By Dominic Odipo
“We celebrated the New Year in a holiday beach house near Mombasa lent to us by the Smith family, friends of Ken and Edith Matiba, who I had got to know a few years before. We swam, sailed and fished on white coral sand under coconut trees for the first few days and my only official visit was to President Kenyatta who was down on the coast.”
These lines appear in the voluminous autobiography of Dr David Owen, “Time to Declare”, which was first published in London in 1991. The New Year referred to here was 1978, only eight months before the death of President Kenyatta and the “Ken” is obviously Kenneth Matiba, the former Cabinet minister who was later to become one of President Moi’s bitterest and most formidable political opponents.
The author was at that time serving as the British Foreign Secretary, one of the four most senior Cabinet positions in the British government. His boss and Prime Minister was James Callaghan who had replaced the long-serving Harold Wilson two years earlier and who was himself to be succeeded by Mrs Margaret Thatcher the following year.
A few years later, after Moi had become President, Owen returned to Kenya to visit his friend Matiba, having himself left the government.
“When I next visited it was over the New Year of 1985 and we took my mother to stay with Ken and Edith Matiba and the Smith family at their hotel on the Diani Beach south of Mombasa. It was my mother’s first visit to Africa. Ken typically insisted on being at the airport to pick us up.
“As we drove, taking the ferry at Mombasa, I could see my mother’s excitement grow at the bustle, colour and gaiety of Africa. As the days passed, she fell in love with Africa, the Africans and above all the Kikuyu.”
A few years later, after Dr Owen left the Labour Party and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP), rumours began to circulate within Kenyan political circles that Ken, too, as his close friend and confidante, might be planning to form his own political party to openly oppose President Moi’s Kanu.
“On 13 June, late at night there was an attack on Ken’s farm by a gang of armed men. They were not robbers after money and when they realised he was not there they attacked his wife Edith with a panga knife. Her head injuries were so bad she required brain surgery.”
“Time to Declare”, which runs for over 800 pages makes extremely fascinating reading, both for students and practitioners of the Westminster style of party political government. Liberally doted with both power and love poems, it gives the reader an invaluable peek into the inner corridors of British government and Labour Party politics during the second half of the last century.
Gripping vignettes are grafted onto the pages to depict what Owen, a medical doctor, thought were the inner political and intellectual motivations that underlay and guided the actions of his principal political colleagues of the day including Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Dennis Heally, Roy Jenkins, Anthony Crosland, George Brown and Barbara Castle.