Comrade Robert Wafula Buke might have mellowed with time, but he is still the idealist he used to be. As a champion of student power at the University of Nairobi, Buke was the Karl Marx-quoting ideologue of his generation.
The fiery student leader of 27 years ago is still resident in the man. The wild boy in the man needed only a trigger to flame. A power vacuum in ODM triggered the resident ‘rebel’ shortly before Buke announced his ‘promotion’.
Comrade Buke’s leadership of the student organisation rose beyond hot showers in the halls of residence and meatballs at the central catering unit.
Buke had student welfare at the core of his fiery leadership of the Students’ Organisation of Nairobi University. He was patriotic, often adding student voice to national issues. He was also abreast of global affairs during the dying days of the Cold War.
The Moi regime claimed Buke, a student of peasant extraction, was a confidant of then Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The regime claimed Gaddafi, and then Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, were calling and talking directly to Buke, as a comrade. He was also thought to be buddy-buddy with the late President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso.
Some officials in the Moi regime claimed the gentle student from Bungoma was the editor of the revised edition of Gaddafi’s Green Book. He was said to be engrossed in the politics of the Libyan Revolution.
Student Buke, fiery, inspired, agitated, focused and idealistic, was believed to be reading the ‘wrong books’. His ‘weird’ ideas of justice in an unfair world were said to be inspired by reading too much into Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth, The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, Revolutionary Pressures in Africa by Claude Ake, and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
State moles often searched Buke’s library to find out if he owned another ‘inciting’ book – Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism by Colin Leys. They claimed they were merely protecting young people from bad ideas.
Buke was believed to be under the spell of revolutionary ideas and ideals dangerous to a peace-loving country under the God-fearing President Daniel Moi.
The system mystified the man who became an enigma in political activism, beyond his student life. The establishment, which had a figure to everyone’s head, including professors, failed to get a price tag for Buke.
Buke was never co-opted into the Kanu system, even when he could do with a job and money. He remained true to the call of duty, equity, democracy and justice.
Buke was always on the radar of the Special Branch, with spies assigned to trail him. They were infected with Bukephobia. The Moi regime hunted down, jailed and exiled Buke, as much as the fiery idealist haunted the Kanu establishment, then a single-party monolith, with no room for dissent.
The Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi at the time, Prof Philip Mbithi also had moles among students. But they could not trap Buke with their carrots.
State moles mingled with students, in the halls of residence and lecture halls, to keep the young radical in check. The experience with moles must have prepared Buke for his relentless battle with infiltrators and party rent-seekers. This is perhaps what ODM needs to keep away what Buke and his team refer to as “duplicitous characters, who treat party leader Raila Odinga as a cash-cow”.
When Buke appointed himself the acting executive director at Orange House last week, he declared his agenda: He was filling a void. He knew power abhors emptiness. This nothingness had been created by the ejection of the former ODM executive director Magerer Lang’at. Buke suspended his employee-employer relationship with the ODM party chiefs, clad in the armour of a comrade before he announced his strategic promotion.
Buke’s logic was potent: Since he was one of the deputy executive directors at Orange House, it was in order he fills the vacuum. No one had claimed the position, and no one had asked him to act in the office, but he had a duty to the party. He is the director of strategy at Orange House.
Buke had the support of colleagues, including director of membership recruitment, Rosemary Kariuki, the equally fiery and amiable daughter of the late JM Kariuki. The lady grew up knowing, in a very personal way, the cruelty of impunity. Agents of impunity assassinated JM in 1975, for speaking his mind to power.
Buke occupied the office for under 24 hours, when an acting director was officially appointed. The battle-hardened rabble rouser now enters the annals of history as the CEO who served the shortest time at the apex of a major political party.
The writer, a communications consultant, is also a university journalism lecturer.