A man who suffers no fools gladly, he was impatient throughout the interview and had no kind words for Ali Mazrui, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Taban Lo Liyong, writers that he has consistently fought in the media since the 1970s.
Yet his physical demeanour belies his combative nature. The 70-year-old professor now walks slowly, supporting himself with a walking stick, and is unrepentant for propping up the Nyayo dictatorship.
His love for the written word is not in doubt. Though not a literary critic, Prof Ochieng’ has reviewed hundreds of books including Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Detained in which he is painted as a colonial lackey.
In a manner reminiscent of the traditional adversarial academic exchanges between himself and Ali Mazrui, the student of the legendary historian Bethwel Allan Ogot took on his critics, who term him a blue-eyed boy of the Kanu regime with fervour, saying he had no regrets for working with Moi.
While Mazrui accuses him of “speaking flattery to power”, Ochieng’ has insisted he neither “hates, loves, fears, nor admires Mazrui.”
So intense was their press war that at some point, Mazrui invited him to duel at Makerere University’s Chancellor’s Hall “if President Museveni would allow two Kenyans to duel on Ugandan soil.”
Q. You edited A History of Independent Kenya, which has just rolled off the press to celebrate our jubilee anniversary. What are we celebrating?
A. A lot of things. I was an usher during the Independence Day celebrations at Uhuru Gardens while a student at Alliance. Kenya is on course.
Take the case of roads. At independence, the road from Kisumu to Nairobi was mud. We had only three schools in this region: Kisii, Maseno and Yala.
Today every village has a school. We are celebrating the expansion of agriculture and construction of hospitals.
Q. But history is also about the future. Where are we headed?
A. It is difficult to tell, but some are saying that we are trying to achieve the kind of life in the western world.
There are those who think that should not be the direction. That we should stick to our roots and develop technology that can help improve our condition.
We should fashion our African path. The biggest challenge in the world right now for the West and Arabs is Islamisation. The Arabs don’t want to go West and are accusing it of interfering with their economies. They want to be left alone to think the way they do.
In Kenya and Africa we are still struggling to define ourselves. Take the case of the divisions in our politics. Jomo Kenyatta was brought up in Britain where he spent more than 18 years. He wanted Kenya to go the way of Britain, but Jaramogi disagreed.
Kenyatta pushed for accumulation of wealth through hard work. Jaramogi said that we should use our resources and education to develop our people. We continue to plough through between the African ideology and the West. Where we will land, we don’t know.
Q. The ideological war between the Kenyatta and Odinga families started at independence and continues to shape our national narrative 50 years on. Why are we unable to change the narrative?
A. People are not forced to take sides in the narrative. The Jaramogis have not been in power to keep the people thinking the way they are thinking or influence policy.
They stood for things that touch on the poor. The issues are still there. So naturally, a Jaramogi son has a bigger audience because these issues touch many people.
The Kenyattas stood for individual development fairly or through graft and this attracts many people. The conflict will not go away even if Raila and Uhuru die as long as we have too many poor people and a handful of billionaires.
Do you think billionaires are going to forgo their wealth and listen to the poor man? The Constitution was supposed to help breach the gap between these two sectors of our society but it has failed.
Q: Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani has dismissed the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) and international justice as a smokescreen for neo-colonialism. Is the ICC a persecutor of Africa?
A: Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto lied to us when they said that their leadership had nothing to do with the ICC. But as a country, we are getting more and more involved now in the ICC issue.
You notice that it has started changing our foreign policy by deserting our traditional allies because they have disagreed with us over the court case.
The country is paying to defend the case. Uhuru and Ruto have hired very expensive lawyers.
Do you think they are paying from their pockets? Most Kenyans are tongue-tied about what is going on. Even the media seems complicit. Are you supporting what is going on?
Intellectuals have not shunned the debate. You don’t want us to participate.
Q: You did extensive research and even wrote a book on the history of the Abagusii of Western Kenya. Why the Abagusii?
A: Nobody knew the history of the Abagusii.
Prof Allan Ogot had written about the Luo. Prof Henry Mwanzi about the Kipsigis and Prof Gideon Were had written about the Luyia. I decided to write about the Abagusii, an economic group, which sits on the highland and speaks the same language.
The Abagusii interacted a lot. That is why we have a good number of Kisiis who are Kipsigis or even Maasai. Some of those who settled in Bonchari are Luo.
Because of the interaction some of them have Maasai, Luo and Kalenjin names.
They opposed British colonialism and even took up arms against the colonialists in 1904, 1908 and 1912, but the British defeated them with the help of the Maasai, Luo and Kipsigis.
Because of the geography of their home and high population, they learned how to utilise all that they have for self-advancement.
Q: And what explains the belief that a considerable number of Kipsigis are Kisii?
A: You know the Abagusii initially settled in the Kano area. The sugarbelt was Kisii country, but they moved out after the Luos started pouring in from Uganda.
Nandis and the Kipsigis expanded to the Lake Victoria. The Abagusii moved to Kericho and further southwards and settled at Kabianga, picking up the Kalenjin language and culture.
