By Kenneth Kwama
Kenya: The first indigenous Speaker of the National Assembly Frederick Mati used wit and avoided controversy during his reign, presiding over Parliament in a manner his successors have never matched.
Mati, who took over as Kenya’s ?rst indigenous Speaker in February 1970, served for almost 19 years, and later relinquished the position in April 1988. In his book; Kenya: A History Since Independence, author Charles Hornsby states that Parliament was so hostile to the Government around the period that Mati took over as Speaker that it forced the State to withdraw several pieces of legislation that it had lined up.
The author states that Parliament rejected its first ever Motion from the Government side and tried to force a majority of radical backbenchers into the Sessional Committee, which set the programme for parliamentary business.
During the period, Mati was chosen as Kenya’s first African Speaker without incident, but a parliamentary committee rejected the Government’s choice of G.G Kariuki as Chief Whip.
“The Government lost two more Motions in March 1970 and in May, the back-bench defeated a Bill to introduce the death penalty for armed robbers, for which founding President Jomo Kenyatta had given personal support. Of the 41 Bills introduced in 1970, four were defeated and others withdrawn-an unprecedented record,” wrote Hornsby.
Mati took over the job from Sir Humphrey Slade, whose tenure traversed independence. Sir Slade retired during the commencement of the Second Parliament in 1970 and is considered as one of the bright minds to have held the position.
Although Slade was picked for the duty by colonialists, he continued as Speaker of post-independent Kenya eventually handing over to Mati, an academician and ex-freedom fighter.
Before his appointment, Mati had served as a member of the Legislative Council from 1961 and as member for Kitui North in the House of Representatives and the National Assembly, from 1963 until election to Speaker position on February 6, 1970.
Throughout his tenure in the 1970s, the State was in danger of being outflanked by radical backbenchers in Parliament, whose views had a lot of support from the public.
As Leader of Government Business in the House, then Vice-President Daniel Moi had a difficult task of controlling Parliament on Kenyatta’s behalf. His biggest supporter was Charles Njonjo, who Hornsby refers to as the Government’s most eloquent defender ‘who acted as a minder of legislation in the House’.
It was during Mati’s time that Parliament made a mark in the political history by enacting the de jure one party State law on June 9, 1982.
In the de facto one-party State, candidates could only vie for civic and parliamentary elections if nominated by a political party. By this constitutional amendment, Kanu became the only legal political party.
By the time of retirement, Mati had earned the title of a ‘linking Speaker’, since his tenure over-saw the smooth transition of the presidency from the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to Daniel arap Moi. He was succeeded by his one-time deputy Speaker Kiprono arap Keino.
He was one of the first two people from Ukambani, the other being Henry Muli, to receive a university degree and the first Kenyan African to be a schoolmaster in Britain.
He was Minister for Health and Housing in the coalition government that preceded the granting of Independence to Kenya in 1963. He was also the first MP for Kitui North and went on to be the first African and longest serving Speaker of Parliament.