First elected to parliament in 1997, Samson Kegengo Ongeri served until 2002 when the ‘Narc wave’ engineered by Raila Odinga swept him aside. Ongeri had remained in KANU while the Gusii had moved, almost to a man, to support the presidential bid of Simeon Nyachae.
Five years later in 2007, he regained the seat, and was quickly appointed cabinet minister for education in the first Kibaki cabinet formed a few hours after the totally bungled election was called for Kibaki. Elsewhere in the country, fire and smoke billowed.
As a KANU politician allied to then PNU, Prof. Ongeri emerged as one of the fiercest critics of ODM supremo Raila Odinga.
When skirmishes rocked the country and the search for peace ensued, Prof. Ongeri was among the team of return-to-peace negotiators commonly referred to as the ‘Serena Eight’. He was on the PNU side, alongside Martha Karua, Mutula Kilonzo (now deceased) and Moses Wetangula (now a NASA principal).
The ODM side was composed of William Ruto (now Deputy President), Musalia Mudavadi, James Orengo and Dr. Sally Kosgey.
In the 2013 polls, he came out for Jubilee Coalition on the TNA side, and gave his all to candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s bid, which saw Jubilee scrap a huge chunk of the Gusii vote.
He was widely expected to make it to the cabinet. It did not materialise. In what was seen as an afterthought, he was appointed as an ambassador to a little known UN agency based in Nairobi, UNEP.
Despite this checkered history, Prof. Ongeri shocked many when early this year he decamped from Jubilee, where he had served as Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Environmental Programme, to the Orange Democratic Movement party.
The ODM Leader, Raila Odinga, was at hand to receive him, once again confirming the old adage that there are no permanent friends, or enemies, in politics.
As Kenya heads to August 8, and Gusii region increasingly becoming one of the “must win” vote blocs, Ongeri, once a fierce critic of Odinga, is now the most valuable campaigner for Raila Odinga’s presidential bid, making as many as ten appearances for the NASA presidential candidate in a week, and pitching his election in terms so clear for all that the choice is decided.
Ongeri’s support for Odinga is even more critical as it massages the cultural egos of his generation of Kisii men whom, for unexplained historical reasons, have never fully embraced their lakeside neighbours in general, and the Odingas in particular.
The Kisii-Luo political experiment is a new phenomenon, dating back to less than fifteen years ago. Its critical mass are young people, unaware of, or indifferent to, the pathological dogmas of a bygone era.
In 2007 and 2013, it is the young Gusii people who courageously supported a Raila presidency, long before their parents embraced it. Perhaps, this was the result of a changed world; and common realities, of joblessness and college debt and a future always running ahead of them. Young people’s progress, or jobs, always a day away, always tomorrow.
In between are friendships and marriages and the blurring of the ethnic lines. It was never this way for an earlier generation.
For long, the Ongeri generation of Gusii people saw their fate as closely intertwined with that of the Kikuyu, due in part to their similar colonial experiences and the socio-cultural and economic realities of that epoch. Both had strong colonial chieftainship, both traded in coffee. Both cut off certain body parts.
And the Kisii elite under Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi fared comparably well, compared to the fateful self-afflicted wounds of their rebellious Luo neighbours, who had already fallen out with the new political order arising from ‘independence’ from Britain, only three short years into self-rule.
This arrangement worked well, until it was rocked and wrecked by a series of tectonic political shifts that left the Gusii community exposed and yearning for a new identity.
Simeon Nyachae, the emergent Kisii supremo had been fired from government, and his exit carried with it the loss of a whole community.
His presidential attempt in 2002 galvanized the whole Gusii, but came a cropper.
Earlier, George Anyona, another Gusii venerate, had been detained and now shared similar history with a number of his Luo neighbours, who became natural allies.
What appeared to have happened is that as changes occurred in the Gusii political sphere, they affected both the social and economic matrices of the community, and resulted into new agitations. Looking around, they found their neighbours already agitating, and joined, so it seems.
I’m not a history professor. The rest is living history.
While it is clear ODM will win numerous seats in Gusiiland, including the senate seat of Kisii County to which Prof. Ongeri is carrying the ODM banner, what’s to be seen is how the presidential vote will go. It tilts strongly for NASA, for now.