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Did he go to Bomas? Mourning Ogolla and media as custodian of public memory

Watu wa Rhumba mpo! “Mokolo nakokufa nayembi ndenge bakolela ngai” (I know how they will mourn me the day I die).

That’s Pepe Ndombe Opetum of TPoK Jazz laughing at the hypocrisies of Kinshasa’s funerals.

People buy fine clothes to wear to your burial. Men pretend coming to mourn you, but they are out to meet their sweethearts. They get drunk and fight, go their way but tell everyone they spent the night at your home.

In Kenya, funerals have their own secrets and contradictions. The one thing usually in short supply around death is truth.

For journalists, whose entire job is truth-seeking and truth-telling, the death of an important figure is a particularly confusing moment. Do we stick to telling the truth or reproducing eulogies?

Chief of Defence Forces Gen Francis Ogolla was feted as a national hero, complete with full military honours and three days of national mourning. Politicians outdid each other in adjectives to describe the fallen top soldier. Media followed suit. The Daily Nation declared Ogolla the “People’s General”.

This is perfectly understandable. Death is for the family and friends a deeply emotional and traumatising experience. Loved ones would take a long time ‘to come to terms with the loss’, as Kenyan journos write. Death is hardly the occasion to do a root and branch review of the deceased’s life. That would be considered heartless and insensitive to the raw feelings of the bereaved.

So, mourners create soothing narratives. Yet some funerals are surrounded by difficult questions.

Besides the mystery of Gen Ogolla’s death in a plane crash, two competing narratives dogged his funeral.

One, no less a person than the President of the Republic of Kenya and Gen Ogolla’s boss as Commander-In-Chief of Kenya Defence Forces, William Ruto, stated that Ogolla sneaked into the national election tallying centre at the Bomas of Kenya to try to push then IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati to change the results in favour of Ruto’s main competitor Raila Odinga.

President Ruto said Gen Ogolla as Vice Chief of Defence Forces confessed to him about his secret mission after it aborted. Ruto forgave Ogolla, raised him to the rank of full general and appointed him CDF.

At the burial in Siaya, Defence Secretary Aden Duale said Gen Ogolla was ordered by his bosses to go to Bomas to try to subvert the will of the voters.

The Opposition, led by ODM leader Raila Odinga, carried the second narrative. Gen Ogolla never went to Bomas. “Ogolla would never have contemplated or thought about going to Bomas of Kenya to force Mr Chebukati to alter results of the last elections,” Raila said.

Gen Ogolla’s alleged Bomas mission first featured in the Supreme Court petition against President Ruto’s victory. Then, as now, Azimio denied it.

So, what’s the truth? Do we dismiss these contradictions as part of the hypocrisies of funerals? Was Ogolla a dedicated and selfless professional soldier who gave his life for love of the Motherland, or did he violate his vows of duty and abused his position at the behest of partisan interests to subvert Kenya’s democracy?

Swala nyeti. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. The media has not independently investigated this story. Newsrooms continue to carry the two clashing narratives of the Kenya Kwanza administration and the Opposition.

Kenyans are left to decide for themselves what to believe – purely based on their political loyalties and not on the grounds of truth verified by the media, an institution established by the Constitution to resolve precisely such anxieties brought by competing narratives in a matter of public interest.

As the writers of the first drafts of a nation’s history, journalists daily sieve and interrogate public narratives. What stories are being weaved about Kenya’s important issues? Are they true?

Stories are powerful. They shape public consciousness. They are a record of how a people understand themselves and their world. Therefore, every claim made about matters of public interest ought to be scrutinised, or the nation will be misled. Journalists are custodians of public memory.

The question of Gen Ogolla’s alleged mission at Bomas remains. It’s important to appreciate the nature of funerals, as Pepe Ndombe Opetum did. But if there are unresolved issues around a public figure, the media has a duty to find out and tell the truth.

See you next week!

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