TRIBUTE: Veteran newspaper Journalist and columnist Philip Ochieng has died, aged 83. Ochieng died on the evening of Tuesday 27th April 2021 at around 8pm at Ombo Hospital in Migori where he had been hospitalized. His health had been failing since he relocated from Nairobi three weeks ago. He was batting low blood pressure and diabetes.
Ochieng’s daughter, Ms Lucie Adhiambo, said her father succumbed to pneumonia and other complications associated with old age.
Ochieng, who was a beneficiary of the Tom Mboya airlifts to study in the US, was well known for his column – The Fifth Columnist – in the Nation newspaper. He previously served as an editor for Nation Media Group and was once a columnist for The Standard.
In 2018, PO as he is known in shorthand, received Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Journalism Excellence (AJEA) Awards, along with former Nation editor Lucy Oriang. The award administered by MCK recognizes individuals who have made an outstanding lifetime contribution to journalism in Kenya.
Philip Ochieng was also an established author who published several books including I Accuse the Press: An Insider’s View of the Media and Politics in Africa in 1992 and The Kenyatta Succession, which he co-wrote with Joseph Karimi.
He was a grammar nerd and brought intellectual discourse in journalism. Some of the journalists who worked under him say, “he’d have shot you for using ‘can be able’ in a sentence.”
“We fought over phrases and sentences, but he was able to effortlessly teach humility by working under editors he had at one time hired, trained and promoted,” recalls journalist Kwamchetsi Makokha, who worked at Nation as editor and columnist.
Raila Odinga: Kenya has lost in the passing of Philip Ochieng, a veteran journalist and legendary columnist with an unmatched prowess of the English language. Through the power of the pen, Philip spoke to the most powerful and moved the society into action.
Tom Mshindi: RIP Philip. Few will hit the excellence you achieved and sustained. Our journalism was richer for the work you put in. Rest easy, mentor.
Charles Onyango-Obbo: Just learnt from Philip Ochieng’s daughter that the great man, veteran journalist, author, wordsmith, and pan-Africanist died an hour ago. May his soul Rest in Peace.
Philip Ochieng is described by Liz Gitonga-Wanjohi, author of his biography The Fifth Columnist, as that proud atheist and relentless social critic with unmatched grasp of the English language in the region. To others, he was simply a media giant and a journalist of great repute.
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“Having served in various capacities in the media industry, Ochieng has earned both praise and condemnation from not just his readers but also his employers, colleagues and the powers that be,” Ms Gitonga-Wanjohi.
For instance, he is accused of having used his time as the editor-in-chief of the Kenya Times to criticise those opposed to the government of KANU and President Moi. Others believe that Ochieng was behind the infamous character assassinating ‘Kanu Briefs’ that ran in the Kenya Times in the 1990s, though he denied this.
Philip Ochieng went to America in the same period as Barack Obama Snr to study but never got a degree. “He never completed his BA degree at Roosevelt University,” according to his biographer. “In fact, out of the nearly 1,000 students who left the country between 1959 and the mid-1960s, he is the only one who never completed his studies.”
Instead, Ochieng, with his friends, “… painted the town red … and drunk all the beers in Chicago”.
Although he had a wife, Nova Diane, and a child, Juliette Akinyi, Ochieng abandoned the family in the US and returned to Kenya after finding the going tough there.
John Kamau: Rest in peace Philip Ochieng. You trained me to love journalism when I was still at the university. You mentored many of us. You gave me two books; Kenyatta Succession and I Accuse the Press. You were an avid reader and loved good stories. Rest Mzee.
Churchill Otieno: PO was quite astute and lively in real life, sharp and expansive with the pen. What a life, what a career. May he rest in eternal peace.
Owino Opondo: PO isn’t a man you mourn and fail to feel guilty. He lived his life to the fullest. May his soul rest in eternal bliss.
Washington Akumu: Thanks for the lessons. We are better because you lived and trained us.
PO was born in Awendo to Nicanor Otani and Stella Pesa, on September 17, 1938. Ochieng was one of 10 siblings by different mothers. He went to a local school, Manyatta Primary, established by the Seventh Day Adventists, till Class Four, when he moved to Lwala Primary School, a government school for Class Five.
He then joined Pe Hill, a Church Missionary Society (CMS) school, for Class Six to Eight, from where he was admitted to Alliance High School. From Alliance, Ochieng travelled to America in 1959, as part of the first group of the American Airlift organised by Tom Mboya and others.
It is this seeming relentless pursuit of his choices that made Ochieng an East Africa legend in the world of journalism. From America, Ochieng came back to Nairobi and didn’t stay for long before he left for France, to study again. But even the philosophy and literature he studied in France didn’t hold him down long enough to earn the paper qualifications, according to biography anecdotes captured by Tom Odhiambo, writing in 2015.
Ochieng then worked as an untrained teacher at Homa Bay High School, got married to Jennifer Dawa, joined the ministry of External Affairs and later resigned to work as a reporter for the Nation newspaper in 1966.
From the Nation, Ochieng went to Tanzania in 1970 after resigning from Nation for having burnt some overly inquisitive female journalist’s nose with a cigarette.
But Ochieng had to leave after rubbing some Tanzanians the wrong way with his columns, ‘The Way I See It’ and ‘Ochieng on Sunday.’ “Tanzanians couldn’t just stand a man who rebuked them for their failings, in English, a language few of them were good at because of their colonial heritage,” Odhiambo writes. He brought the same scrutiny to Kenya where until his death he ran a weekly column that called out grammar issues in local newspapers.
He resigned from Nation after burning some overly inquisitive female journalist’s nose with a cigarette.
From Tanzania, Ochieng worked for the Weekly Review then Target, a Nairobi-based Christian weekly, before he rejoined the Nation. He resigned from Nation in December 1981 when he was the chief sub-editor and left for Uganda in 1982.
Ochieng’s newspaper in Uganda published a story citing then President of Seychelles, Albert René, and accusing Charles Njonjo of being involved in the attempted coup in Seychelles. Some people in Obote’s government weren’t happy. He went into exile in Italy, where he worked for Inter Press Service for three years before returning to the Nation. He left NMG in 1988 to become editor of the Kenya Times, a daily newspaper owned by the ruling party, KANU.
When he returned to the newsroom at the Nation as Revise Editor, he was an enigmatic legend many journalists had only heard about, Kwamchetsi says. But he was received him with suspicion because of his editorship of the Kanu-owned ‘Kenya Times’, but he quickly won our admiration with his grace, charm, industry and erudition.
“If there ever was a roll of ideological journalists in Africa, Pip would be at the head of it,” he recalls. “His cheek and chivalry was barely under his skin. I remember introducing him to my girlfriend over lunch and was instantly worried as I watched him lay on his charm for her. I was in awe of his contempt for money and his love for books.”
It is his time at the Kenya Times that defined his career as a journalist.
Philip Ochieng was a man of contradictions. Many times his actions outside the newsroom wouldn’t exactly reflect his intellectual acumen. He noted to have refused to follow Luo traditions; he married a second wife brought home by his wife and loved his whisky. Besides, it was his nature to shout at colleagues, he never learnt to drive a car and never wore a watch.
All said, Philip Ochieng lived his life fully – socially and professionally. He leaves behind a big name in journalism industry. May His Soul Rest in Peace.