Footsteps

Rok Ajulu (1950-2016)

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017
  |

The Life and Times of Professor Rok Ajulu - Political Revolutionary, Independent Thinker, Pan-Africanist and Fervent Internationalist.

Professor Rok Ajulu, who died on 26 December, 2016 in Pretoria, South Africa, was born in Bondo, Siaya County in 1950.

Ajulu was politicised at a young age by the repressive actions of the Kenyan state which he experienced first-hand in his home province of Nyanza. Kenya had just attained its independence from Britain and was facing its first political crisis. President Jomo Kenyatta and the ruling KANU party had betrayed the expectations of many Kenyans by opting to keep the status quo. The leftwing of the party led by Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was outraged by the direction Kenyatta was taking the country. 

Odinga and his allies were expelled from KANU in 1966. The left regrouped and formed the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) to challenge Kenyatta and offer a socialist alternative to the Kenyan people. But Kenyatta pre-empted Odinga and KPU’s move by launching a brutal crack-down on the opposition. He banned KPU, detained Odinga and several high-ranking members of the party, curtailing political and civil rights.  Nyanza, Odinga’s home province, bore the brunt of the government’s onslaught.

Ajulu was personally affected because his father Stephen Odero Ajulu, a close aide of Odinga and member of KPU, was detained by Kenyatta. The violent security operations in Nyanza and the deteriorating human rights situation in Kenya formed the backdrop to his political awakening.

Kenyatta died in 1978 and his deputy Daniel Arap Moi ascended to power. He turned out to be even worse than his predecessor, prohibiting political parties, jailing opponents and restricting basic freedoms and rights. Ajulu had just arrived in Nairobi to study at the University of Nairobi. As a radicalised young man itching to take on the reactionary ruling KANU elite, he became an active student leader and, after several clashes with the authorities, was expelled from University.  

Ajulu was sent to study in Bulgaria but left after a brief period. He travelled to London, and then moved to Lesotho, where he was admitted to pursue a degree at the National University of Lesotho at Roma. 

Roma then was a hotbed of radicalism, a haven for leftwing academics and refugee students from Southern Africa and beyond. It was an exciting place, a centre for political activism, and political school - for people fleeing the repressive white minority regimes of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, the devastating wars of destabilisation in Angola and Mozambique, and the authoritarian regimes in other parts of Africa.

At Roma, Ajulu took the centre stage of leftwing activism and became the driving force behind several radical organisations committed to the fight against Apartheid and the liberation of the African people from authoritarian regimes. He was the chair of the Southern Africa student group and edited the Vanguard, an influential organ that promoted progressive ideas. It was in Roma that he evolved into an internationalist with strong links to anti-imperialist and progressive struggles in Africa and the world.  

I first met Ajulu in1982 in London during one of his many visits from Lesotho. It was a particularly bleak time in Kenya. Moi who had turned Kenya into a one-party state was facing popular resistance to his repressive rule and was violently lashing out at dissidents, civil society and the media. Several of Kenya’s opposition leaders were detained without trial and many activists were beginning to flee the country. This was followed by an attempted coup, which was ruthlessly quashed.

In solidarity with the Kenyan people, Kenyan exiles got together in London and launched the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya in 1982. The CRPPK founding members included Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wanjiru Kihoro, Abdilatif Abdalla, Asumbi Lango, Wanyiri Kihoro, Shadrack Gutto, Shiraz Durrani, Nish Matenjwa, Dan Thea, Wangui wa Goro and myself. The Committee’s base was the New Beacon Bookshop in Finsbury Park and was chaired by the owner, the Trinidad-born publisher, writer, and activist John La Rose.

Ajulu with his political activism background readily offered his support to the committee giving crucial guidance and also established a southern Africa committee in Roma on his return. Ajuli would become the link between our struggle and Southern Africa’s liberation struggles, including the ANC in South Africa, SWAPO in Namibia, the NPLA in Angola, and FRELIMO in Mozambique.

When he returned to the United Kingdom in 1984, we worked together closely in the campaign to end the dictatorship in Kenya. I was always impressed by Ajulu’s grasp of the intricacy of Kenyan politics and his incisive mind. Cheerful and confident even in the most difficult of times, he was always a source of inspiration and encouragement to the African exiles. 

In 1988, when we formed the United Patriotic Movement for Kenya in London (UKENYA), Ajulu uncharacteristically stayed out of it. I knew he was under pressure to complete his PhD dissertation at Sussex University at the time. However, Ajulu continued to support the struggle for change in Kenya and provided some of the most robust analysis and criticism of MWAKENYA, the successor to UKENYA and UMOJA. He was able to combine his scholarly research with his inside political knowledge to produce what must be one of the most insightful studies on authoritarianism and the challenges of democratization in Kenya. 

What was most remarkable in all the struggles that Ajulu dedicated his life to - in Kenya, South Africa, Lesotho and elsewhere was that he was truly selfless, committed to a fault and at no time showed any interest in holding a party position or public office. Ajulu was at his best as a backroom operator, providing critically needed leadership in planning and organisational matters, and using his boundless energy and intellectual ability to give ideological sustenance and direction to the struggles he committed himself to.  

