Monday, April 9, 2007

Kenya - Who killed Robert Ouku?

On the morning of February 16, 1990 the Voice of Kenya radio announced that the mutilated and partially burned body of Robert Ouko, Kenya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, had been found near his home in Koru. The minister had been reported as missing a day earlier.

Ouku’s death ushered in a long series of inquiries, investigations and speculations, but since the trail led into the highest reaches of Kenyan politics, further pursuit of culprits was stonewalled. No one has ever been charged with the crime.

Professors David William Cohen and E.S. Atieno Odhihambo wrote a book entitled The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2004. The authors recount what is known and unknown about the minister’s death.

Risks of Knowledge is a difficult book to describe and an awkward one to read. It is an erudite mélange of scholarship, sensationalist reporting and stilted legalese. The authors have multiple goals that they spell out in the introduction. Foremost is to assess how the investigations into Foreign Minister Ouko’s murder transformed Kenyan society. The authors assert that the knowledge revealed both wittingly and unwittingly, shed light on ambition, corruption and the practice of politics by Kenya’s most powerful people. Among the consequences of the investigations was the exposure of various efforts to cover-up the high level involvement undertaken in order to confuse and keep the public in the dark. The authors stated that this objective failed as the brouhaha surrounding such blatant attempts to obfuscate led to expanded and ultimately successful efforts to reform and to democratize Kenya.

Like the investigations themselves, the book wanders around a bit jumping from the material at hand to ruminations on its meaning and impact. However, the book does provide a solid structure for revisiting the murder. In turn it highlights evidence of “the white car” seen by the housekeeper, the site of the death, the missing note that perhaps named the abductors, Ouko’s whereabouts in the days before the murder, the minister’s state of mind, corruption linked to the molasses factory, Ouko’s falling out with President Moi, theories of family problems, and special branch abuses. At times the book reads like a murder mystery, yet as the authors point out early, there are no conclusions as to who did it? or why? only mounting evidence that permits readers to draw their own conclusions. Nonetheless, the mounting evidence and the authors’ analysis of it provide fascinating insights into Kenyan political society.

I kept waiting for the authors to deliver a promised discussion of how the investigation elevated the status of servants (such persons including housekeeper Selina and herdsman Shikuku provided the bulk of the damning testimony), granting them credibility in a society that tended to ignore the thoughts and observations of the lower classes, but other than the statement to that effect there was little analysis of this facet.

My disclaimer: Since I lived briefly in Koru as a PCV (1968) and worked in that area for nearly two years, I easily recalled the physical geography relevant to the murder. Although I did not know the minister, I knew other “big men” who owned farms in the sugar zone. Additionally, I gleaned some understanding of the dynamics of Luo politics, at least from the perspective of the common man. Finally, from a later diplomatic posting in next door Uganda, I assisted Ouku’s brother Barrack Mbajah to join his son in the U.S. in 1991.

Those who served in Kenya during the early nineties undoubtedly recall the ongoing soap opera of the investigations, especially the commission’s months long hearings that were reported verbatim in the Daily Nation. All that verbiage will jump back out at you as you read this book. For others who knew Kenya before or after this event, this book serves as a good divider. Earlier observers of the political scene, recalling Mboya’s and Kariuki’s deaths, would perhaps not be terribly surprised, albeit disappointed, that assassination would occur again. Later observers will more realistically appreciate the political currents unleashed by Ouko’s death and the changes subsequently wrought. In any case, Risks of Knowledge is an interesting foray into a complex topic. If you have patience, it is an excellent read.

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