Kenya's ‘seven bearded sisters’ fight for multi-partyism

Kenyans demonstrate at the Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi during the clamour for multi-party democracy in 1991. [PHOTO: file/STANDARD]

Immediately after the death of Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, his successor Daniel arap Moi began to consolidate his hold on power, but was disrupted by a group of young legislators.

The youthful parliamentarians, mostly elected for the first time in 1979, took what was seen as a dangerous stand to oppose the new regime and some of its policies from within Parliament.

Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who was then a supporter of the establishment, coined the phrase “seven bearded sisters” in reference to the seven ‘hard-headed’ MPs, and the name stuck. Although Njonjo himself did not come out to say exactly how he arrived at that title, legend has it that he was paraphrasing the book The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Shaped by British writer Anthony Sampson.

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Members of this reformist club included former Lands minister James Orengo, Abuya Abuya, Koigi Wamwere, Mwachegu wa Mwachofi, Chibule wa Tsuma, Wasike Ndobi and Lawrence Sifuna.

Also associated with them were former MPs the late Chelagat Mutai and Onyango Midika. In many ways, they were the unofficial faces of the opposition in the early 1980s.

Injustice and corruption

Their efforts paved the way for multi-party politics in Kenya, but their mission of fighting injustice and corruption within the establishment, and daring to stand up to the then all powerful Attorney General landed most in detention, jail or exile.

But their tribulations softened the ground for multi-party crusaders like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and a host of other politicians and clergymen who were agitating for the new system of government. “In March 1991, Jaramogi announced the formation of a political party. Accompanied by co-founder members, he presented the party’s documents to the Registrar of Societies for registration,” reported the East African Standard.

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The new party, National Development Party (NDP), was co-founded by people the Weekly Review referred to as “unknown personalities trying to cause aspersion to prospective members”. Jaramogi was listed as the de-facto chairman, while Salim Ndamwe, the secretary general, was listed as a Kapenguria businessman.

Ramadhan Mohamed Mwagumo, a former Mombasa Kanu official was named deputy treasurer and Michael Lobuin Nenee, also a Kapenguria businessman was the national organising secretary.

The party was, however, denied registration by the authorities.

Njoya commended Jaramogi’s effort to register a political party, terming it a “beacon of hope on the road to democracy”.

The founders challenged the decision of the Registrar of Societies in court where their lawyer, Orengo, unsuccessfully tried to convince the court that “the party was merely a society and registering it would not, therefore, contravene Section 2(A) of the Constitution, which provides for only one political party, Kanu.” Their persistence resulted in a pressure group, the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD,) being formed.

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Kanu James Orengo Chelagat Mutai Daniel arap Moi Jomo Kenyatta