- On the morning of April 19, 2021, the country woke up to the news of the death of Charles Odidi Okidi.
- While not your politician or typical Very Important Person whose passing on would occupy the front pages, his death was received with shock.
When I started writing this column just under 10 years ago, the extractive sector was a topical issue in Kenya’s governance discourse. It, thus, formed the subject of the initial request that I received to write about.
While over the period, many other topical matters have formed the subject of engagement with readers, the environment has remained a priority topic. Consequently, readers will understand why this column pauses to celebrate the life of a global scholar on environmental issues.
On the morning of April 19, 2021, the country woke up to the news of the death of Charles Odidi Okidi. While not your politician or typical Very Important Person whose passing on would occupy the front pages, his death was received with shock not just amongst his colleagues but also within the VIP circles. Born in rural Karachuonyo, Prof Okidi’s education journey was marked by determination to pursue excellence as captured in the title of his memoirs launched just a few months before his sad demise.
I only got to meet and interact with him in the latter part of his life spanning close to two decades. The common thread of our engagement has been environmental governance and scholarship, the focus of this column.
Known as the father of environmental law, he personified the kind of citizen the country and the world needs. At a time when we are grappling with huge challenges and when it is convenient to throw our hands up in surrender due to the state of governance, debt, divisions and institutional malaise across the country, Prof Okidi’s life demonstrates that it takes just a few good men and women to reverse our fortunes and direction.
This can be seen in the contributions he has made and the indelible mark he has left in areas he focused on. His title of father of environmental law derives from the single zeal and determination with which he created an array of environmental law scholars and activists not just in Kenya or Africa but the entire globe. In Kenya, there is no single individual who specialises in this area of study who was not taught, mentored or otherwise influenced by this man. In addition, there are very few people who met him and never got recruited into the field.
Whether your initial focus was on labour law or some other unrelated field, he made you realise that your future was better served by pursuing environmental law. He did this through persuasion, cajoling, persistence and even insistence at times. He followed this up with opportunities for mentorship and scholarship. Thus, many individuals joined the field, and the world is richer because of this approach.
Secondly, he demanded nothing but excellence from those he met and engaged in, because he too pursued the same excellence. For a man to who the use of technology was a challenge, it would always amaze me how he was appraised of the most recent developments, some that were only covered online.
In engagements with him there was no obstacle to being the best, not technology, not resources, not time, not infrastructure and not context. For those who believe that we should always provide excuses for not aiming for and reaching the sky, Prof Okidi had no time for you. He was convinced that everything was possible with hard work and focus.
Scholarly pursuit can sometimes be challenging. Yet here was a man who dedicated his entire life to it and the academy. In the process, he established two centres of excellence in environment at two different universities. On every single day, whether it was weekday or weekend he would be found in his office at the university reading and writing.
Even after retiring from the university a few years ago, he never retired from the academy. He wrote his memoirs, a conference paper and a training manual. In the conclusion to his memoirs, he urged others, especially the younger generation to ensure rigour, creativity and confidence in their pursuits. It is challenge we must take up to make the world, and our country Kenya a better place to live in.