Ababu Namwamba: The Young & the Restless

Ababu Namwamba: MP for Budalangi Constituency


Orange Democratic Movement (ODM)

MP and Secretary, ODM parliamentary group

Kolanya High School, Teso District

: University of Nairobi. Master of Law degree in International
Legal Studies, Washington College of Law, USA
LEADERSHIP: Chairman of the Kenya Law Students' Society (KLSS), University of Nairobi
: Public Law Institute of Dr Oki Ooko Ombaka,
Founded human rights NGO Chamber of Justice and 'After the Promise' programme to audit political parties on faithfulness to commitments and promises made to the public
: National Civil Education Programme prepared different
social groups and leaders for the National Constitutional Review Process
HOBBIES: Reading history books and autobiographies of great leaders
FAVOURITE SPORTS TEAM: Arsenal, British Premier League
HEROES: Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga

When millions of TV viewers saw a firebrand MP refuse to swear allegiance to an ‘illegal president’ a leader was born. Clearly, Ababu Namwamba was not prepared to toe the party line.

It was a day to remember. The lawyer turned-politician Ababu Namwamba, 33, broke from the pack and turned the swearing-in ceremony of Kenya's new parliament in January into an occasion to give President Mwai Kibaki a dressing down - the likes of which Kenya had not seen before.

MPs were only meant to swear allegiance to the president and the state. But the Orange Democratic Movement, (ODM) was still reeling from being denied victory by the Electoral Commission of Kenya after it announced Kibaki as president and took exception to this.

Taking his cue from more seasoned MPs, Namwamba launched into a stinging address in which he accused the president of being in office illegally.

Expecting humility from their new administration, Kenyans were jolted out of their ennui. Namwamba was sending message to the old guard - he was not prepared to toe their party line.

He chose his platform well. The drama was played out on television to millions of viewers. While Kibaki sat stoically, albeit nimbly, through his tirade, Namwamba demanded that "the MP for Othaya" should be treated the same as any other MP, because the election was rigged.

Namwamba, the MP for Budalangi, then poured salt on the wound when he deliberately altered the wording of the oath, loudly proclaiming his allegiance to"rais wa jamhuri Amollo Raila Odinga," (President of the Republic, Raila Odinga), instead of “rais wa jamhuri Mwai Kibaki”.

That triggered loud protests from Kanu MPs, and the Speaker of the House, Kenneth Marende, was forced to restore order. Namwamba bowed to pressure and repeated the correct oath, but the point had been made.

"I didn't swear allegiance to Raila the man, but to Raila the symbol of democracy and the fight for the Third Liberation," he said.

It was a clear indication that the MP for Budalangi does not believe in pulling his punches. So, who is Ababu Namwamba, the man who sports a haircut more common among trendy celebrities than politicians?

Hundreds of people had been killed in the violence after the elections, and several thousand more displaced. Namwamba's party was in a rage, its leader and presidential candidate Odinga, led a swathe of the country that felt cheated by the Electoral Commission of Kenya, which they believed had conspired to grant a 'stolen' victory to Kibaki. Namwamba was a new MP who eloquently articulated the ODM's protest. He demanded that Kibaki be replaced by the 'legitimate' winner, Odinga.

I seized the moment to illustrate our country's spirit of resistance," Namwamba said. However, his boldness earned him criticism, including accusations that he was an Odinga sycophant.

"I have never been anybody's sycophant and I will never be. My public service has been based on principles and those are principles I'm ready to sacrifice a lot for," he stated.

It is tempting to compare Namwamba with Barack Obama, the Kenyan-descended American senator carrying the flag for the Democratic Party in the United States presidential elections. Obama entered America's national consciousness with a powerful speech at the US Democratic Party Convention in 2006 and was hailed immediately as presidential material. But is Namwamba anything more than a maverick?

He is certainly fearless, fiery and fresh. But, for many, he is a young man in a game designed exclusively for grey-beards. Obama was 43 when he set out on his personal journey to the upper echelons of political power. Namwamba is 33. Can he find enough support in his constituency take on the big guns?

We meet in Parliament to hear his views on politics and listen to his vision for the country, as well as his experience as a first-time MP It is chilly but the imposing structure, with its well-manicured lawns, exudes power. The thrill of it banishes the chill. This is hallowed ground.

Namwamba has been expecting us. As soon as he spots us, he strides over. He is looking sharp in a formal dark blue suit with a white kerchief protruding from his jacket pocket. It dawns on me that he would look equally presentable in jeans and sports shoes - anonymous among the youth of Nairobi. What his slight frame lacks, he makes up for with his authoritative voice and magnetic confidence.

