How Matiba almost died in detention: His physician Dr Dan Gikonyo recalls the suffering

Kenneth Matiba, an avid sportsman, when he climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. [File/Standard]
On July 4, 1990 veteran politicians Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia were arrested and detained. Consequently, they suffered major setbacks, one of which was the deterioration of Matiba’s health which he battled for 28 years until his death on Sunday at Karen Hospital, Nairobi.

Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba was a battle-hardened politician, who alongside Charles Rubia, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Martin Shikuku, Ahmed Bamariz and others teamed up with younger comrades dubbed the Young Turks in leading what is popularly known as Kenya’s second liberation struggle in the 90s.

The effort gave birth to the restoration of a multi-party political system in Kenya.

 [Kenya gained independence as a multi-party democracy but the Kenyatta regime made them dormant through a series of political and legal maneuvers. However, in 1982 the Constitution was amended to make Kenya a single party state by law. This would be reversed in 1991 courtesy of reformers like Matiba]  

The Young Turks then were: a perennial detainee called Raila Odinga, James Orengo, lawyer Paul Muite, political science professor Peter Anyang Nyongó, lawyers Kiraitu Murungi, and Gitobu Imanyara and anthropologist Dr Mukhisa Kituyi among others

However, this came at a steep price.  Kenneth Matiba was among those who paid the heaviest price. While many people lost their lives in the struggle, his incarceration affected his life permanently. His health deteriorated while in detention changing his life forever…..physically, politically, socially and even economically.  

Dr Dan Gikonyo, a cardiologist, was his personal doctor for over 27 years.

He told KTN he never had a chance or privilege of seeing Matiba in detention but one day the family, came to him and told him they had learnt their father was in Nairobi Hospital

Dr Gikonyo, and perhaps other physicians at the hospital, were unaware that Matiba had been clandestinely admitted to the facility.

It was a state top secret and it remained so for several days. However, the Matibas got wind of it.

Recounts Dr Gikonyo: “The family asked me whether I would see their father…we went in with neurologist Dr Sam Mwinzi. We found he was already in the hospital, the North Wing but booked under a fake name. He was admitted under the name of Mr Muchiri After [that] he stopped being Mr Muchiri and now became Ken Matiba.  I was allowed to see him with Dr Mwinzi.

Charles Njuki, a retired prison warden at the Kamiti Maximum Prison, would make it known to the public that Matiba was unwell.

Njuki recalls that this was barely a week after Matiba had been transferred to Kamiti Prison following a week-long appearance before a tribunal at Mombasa’s Shimo la Tewa Maximum Prison.

He says on opening a cell, Matiba told him that he was unwell and could he inform the prison boss that he wanted to see him. Njuki recalls passing the message to his boss but he doesn’t know whether the man saw Matiba but police doctors did show up

According to Njuki it was not until prison authorities discovered that Matiba’s life was in danger that things moved with speed and at 1pm he was taken to Nairobi Hospital where they guarded him for three days after which his family was allowed to fly him to London.

Dr Gikonyo says: “He (Matiba) had been brought in under a fake name because they had realised he was deteriorating in detention….unlike the case of Charles Rubia where the injury occurred much after he had been released, Ken Matiba’s injury occurred in detention.”

Matiba and Rubia were arrested for planning the first ever Saba rally that would have taken place three days later on July 7th.

The two had cancelled the rally after failing to get a licence, but that still landed them in detention for nine months.

 Rubia, Dr Gikonyo, Dr Mwita (government doctor then) and Dr Mwongera recommended Rubia had a terrible illness which is why he was released.

 Rubia had lost his voice while in detention. It was attributed to the extreme conditions in prison.

Says Rubia: “My thyroid gland went haywire because of my condition in prison, tried to sustain my lifestyle and it failed”.

Back to Matiba, when Dr Gikonyo saw him, he told the family about it which family wanted Matiba released immediately.

“So they said we must go public to have him released… I told them let’s go slow… let me write a medical report… we did it on a Sunday morning ….it was on the basis of that report that he was released,” recalls the doctor

“On Sunday May 26, 1991, Matiba was released from detention, but he was a changed man …. no longer the familiar, revered and firebrand politician. His health had failed. It was discovered that he had suffered a stroke,” says the doctor.

“There was urgency now to get him into proper medical care. It was now a race against time trying to save his life. Ken Matiba was quickly flown to London for specialised treatment,” adds Dr Gikonyo.

“The surgeons in London said this surgery is high risk, we can’t guarantee so make a choice…as we were debating all this, unfortunately he suffered a second stroke… we had to do emergency surgery …that’s the time we got into this problem,” recounts Dr Gikonyo.

 Doctors in London worked round the clock but for Dr Gikonyo, every minute was a nightmare. Back home in Kenya, all eyes were focused on London.

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