Matiba: Man who joined politics to serve, not to make wealth

Kenneth Matiba
Kenneth Matiba
While he lived, Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba was a veritable giant, a colossus in whatever he touched, even after he was badly staggered by a devastating detention spell for daring to stand in the way of runaway Kanu dictatorship.

He, like his coevals Martin Shikuku and Charles Rubia, walked from prison straight to hospital with inflicted mental and physical injuries, only to return more energised to consummate their struggle, which for Matiba was to navigate change from the pinnacle of power, the presidency.

Truth be told, so much as Matiba incontrovertibly played a crucial role in the second liberation, his heroic return in the run up to the epic 1992 multiparty elections served to stretch Kanu rule by a further decade.

This is how. In the illusion that he was super popular, Matiba chose to go it alone by splitting the formidable original Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and forming FORD-Asili, on which he contested the presidency and narrowly lost to President Daniel arap Moi. It would have been a different scenario had he thrown his massive weight behind the ageing Jaramogi or fellow tribesman Mwai Kibaki.

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In an exercise checkered by tribal clashes and claims of massive rigging, President Moi, through Kanu, managed 1,927,645 votes (36.5%), with Matiba and his Ford-Asili outfit coming a close second with 1,354,856 votes (26.7%), Mwai Kibaki and his Democratic Party 1,036,507 (19.6%) while Jaramogi of Ford-Kenya managed 903,856 votes (17.1%).

Sadly, Matiba’s detention manufactured illnesses, impaired his leadership and other abilities and escorted him through his remaining life to his death at the age of 85. He stands to be counted in that small crowd of Kenyan leaders who went into politics to serve and not to create wealth.

Even as he is voluptuously eulogised by the high and mighty of our landscape today, it must not be lost to Kenyans that Matiba has died without any national recognition, not even that of the Head of State Commendation with which the likes of Martin Kimotho, better known as “Githeri man”, was honoured by President Uhuru Kenyatta recently.

Matiba was by all accounts refulgent and radiant to dazzling proportions. His 1986 shot at the roof of the world, as the peak of Mount Everest, is a known case in point. He did not make it beyond 20,000 feet, but was to comment later: “My quest for the peak of the Everest is unstoppable. It is an integral part of my lifetime’s ambition”.

Sports

He relished sports and is credited with the formation of Kenya Football Federation in 1973 after he was beaten to the chairmanship of Football Association of Kenya (KAF) by one James Ngaah. He served as  KFF Chairman between 1974 and 1978.

In his book titled Aiming high: The story of my life, Matiba explains how he envisioned the training of future footballers by appealing to the German Government for a coach, hence the arrival of tactician Bernard Zgoll, whose bills were footed by Berlin.

“Zgoll founded Olympic youth centres in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru, and with them a golden generation of players like Wilberforce Mulamba, Ambrose Ayoyi, Bobby Ogola, Sammy Taabu, Hussein Kheri, Josephat Murila, Austin Oduor, Sammy Owino, Mahmoud Abbas and others,” he writes.

It was Matiba’s vision and Zgoll’s structures that saw Harambee Stars win it first CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup in 1975 and later from 1981 to 1983. The tempo he set during his reign saw Gor Mahia win the coveted Mandela Cup in 1987, 10 years after he quit KFF to go into politics where he defeated veteran politician Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano with 20,135 votes to 16,638 votes to become MP for Mbiri (now Kiharu) in 1979.

Politics

With his legs in politics, Matiba was in 1983 appointed by President Moi the Minister for Culture and Social Services. He was later to remark in his characteristic sarcasm: “At no time had I aspired to be a Cabinet Minister”. He was subsequently to serve in the ministries of Health, Transport and Public Works.

Things came to a peak when in 1988 he was rigged out of Kanu sub-branch elections amid attacks by Kanu Chairman Peter Oloo Aringo and then minister for National Guidance James Njiru.

In his book, Matiba wrote: “On my way home that evening, December 8, after thinking over all these things, I made up my mind. I was going to resign my Cabinet post. Clearly, I could not see myself sitting at the table with Aringo and Njiru.”

Mr Matiba drafted a letter and had it dropped at the Office of the President, a move deemed impudent, as President Moi was about to receive guests for the tenth anniversary of Nyayo era. Matiba had become the first Cabinet minister ever to resign since independence, and the only third high-ranking Government official after former vice presidents Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Joseph Murumbi.

While he had thought of keeping a low profile, security agents followed him everywhere and he was constantly interrogated. “I refused to engage in politics, yet I was being harassed. I had to make public my feelings about politics in Kenya,” Matiba later said on why he joined the crusade for multiparty politics.

It was this call that landed him in detention, where he suffered a stroke on May 26, 1991. State officials delayed medical attention as his condition deteriorated. He was released on the verge of death and his family took him to a London hospital.

Business

A man of rare principals, Matiba decided to quit civil service while serving as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Co-operative Development to go into business rather than engage in activities such as receiving kickbacks that were rife then.

He started off by buying Jadini Beach Hotel, a member of the Alliance Group of Hotels, in 1968, shortly after he joined East African Breweries Limited, becoming the first Kenyan to serve the brewer as Executive Chairman.

He was the first indigenous Kenyan to venture into the lucrative tourist and hotel industry. He had earlier thought of starting his own airline to airlift his farm produce overseas, but was denied licence by Kenya Civil Aviation Authority. He was already an astute farmer.

Abrasive almost to a fault, Matiba dreamt so big and invested so heavily in hotels and the education sector that by 1978 and aged only 46, he was one of Kenya’s youngest millionaires.

Under his ambit were the prestigious Hillcrest group of schools and several five-star hotels along the Coast and Mount Kenya. His business tentacles spread to the media industry as well, founding the weekly People newspaper, now People Daily.

Family Man

Though fabulously wealthy, Matiba had only one wife, Edith Wanjiru, daughter of a pioneer minister in the Kenyan Presbyterian Church Musa Gitau, whom he married in 1961. The couple was blessed with five children, Susan, Raymond, Ivy, Julie and Gitau. Raymond, like his father, was at one time chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board. Susan has featured in the music industry while Ivy managed The People newspaper before it was bought off in 2011.

Technocrat

Matiba was only 31 when he was appointed the first African Permanent Secretary for Education in May, 1963, shortly before independence and only a month before Mzee Jomo Kenyatta became Prime Minister. He, thus, was in a position to oversee the Africanisation of the education sector. “For that privilege, I felt that I had to commit myself to serving all Kenyans and show my gratitude in a tangible way,” he wrote in his autobiography.

He served in the same capacity in the ministries of Home Affairs where he worked under President Moi, and in the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Co-operatives before he resigned to venture into business.

Early life

Matiba was Born in 1932 in Kahuhia, Murang’a, to the late Stanley Njindo and Susan Wanjiku. He attended Kahuhia and Mariira Primary School between 1942 and 1950 before joining Alliance High School. He proceeded to Makerere University for Diploma in Education and later graduated with a Bachelors Degree in History, Geography and Sociology.

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