Namwamba has spent the past few years building his profile as a conscientious human rights advocate and is now reaping the fruits of his labour. He trounced the populist former MP Raphael Wanjala, in Budalangi and looks set to develop a more visible profile in national politics.

He worked for several years as a human rights advocate and knows how to fight hard. He founded the Chamber of Justice, a human rights NGO, which fought a case for children prevented from enrolling in some Nairobi schools, because they were HIV positive.

"We fought in the corridors of justice until the court found the practice not only discriminatory, but also offensive to the constitution," he said. That led him into philanthropy and he founded the Ababu Namwamba Foundation, which he runs.

"I often visit the children at Nyumbani Home and other homes and I feel a strong sense of fulfillment when I see them coming happily from school."

He also supports up to 150 students, many women's and youth projects. 'The money I earn from Parliament goes within a week of payday."

As he talks, you sense the steel-trap lawyer's mind carefully weighing up his words. It hammers home the point that Namwamba is all about independence - independence of mind over loyalty to party and leader.

Odinga engineered the election of Namwamba as the ODM's Parliamentary Secretary, creating the impression that he was destined for greater things.

Then came the bombshell - he had not been named for government, in spite of his emergence as leader of the impatient young politicians who had ridden the ODM wave all the way to parliament.

He became a loose cannon, leading a group of MPs from both the Party of National Unity (PNU) and the ODM, who were demanding the constitution of an official opposition.

"We cannot afford to suffocate and emasculate the traditions and customs of parliament simply because today we are enjoying the benefits of a grand coalition, because we shall become victims of a temporary arrangement' he said.

"Just like we have government heterogeneity, we should have opposition heterogeneity. What is good for the government, is also good for the opposition." But, Odinga did not seem to think so, and he said as much during a 'bonding' session for ministers, assistant ministers and permanent secretaries in Nairobi the next day.

Dressing down the proponents of the opposition, Odinga accused them of rocking the boat because they had not been included in the new cabinet.

Was Namwamba deflated? For some reason, the young politician and his admirers- of whom there are many-had expected that he would be named in the government, at least as an assistant minister.

But Odinga and the other party bigwigs did not appear to think that he was ready. Some party faithful even took the opportunity to accuse Namwamba and his co-agitators of behaving like traitors.

"Some people want you to worship the party bosses. It takes a lot of character to go against your party," he said.

Namwamba deliberately presents himself as an independent. He would have you understand that parliament is the vehicle for change and democratic growth. He was clearly the leader of those agitating for a formal opposition, even though he is a rookie.

The coalition government had left a huge gap in governance: a formal body to offer checks and balances for a government that could become unmanageable when two opposing sides agreed to share the cake.

But the law was clear - an opposition had to have not less than 30 MPs from the same party, to be formally recognised - Namwamba's opposition had 65, but from different parties, and could therefore not be recognised.

Namwamba's determination and focus shone through - not even Odinga's opposition was going to stop him from seeing the opposition formally recognised.

He wanted to be his own man, but was he taking it too far?

That impediment seemed to have been overcome in May when MPs allowed him to introduce a law to "anchor, govern and regulate the opposition in parliament" in place of an official opposition - before an Official Opposition Bill.

Namwamba is building a reputation as a maverick, but has he paused to think of the effects this will have on his career and ambitions? Mavericks in Kenyan politics have not fared well and, until the recent appointment of James Orengo to the Cabinet as Minister of Land, few expected them to rise beyond agitators.

Martin Shikuku and Koigi wa Wamwere, despite their many admirers, have failed to win their constituency seats at previous elections. Others such as Peter Anyang Nyong'o, Kiraitu Murungi, Martha Karua and Mukhisa Kituyi learnt that toeing the line was safer than shouting from the rooftops.

"An opposition is about democracy, it's about checks and balances and it's about transparency. Its not about Raila or Kibaki" Namwamba said.

"Kenyans fought and shed blood to entrench position politics in the country and it would a disservice to them if we killed the same for political expediency" said the former Nairobi University law student and student leader.

Older MPs also see the need for a formal opposition protected by law. "Having a check-and-balance system is critical for democracy. It's not just about opposing for the sake of opposing, but to ensure that government is watched all the time to protect Kenyans' interests," said the Mwea constituency election loser, Alfred Nderitu.

