General F. O. Ogolla: A Farewell through the Lenses

Published on 3rd May 2024

Life is fickle! General Francis Omondi Ogolla seemed to have come to terms with human mortality. Last year at a church service, General Ogolla said, “In my military life, I have come to learn the reality of human mortality. I have appreciated that life is finite, humans are mortal, and life is short. One morning, you are with a healthy colleague. The next minute he is ashes and gone.” Sounds like a premonition!

April 18, 2024, will forever be etched in Kenya’s history. The death of the Chief of the Defence Forces (CDF) of the Republic of Kenya, General Francis Omondi Ogolla, the first for a sitting military chief in the country, is historical. General Ogolla’s appointment itself was historical; he was the first CDF from the Luo ethnic group. Then again, the Luos have endured painful moments in Kenya’s history with the controversial deaths of high-profile, promising, and ambitious figures. Tom Mboya and Robert Ouko are revered in death as they were in life.

One could definitely argue that Mboya was not a Luo proper; originally, he was from the Abasuba ethnic group. Nonetheless, the Abasuba are culturally assimilated by the Luo. Anyway, Mboya, Ouko, and Ogolla could have been cut from different clothes, but these were polished and suave gentlemen. Mboya stands out as the most brilliant politician in Kenya’s history. He was outstanding given his achievements for the 39 years he lived. He is the type of human who perhaps appears once every 100 years. This is how legendary musician Sam Mangwana described his compatriot and king of Rhumba, the Congo Colossus, and Grand Master Franco Luambo Makiadi.

Ouko, an affable, charismatic, and charming personality just like Mboya, could possibly have emerged as a key player on the national political scene. Ogolla may have enjoyed the privilege of breathing his last while at the peak of his military career. Mboya and Ouko were hardly at the peak of their political careers when they were assassinated.

General Ogolla’s death has certainly evoked these memories. Wild speculations are rife on whether his death was pre-planned or otherwise. I am tempted to avoid this debate, but I will certainly join the bandwagon. The circumstances surrounding Ogolla’s death are suspicious. There are claims that the aircraft initially scheduled to ferry the General was suddenly swapped at the last minute to transport a senior government official. This is unprofessional, at least if the claims are true.

Kenya has a notoriety for hero-worshipping senior government officials and politicians. This is no surprise for a country where politicians and their wheeler dealers prefer opulent lifestyles over intentional, goal-oriented policymaking and competent public service.

On April 2, 2015, during the Garissa University terrorist attack, a police aircraft that was to transport commandos to battle terrorists was used to fly the family of a senior police officer from holiday. In January last year, a high-cost, custom-made operational helicopter previously used for surveillance was upgraded and handed over to Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua for official and unofficial use. Quite absurd! There could be other similar instances.

Nonetheless, there are harsh realities that the Kenyan government must confront during and after investigations surrounding the helicopter crash that led to the General’s demise. Five military aircraft crashes in the last 12 months is a worrying trend the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and the government should address. This is a terrible record for a military that is highly respected regionally and globally for its professionalism. The Cabinet Secretary of Defence Aden Duale, escaped death by a whisker when a KDF military helicopter hit a tree and crashed while taking off in Turkana in July last year.

A comprehensive audit of the entire KDF aircraft unit for hardware and personnel should be carried out, and the results publicised. Similarly, the outcome of the investigations into the cause of the crash of the helicopter ferrying General Ogolla and other military officers should be made public. But the investigations could take a long time; rumours indicate probably between six and 12 months or more. Gone are the days of the government hiding behind the curtains and not publicly sharing so-called sensitive and confidential information. From a security standpoint, though, there are concerns about publicly availing such information. However, at least the Parliament should be briefed about these results.

General Ogolla had an amiable personality. He came across as having a cool, calm, and collected personality. His passion for physical fitness was easily seen. He was physically fit at 62 years old and consistently exercised in the morning at the Ulinzi Sports Complex. A KDF bulletin reiterates his philosophy on holistic health for military officers. Ogolla was outspoken about the role of physical fitness for military officers and its benefits in sustaining discipline and good, long-term health. As he remarked, “Fitness is important in any military in the world, and it keeps you stronger, healthier, and more versatile.”

Ogolla’s predecessor General Robert Kibochi, was also a fitness enthusiast. In an interview, Kibochi disclosed a plaque in his office that read, “I respect fit people.” These two were visibly fit and in good shape. A good number of their predecessors had unpleasant potbellies. Physical fitness is a hallmark of a disciplined soldier. This also applies to police officers. Comparatively, Kenyan military officers are in better shape than police officers. I naturally frown upon men and women in uniform who are physically unfit.

Leading by example is a trait that General Ogolla embraced. This is a critical lesson for those in leadership or aspiring to lead. I have interacted with, read about, and observed leaders. Unfortunately, a majority never leads from the front and is full of mediocrity, wimpishness, and incompetence. Ogolla died while literally leading from the front. His morning exercise routine occasionally alongside different military units reinforces Ogolla’s mantra to lead by example.

How best will Ogolla be remembered? For attempting to overturn the victory of William Ruto as president-elect in 2022, as he claimed? As the shortest serving military chief in Kenya’s history so far? As Kenya’s first CDF who died in office? As another high-profile personality whose death is likely to remain a mystery? He was a remarkable husband and father, and a steadfast philanthropist in his community in Alego Usonga. I will remember him for the little things that made him outstanding.

By Sitati Wasilwa

A geopolitical analyst with an interest in political economy, foreign policy, political risk, and armed conflict. He is passionate about leadership, strategy, and military-related issues.

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