Remembering Dr. Joyce Laboso and Jerry Okungu and Rift Valley Rural Women Empowerment

Kenya Rift Valley Rural Women Empowerment NetworkRift Valley Rural Women Empowerment Network – Jerry Okungu seated in front row, far right, Dr. Joyce Laboso standing in second row, in white ball cap, 2nd from right

Dr. Joyce Laboso, who died in July while serving as Governor of Kenya’s Bomet County, and Jerry Okungu, the late journalist, columnist, media consultant and publisher, were favorites from working with them through the International Republican Institute in 2007 before that years’ election. Sadly they have both been lost to cancer at much too early an age.

Jerry worked with us as a consultant doing media and communications training and I travelled with him to conduct multiday programs at Edgerton University in the Rift Valley and Garissa in then North Eastern Province. My next post will be a more involved tribute to Jerry who died in January 2014. In the meantime, see his obituary from Citizen TV. Jerry and I kept up in later years and I have always regretted that we missed getting together again in person as we had hoped.

During the months leading up to the 2007 election, we at the IRI East Africa office were on a relative shoestring. Our primary Kenya work was our National Endowment for Democracy country program which was focused on training women and minority members who aspired to run for parliament. So we latched onto the invitation to work with the UN-supported Rift Valley Rural Women Empowerment Network to provide training and encouragement. We engaged Jerry to provide media and communications training.

At the time, Dr. Laboso’s sister Lorna was running for parliament in Sotik and was nominated by ODM and elected. I got to spend time with Joyce who was especially helpful to me as a newcomer in understanding the “bad old days” (my term not hers) when she spent years as a student and graduate student in England, but at home could not safely even mention in public the name of the then-President. She also helped me understand a bit about “intra-Kalenjin” politics (she was Kipsigis). An ODM wave was coming in the Rift Valley that year and a number of women candidates were part of the perceived post-Moi “change”.

Sadly, Joyce’s entry into elective politics herself later in 2008 came about from two untimely deaths.

The first was on the morning of January 31, 2008 (during the post election violence). David Too of Ainimoi Constituency became the second ODM Member of Parliament to be shot dead since the election. Too was shot by a policeman who also shot and killed a policewoman Too was with in a car. During that time the strategy of Kibaki’s PNU during the post election violence period was to consolidate power by drawing away (or down) the ODM margin in Parliament that allowed the narrow election of ODM’s Kenneth Marende as Speaker (but this cost one seat). Kibaki had appointed third-place candidate ODM-Kenya’s Kalonzo Musyoka as Vice President (according to Joe Khamisi part of a pre-election deal he negotiated with Stanley Murage representing Kibaki), and KANU’s Uhuru Kenyatta as Minister of Local Affairs. Kenyatta and “Retired President” Moi had endorsed Kibaki by August and aligned KANU with Kibaki’s new PNU when it was formed in September, even though Uhuru remained “the leader of the Official Opposition”. (This sticks in my mind in part because I met with new Speaker Marende at his request that morning and the news of Too’s killing hit shortly before I arrived.)

(In October 2009, Judge David Maraga, elevated to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2016, found the killer guilty of reduced charges of manslaughter in the killings of both the policewoman and MP Too. Maraga found the downgrade from murder to manslaughter warranted by the lack of intent indicated by “provocations” of both jealousy and self-defense.)

Unfortunately, on February 1, the day after Too’s killing and my meeting with Speaker Marende, I was told that IRI back in Washington had made the decision not to release the exit poll contradicting the presidential totals announced by the Electoral Commission of Kenya shortly before Kibaki’s swearing in on December 30 (per our agreement with USAID release of the results for this exit poll, the third in a series, was to involve consultations with the Nairobi mission that included diplomatic considerations, although there have been some claims that these did not occur for unexplained reasons.) Following that news I was constrained in my ability to interact freely with Kenyan politicians—and on Speaker Marende’s request that I meet with Kofi Annan to encourage the mediation process—since I was not willing to go along with telling anyone the exit poo was “invalid” per the “official line”.  I ended up going home in May when my temporary duty with IRI was up without initiating goodbyes to Joyce or most of the others that I might have.

Raila and Kibaki agreed to their “peace deal” for power sharing on February 28 and it held in spite of the lack of support from some leaders and on the back benches on Kibaki’s PNU side who still wanted to try to wrangle a working majority in parliament, engineer a vote of “no confidence” against the new Prime Minister and re-take full control of government.

Tragically, in June 2008, Joyce’s sister, the Hon. Lorna Laboso, along with her colleague Kipkalia Kones, in his fifth term from Bomet and serving as Roads Minister, were killed when their light plane from Nairobi crashed on a trip to campaign for the ODM candidate in the special election to replace David Too in Ainimoi Constituency. Lorna was remembered as a a pioneer of women in politics and for campaigning against the cultural practice of female genital mutilation among the Kipsigis . (Both she and Kones were mentioned for allegations of backing politically related violence in PEV period but of course there were never any legal proceedings; that part of the February 28 “peace deal” ultimately failed and we are left with the muddle mass informal immunity among the living, and questions about others, for the mass violence.)

It was this sequence that led Joyce to step up as a candidate in the special election that September to fill Lorna’s Sotik seat. I sent condolences on her sister’s death and congratulations on her special election, and but we never interacted again so I am left with appreciating her as a pre-political leader and not knowing what she thought about the various twists and turns of her own career in politics, sadly cut short by cancer as too many others.

Ken

Took leave from corporate career as American lawyer to “assist” democracy in East Africa. After stolen '07 election in Kenya and violent aftermath I have tried to bring out truth of events for those who care in hope we can learn and do better.

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