I get an insight into the way Namwamba' s mind works when he lists his heroes - former South African President Nelson Mandela, first Kenyan Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, former US President Abraham Lincoln and Indian political icon and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi.

To him, these men shrugged off oppression, transformed their societies and ultimately changed the world. "These historical figures illustrated that the greater goal of society is more important than the self," he said, his trademark grin illuminating his youthful face. Namwamba thinks that the country has entered "a different historical phase".

He is eager to change the way things are done in politics, much like Obama wants to end Washington's "politics as usual".

WHY POLITICS ANNOYS ME DECEIT "People don't keep their word. My experience with politics over time has convinced me that not everybody means well." HOLLOWNESS "Most politicians say one thing in public, but practise a totally different thing in private. That makes politics feel so hollow sometimes."
CULTURE OF IMPUNITY I really don't know what politics does to good souls. People want to force their way into things without even consulting the rank and file." FRUSTRATION "The public sometimes want to lynch you, even when you do the right thing. Right or wrong matters little in public opinion."


LOVE "The epitome of human life. It's the foundation of life. It's the most beautiful expression of life.
Love brings down all barriers. It's the most powerful force created by God." COURAGE "Manifestation of conviction. I believe that it's the height of coming alive. It's what makes you stand up in a crowd." KNOWLEDGE "Pathway to everything - to life and to existence. It liberates the mind and liberates an individual."

"About 60 percent of the current members of parliament are young, and we believe we have the numbers to make a difference," he said.

He has learnt quickly that it will not be an easy ride. There are old and conservative politicians who have little tolerance for young, energetic minds.

"Politics is not easy. There is a lot of deceit and pretence. It's difficult to be yourself," he said.

Namwamba hit the ground running in his first few weeks in parliament, working on various legislative agendas, including a plan to introduce motions to reform some parliamentary rules that he believes are outdated and archaic.

'The standing orders and the rules are bureaucratic and have no place in modern Kenya. Even the prayers we say in parliament are very traditional and conservative," he said.

But his youthful enthusiasm is up against the cumbersome machinery of the state. The Kenyan Parliament, like the British House of Commons and House of Lords, from which it borrows its traditions, is slow-moving. It adheres to traditions, which are often a smokescreen for protecting vested interests. In spite of his age and energy, things cannot move faster than they are.

His 'generation X and Y', described by sociologists as young, driven, upward-moving and always seeking new opportunities, must try to work for change from within. That will mean going head-to-head with the old, conservative men.

"We certainly see things differently. When, for example, the old politicians see an individual in terms of tribe, we see them in terms of their abilities, whether in business or profession."

Kenyans, he believes, are ready for young and dynamic leaders. But this does little to remove the vice-like grip on power of the grey-beards, who for decades have controlled the status quo.

He says that the post-election chaos completely changed Kenyans' political perspective and created a need for genuine, lasting reforms.

"We have to seize this historical opportunity, and the prevailing spirit, to carry out lasting reforms that will change the order of things in the country."

These reforms, he has learnt in the few weeks he has been in parliament, have to start with parliament itself.

"It would be hypocritical to talk about reforming the country when parliament itself is conservative and a hostage to tradition," he said.

He wants to see drastic changes in parliamentary standing orders, which he can push through as a member of the Standing Orders Committee.

"I knew 2007 was going to be a transformative period in terms of generation and a new constitutional order, but I did not expect the country to descend to this level of chaos. The chaos, the killings and the anger that followed the 2007 elections were a rude welcome to politics. It was a baptism of fire."

But instead of becoming disillusioned with politics, his conviction that strengthening institutions - not faith in individuals - is critical for democracy, has been hardened. "We have to fight in the trenches to anchor our young democracy and bury the ghost of personal impunity forever," he said.

Namwamba knows that Kenya, like many emerging economies, has to deal with the issue of national debt - most often arising from poor governance. He has travelled around the world and lobbied the European Union for debt relief. Now he hopes to use his position as an MP to intensify his lobbying.

But Namwamba is at somewhat of a crossroads. He is entering parliament at a time when political leadership has lost its credibility, with many people seeing politicians as corrupt, inept and manipulative. A local NGO recently released a study, which revealed that around Ksh 3 billion was spent by politicians to bribe voters.

Namwamba is quick to explain that he worked closely with women's and youth groups in Budalangi and claims that he won because he was able to identify with their problems and aspirations.

But, he says, he does not understand why the majority of his people still live in abject poverty.

"These things are puzzling, but now I have an opportunity to look at them deeply from a policy perspective."