They also intermarried with the Kipsigis, who were not as migratory as the Maasai.
Q. You worked closely with former President Moi as his permanent secretary and you even wrote his speeches. What do you think Kenyans don’t know about him?
A. Kenyans know Moi. Unlike Kibaki who sat in State House, Moi walked around and met people. Whenever you had an opportunity to meet him, he talked a lot. He did not hide much. He listens a lot. But the problem is that he listened to far too many useless people.
He was a peasant who rose to the presidency. Moi had all the traces of an ordinary man, a strong Christian who resorted to all manner of things to support his regime.
Q. There are those who say that during the fight for second liberation, you were the ugly face of scholarship, deploying your intellectual resources to prop up the Moi dictatorship.
A. Moi found me a civil servant. I was working for the same government then as principal of Maseno University College.
He called and asked me to hand over the task and assume the new responsibility at State House and I think I did a good job.
What would you have done? Was I going to say that I am a leftist and don’t believe in the economy? I was working for the State. I finished my assignment and went back to Maseno.
Q. Prof Taban Lo Liyong two months ago claimed that you cried a lot for Tom Mboya, but didn’t shed a tear for Robert Ouko. Why?
A. Taban Lo Liyong is a liar and a troublemaker.
He is not an intellectual. Taban is not as deep as Okot p’Bitek, who was more involved. You know there are no intellectuals in South Sudan.
When he came to Kenya, he originally cheated that he was a Ugandan. We later found out that he was Sudanese. He was running away from dictatorship in Khartoum and Kampala.
I hardly even remember his books. He wrote The Last Word before he even wrote the first one. And most of them were undergraduate papers. Ha..ha..ha. The last time I read he had written something close to… is it 13 Offensives to Our Enemies? What is that?
Q. So why didn’t you mourn Ouko?
A. I admired Tom Mboya. Besides being a respected pan-Africanist, he was a scholar, highly read.
Even when he disagreed with Jaramogi, it was not because of just siasa. I wish he was Kenya’s first President. I don’t know what Taban means by saying I did not cry.
It was alleged that Ouko was killed by the Nyayo government for which I worked. I think he is trying to create an association. But I was not close to Ouko.
But I must reprimand you media people for creating the impression that it is only literature professors who are concerned about ideas.
The contribution of scholars from other fields such as economics and science should be interrogated. Historians, for instance, have been the backbone of local scholarship.
I am talking of intellectuals like Allan B Ogot. Dr Kipkorir and Prof Gideon Were. Literature has Micere Mugo, Chris Wanjala, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and a bit of Francis Imbuga.
Q. Talking of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, what is this quarrel between you and the man who recently narrowly missed the Nobel Prize?
A. He was one of those intellectuals who misused the Mau Mau movement in his struggles with the State.
He is a tribalist. When he was a head of department at the University of Nairobi, he favoured Masters students from his ethnic community.
I have never fashioned myself as Marxist like Ngugi. In one of his books, Detained, he paints me as a pro-imperialism writer, who is not fighting for the peasants.
Q. Have you taken this fight to his community, seeing as your writings project you as militantly anti-Kikuyu? What axe do have to grind with the House of Mumbi?
A. That is not true. I have a lot of Kikuyu friends. I think you are talking about my stance and writings about the Mau Mau peasant movement.
I have a problem with the claim that it was entirely a Kikuyu affair. Other groups such as the Kamba, Maasai and Luo were involved.
Kikuyus talk as if they were alone in the struggle. In any case, Mau Mau was never a national movement. You can tell from the Mau Mau songs. They were fighting for basic things such as land and jobs. That is what I was telling Ngugi, who was blowing it out of proportion.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: There is hardly any Kenyan literature worth reading. I read news and scholarly papers and mostly history. I want to write a book on the struggles in the Horn of Africa.
Q: What book would you recommend to your friend Prof Ali Mazrui?
For me, Prof Mazrui is irrelevant to us. He is extremely gifted with the English language, and runs a highly funded global centre, but he has deliberately avoided discussing any Kenyan issues.
Show me a small book he has written about a Kenyan issue. He will not face Kenya. Maybe you should ask him to write about the ICC. My writing is African. Mazrui does not write as an African. What does he stand for?
Q. Prof Maurice Amutabi has projected you as old school, a defender of professors who use yellow notes to lecture since you yourself never mastered the Socratic method of teaching.
A: Any lecturer who does not use notes is lying to the students. Socrates lived in a backward small village where he knew everybody.
He was handling village problems and you can’t inherit his routine for every problem.
You cannot teach a post-graduate class for two hours without notes to sustain you. You cannot teach all that long with your hands in the pocket. I don’t admire anybody encouraging people to use the Socratic way of handling matters.
Q: Are you an ODM life member?
A: No… no. I was a Mboya man. That is why I remained in Kanu. That is why Moi gave me a job. I don’t know of any party that has new ideas. I am a Kenyan, just a Kenyan.