligent Professor. He talked at length about the role of university education in Africa on the eve of the 21st Century.
We then zeroed into the Maseno University College’s Issues with Prof. Ochieng’ asking me about my views on the state of the university and what I thought the role of the university bis a bis the role of the students union should be. I honestly shared with him the disappointments that the students population had, explaining to him that apart from my own experiences, the campaign process had taken me to each and every corner of the university and I had received first hand information and experience on the challenges that students were going through.
On the role of the union, I informed him that the purpose of my office was to set up a platform through which the students body could effectively communicate with the university and vice versa, with a view of building consensus on the problems facing the students and finding solutions that were acceptable to both parties. I told him that this required that we engage in a lot of active organization of students and utilize the University Organs to champion students views. I informed him that although it was not the intention of our group to destabilize learning platforms, we expected the university to grant us sufficient space and freedom to engage in legitimate students activism on various academic and social issues. I committed to Prof. Ochieng that I was committed to non-violence as a strategy and would do all within my authority to ensure that our engagement with the University does not turn violent. I told him this however depended on the University’s commitment to honestly engage the students without threats and intimidation.
Even as I talked, I was waiting for the “real” Prof. W.R. Ochieng, that figure that we had been told about so many times, to explode. I expected him to arrogantly tell me off and even threaten me with suspension. Strangely enough, after discussing many issues, the Professor told me, “I admire your approach to leadership. Violence would not achieve the objectives of your office. I respect the fact that you have a mandate from your comrades and that you must engage us as vigorously as you can within the laid down procedures. I want to pledge that, if you commit to engage my administration decently, we shall treat you with respect and ensure that we meet our part of the bargain.”
Prof. William Ochieng then punched a bell and his Secretary came in. He ordered, in a more firm voice than what he had used towards me, “call all the university management team members and tell them to be in my office here in the next 15 minutes.” He then invited me to a cup of tea as we carried on with general discussion. I remember him mentioning at some point, “I hope you will not be like Ndolo”. I informed him that although I did not find Ndolo at the university and therefore did not know what kind of student leader he was, I recognized that he was a hero amongst the older students and that I looked forward to meeting him one day, hopefully when he is readmitted. He dismissed me while laughing, saying, “….out of Maseno University”. Ndolo was later to become a personal friend, a mentor in many ways and a college in the civil society.
When the University Management was assembled, Prof. William Ochieng’ declared, ” I want to introduce to you our new student leader. I have had a long discussion with him and I find him to be a reasonable and well meaning representative of his comrades. As you know, I am out of the University in most occasions attending to other national assignment given to me by the President. I want to therefore ask that you should give Mr. Nyamori the necessary support. I expect you to listen to reasonable petitions from his office and try to make the life of students better on campus. In return, I am asking Joshua to encourage his colleagues to avoid unnecessary violence and to engage us in a more constructive manner. We shall have an opportunity to meet his entire team during which details of the priorities they expect to be handled will be discussed.” After a short discussion, the meeting was dismissed. Prof. Ochieng asked me to call on him anytime there was need. I thanked him for the opportunity and walked out to debrief my team.
This was my first interaction with Prof. Ochieng. The mysterious and arrogant man who had dismissed us and told us that we behaved like “monkeys in the amphitheater” had on day one of our meeting given me a warm reception and engaged me quite decently. But this was just the first interaction. In subsequent pieces, I shall write on the memorable moments when we agreed and also when we disagreed on issues with this Professor of History. I will also share my opinion on why I think Prof. Ochieng treated me positively on our first interaction, unlike the stories I was told of his threatening of student leaders on meeting them for the first time.
The questions that I keep asking myself to date, and that I shall try in subsequent essays to discuss are: Was the late Professor William Ochieng a natural tyrant, as Thomas Chemelil suggests, or was he a father figure who listened to reason but out rightly dismissed what made no sense to him? My experiences with Professor William Ochieng’ one to one and in University Organs, directly or through representatives in the Academic Board, Council, Management Committee and Students Disciplinary Committees are varied and conflicting. They however lead me to the conclusion that Prof. William Robert Ochieng was no ordinary man. As he fades away in death, he leaves imprints in the sands of times.
For now, I want to end this piece by sending my heartfelt condolence to Mrs. Ochieng, his son Edward and the daughters Yvonne-Khamati and Diana. I pray that God gives them strength, solace and fortitude to walk through this disaster and still be able to pick the pieces and move on.