And from a particularly cushy vantage point - a parliamentary seat comes with perks that include a monthly salary of Ksh3OOOOO, a Ksh3 million car, house loans and other benefits.

Few would turn down a Ksh1 million job that does not demand much input or many working hours.

But Namwamba says it is not just about money and perks. "Some changes can only be made when you are inside the system, and that's why I entered politics."

The issue of the Mungiki sect is close to his heart. To him, the emergence of gangs among the youth is a symptom of a more serious socio-economic problem that must be dealt with in a systematic way.

"We have to create jobs and address the high poverty levels in the country."

Our interview on the manicured lawns of parliament is going past 7pm and it is getting dark.

Namwamba, however, has not lost his grin or his passion. I wonder for how long he will maintain the energy before the system wears him down.

As if reading my mind, Namwamba comes to my rescue."I don't intend to stay as an MP for long.
I will evaluate my first term, probably go for a second term, and that's it." He explains that 10 years in parliament is long enough and he does not see being a legislator as a full-time job. "What would you do that you haven't done in 10 years?"

He gives a hint of his ambition when he says he would not mind staying a little longer, not as an MP, but "probably prime minister, or something. That I can consider."

His goal, he says, is to teach law, read, travel and write. In between his parliamentary schedule, he has to make time for his American girlfriend and his passions, which include football. Like football, politics is a high-stakes game where your opponents tackle hard in the fight for victory.

Whether Namwamba's youthful spirit, ambitions and energy will survive the hard tackle remains to be seen.

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11 Responses to Ababu Namwamba: The Young & the Restless

njuguna said...

Mr Ababu you are very young and you can have a very bright future if you like.But your steps as from 30.10.2008 will let you down.
Mr MP have you forgotten you are a lawyer?who even went abroad for studies?Am sorry to ask were you told not to give way for truth and justice in your law studies.

Thank you but remember the crying voices are more important than the group of women and student you do support.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to almighty for the good work you are doing for Kenyans especially the Budalangi people.Your being optimistic when it comes to tackling matters affecting the country, as my former school mate makes me proud and give my support to you.God knows leaders who can lead His people to Canaan the land of milk and honey.Keep on the struggle as we are behind you until we cross the River jordan and its mountains and valleys.Pastor Patrick Makokha Bwire - New Jerusalem Gospel Assembly Church -Nairobi Kenya .Email:(newjegospelassbly@hotmail.com)

Khadolwa .S said...

Good efforts for a patriot you do.but
remember you have to keep watering the tree at the roots not from the the crown if you have higher aims,we are keenly tracking your moves and rivals here at home....Mukhadundu youth RUKALA.skhadolwa@yahoo.com

khadolwa said...

man you work had but those boys always on your back in the name of guards are gonna make you brushed away from the route to parliament next season ;the picture they portrayed at the funeral[Raphael Akumba's in July was ugh.... tell em to play low otherwise you are doing well..Mr

Robert said...

Ababu you are on the right track....For those who would like to join our group in supporting ababu for 2012...join us at this facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=app_2373072738&gid=100908060564#/group.php?v=info&gid=100908060564

More than 300 members already and still growing.... see you there!

Anonymous said...

Your current column in the Sunday Nation is great. I hope by now you have bought your father a new pair of shoes. The one he had at your home coming party had his toes protruding out! Take care, he educated you.

siRKen said...

Ababu's father passed on in Feb 2011

Anonymous said...

Namwamba has the makings of a great leader not in the future but now. It will be a jinxed political career if this feisty,highly informed man would settle for anything but top leadership in his ODM and in national poitics. Most politicians know how to handle agwambo enigmatic trends but who fathoms Ababu politics.

It is indeed time you took matters in your own hands and broke the patronage dilemma that is Kenyan politics.

Do not disappoint...man!!

Anonymous said...

Ababu, you have admirable qualities both as a leader and critique. Supposing you were a cabinet minister, would you have written such a touchy article as the one that appeared in DN Sunday Review Magazine of 14th August 2011?

Omallah said...

Mr. Namwamba, am one of your constituent, though last referendum voted outside budalangi, I particularly want to applaud you for the efforts you are making to create a better Kenya for us, and wanna thank you for the support you have given to my family especially in having my brother in school.

but I fear; what strategies are you putting in place for your candidature in the next general elections?

what of the university you were to setup in Budalangi, Port victoria - mundere road is also in bad shape. waz up?

Anonymous said...

do you have a family and is true that you are the father of Cecilia Mwangi child? come out in public don't hide