In Kenya, Ajulu was an advisor to the main opposition figure Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. In the 1990s, when Odinga formed with other key opposition members, the broad-based Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), Ajulu helped in drafting policy documents and ensuring the new movement had a strong base.

Later, he became an advisor to Raila Odinga, who in 2008 became Kenya’s prime minister. But he was disillusioned with Kenya’s ethnically driven and corrupt political system and put his energy and expertise to better use in South Africa, his adopted home. He never returned to live in Kenya.

Ajulu strongly believed in the power of education and knowledge production. He had complete disdain for comrades unwilling to do political education, to learn and exercise their minds. He encouraged young activists and students to finish their diplomas and degrees. For him, education was part of the struggle and a revolutionary duty.

After a long gap, I re-established contact with Ajulu in1994. He had returned to South Africa to teach and I had joined the United Nations and was posted to Pretoria. I knew he was at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape but we were yet to meet. It was a truly historic moment and exciting time to be in South Africa. Apartheid had ended and the ANC had just won the country’s first democratic elections - South Africa was free at last - with Nelson Mandela at its head. 

I had gone to Cape Town on assignment to meet with members of the new parliament and could barely walk a few meters without running into old ANC acquaintances who had returned from many years of exile in London, Lusaka, Harare or Maputo. It was an emotional reunion. Just outside Parliament I bumped into Lindiwe Sisulu, whom I had last seen in the United Kingdom when she was studying at York University and would come for Anti-Apartheid meetings in London. She was an MP and Deputy Minister in Mandela’s new government. She was also Ajulu’s partner and she quickly reconnected us. 

After that we regularly met during his visits to Pretoria, Johannesburg and at times in Cape Town. Although he was now an established academic, he remained actively engaged politically. We often had thought-provoking discussions and debates on the future of Kenya and the struggle for change and democracy.

One of the enduring memories of Ajulu I have was in 1996. I had gone to fetch him from Pretoria to take him to the Sisulu family home in Johannesburg where his wedding to Lindiwe was to take place. I was surprised to find Ajulu who had a reputation as a fearless character was in a state of melt-down. He simply refused to leave the house and get into the car. The weight of marrying into the iconic Sisulu family, had temporarily got the better of him. It took quite a bit of time and much persuasion for him to change his mind, keeping Walter Sisulu and Albertina Sisulu - leaders of the Anti-Aparthied struggle - and a host of esteemed guests from the ANC hierarchy waiting anxiously for their new son-in-law.

I travelled with my family to Cape Town for holiday on 26 December, 2016. We were meeting Nuruddin Farah when he got a call from Elinor Sisulu in Pretoria. Elinor broke the sad news that Ajulu had passed away that morning after battling with a long illness. I was totally devastated and shocked that Ajulu was no more. What a great loss to Kenya and Africa.

At his memorial service at the great ZK Mathews Hall at the University of South Africa on 7 January 2017, which was packed to capacity, South Africa gave Ajulu a befitting send-off.  Here he was claimed not just as one of the great sons of Kenya but also of South Africa and Lesotho. Tributes came from President Jacob Zuma, President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Prime Minister of Lesotho, Pakalitha Mosisili and messages poured in from the many people whose lives he had touched in Africa and beyond, demonstrating the impact of his political and academic influence.

Acknowledging his enormous contribution, the ANC described him as ‘a staunch and committed supporter of the South African liberation movement, and a passionate, articulate and ardent advocate for the liberation of South Africa.’ The ANC said that Ajulu ‘gave true expression to Pan-Africanism and international solidarity,’ and that South Africans were ‘undeniably enriched by his generosity, selflessness and sacrifices’.

President Uhuru Kenyatta described him as ‘one of Kenya’s most distinguished and thoughtful academics …a true Pan-African’. He said Ajulu’s life was ‘rich in achievements, in friendship, and productive scholarship’. Reflecting on the remarkable life of Ajulu, Professor Raphael Kaplinsky, who supervised his PhD thesis at Sussex University, noted ‘Rok had the spirit and energy of a weather-maker, destined to blow away the breath of those who were privileged enough to work and socialise with him.’ 

He taught successively at the National University of Lesotho (1980-1984), Leeds University in the UK (1990-1994), Rhodes University (1994-2003), University of the Witswatersrand (2003-2007) and was a Research professor at the University of South Africa (2008-2010). He was an extra-ordinary intellectual who had a profound influence on a whole generation of activists and students. Ajulu’s last public lecture was ‘From Kenyatta to Kenyatta: the Making of an Authoritarian and Predatory State in Kenya’. He completed a book with the same title, which is expected to be published posthumously later this year.

His death deprives us of a robust, forceful and highly original scholar who has enriched our understanding of the politics and history of Africa and who massively contributed to our liberation. 

 Ajulu’s body was flown to Kenya and laid to rest at his ancestral home in Dajo Ka Ajulu in Bondo on 14 January, 2017. He is survived by Lindiwe Sisulu, (South Africa’s Minister for Human Settlement and an Executive Member of the ANC), five children and five grandchildren.

 Farewell dear friend and comrade – Yusuf Hassan

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 April 2017 10:32

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