Many political parties were formed in Africa during the colonial period. The Kenya African National Union [KANU] was one such party. The other was the African National Congress in South Africa. KANU was one of the strongest and most organized political parties in Kenya. Among some of its most important bases, where it enjoyed an almost fanatical support during the struggle for independence in Kenya, was Kisumu.
KANU's origins can be traced to a number of events in the history of colonial Kenya. Among such events was the formation of the Kenya African Study Union [KASU] in 1944. KASU was an organization formed in 1944 to articulate Kenyans' grievances against the British colonial administration. KASU, later renamed the Kenya African Union [KAU], attempted to be more inclusive than other previous ethnic-based political parties in Kenya. On 14 May 1960, KAU merged with Kenya Independent Movement [KIM] to form the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Among the first leaders of KANU were James Gichuru as President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as Vice Chairman, and Tom Mboya, the Secretary-General. James Gichuru would later on resign from his position as President of KANU for Jomo Kenyatta.
The Kenya African Democratic Union [KADU] emerged in the same year as KANU to challenge KANU for the leadership of Kenya. Formed by Daniel arap Moi, Masinde Muliro, and Katana Ngala, among others, KADU's aim was to defend the interests of the so-called smaller ethnic groups such as the Kalenjin, the Maasai, the Abaluhya, the coastal communities, among others against the perceived dominance of KANU's larger Luo and Kikuyu communities. These two political parties rivaled each other as they led the Kenyan people in the struggle for independence.
KANU outwitted KADU, and became the ruling party when Kenya became independent on December 12, 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta, as President of Kenya, and Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga as Vice-President. KADU dissolved itself voluntarily and joined KANU in 1964. Kenya was on its way to becoming a one-party state.
During this time, KANU was very popular in Kisumu. In fact, Jeremiah Nyagah, the Minister for Land and Settlement, set a piece of land aside in Kisumu for KANU to build an office. KANU subsequently built an office which today is not very far from the main market in Kisumu as its regional headquarters in the 1960s. KANU enjoyed a massive following in Kisumu and Nyanza region. These supporters were mobilized into KANU by Odinga who was a highly respected figure in the region.
Oginga was loyal to Kenyatta to the extent that he even declined to take over government after his party KANU won the election of 1961, arguing that Jomo Kenyatta, who at that time was in detention, was Kenya's rightful leader, and demanded that Kenyatta should be released from detention and be allowed to form the government.
After only a few years in power, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta started having political and ideological differences. Odinga faulted Kenyatta for his policies that generally oppressed the common man. Although Odinga was the Vice-President of the ruling party, KANU, and of the country, he was often very critical of most of the government policies, especially those touching on land. His criticism of the government can be said to have marked the beginning of opposition politics in Kenya.
Odinga became more vocal against the government following the murder of his close associate and KANU Member of Parliament Pio Gama Pinto in 1965. Fearful of Odinga and his supporters, Jomo Kenyatta made a move to weaken Odinga‘s position in KANU. During a KANU Delegates Conference held in Limuru in 1966, Kenyatta and his supporters moved to strip Odinga of his powers. Odinga’s post of Vice President of KANU was split up and shared out among eight other leaders in KANU, prompting him to resign from KANU.
Odinga subsequently went on to form a small but significant opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union [KPU] in 1966 which enjoyed massive support in Kisumu and the Nyanza region as a whole. Kisumu immediately became the main base of KPU. In 1969, Jomo Kenyatta made an ill-advised trip to Kisumu, the main base of KPU and attended a political rally where he proceeded to rail at Oginga Odinga, KPU, Kisumu, and the Luo people. Mind you, the fearless Odinga attended the rally. What followed was not surprising. A major shouting-match broke out between Kenyatta and Odinga at the rally which turned into a confrontation. Kenyatta started threatening people that, "nitawasiaga kama unga" [I will grind you people like corn-meal]. The irate people started throwing stones at Kenyatta, and Kenyatta's security returned fire, killing tens of people and injuring many others.
Following this unrest in 1969, KPU was banned, Oginga Odinga and other leaders of KPU were arrested and detained. It was so ironic. Odinga, the man who refused to take over the leadership of Kenya, and instead insisted on Jomo Kenyatta becoming Kenya's first president was now in detention, thrown in there by the man he helped to get out of colonial detention and become Kenya's first president. Kisumu bristled with anger, rage, and resentment against Kenyatta, KANU, and the Kenyan government.
From this time henceforth until the 1990s, Kisumu became the bedrock of opposition politics in Kenya. Indeed, leaders from Kisumu and the region as a whole were the first to join the first major opposition party, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD ) in the 1990s when Odinga teamed up with Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro, and his son Raila Odinga. Kisumu was among the first cities and towns to declare their allegiance to FORD.
Within a short time however, FORD broke up due to ethnic, political, ideological, and personal wrangles between Odinga and Matiba. Matiba went on to form FORD-Asili, while Odinga became the leader of FORD-Kenya. The split within the FORD party was a huge-setback to those who agitated for a new political dispensation in Kenya. The opposition was divided. When the General Election was held in December 1992, it is not surprising that the divided opposition ended up losing the election. Odinga finished fourth in the election behind the winner and incumbent Daniel arap Moi, Kenneth Matiba, and Mwai Kibaki. but even then, Kisumu stayed firmly behind their son Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga.
Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga breathed his last, not anywhere else, but Kisumu in 1994. He left a popular legacy as the father of opposition politics in Kenya in general, and Kisumu, in particular. Kisumu has thus been known as the center of opposition politics since the time of Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga.