Matiang'i woes: Vital lessons from Kenya's chequered history on power and influence

Former Interior CS Fred Matiang'i. [File, Standard]

A powerful gush of wind blew through the crowd. From the east, across the vast Muslim cemetery, it carried with it a huge smoke of dust, clothes, pieces of furniture and rooftops.

Security personnel scurried to shield the VIPs, from the onslaught of nature. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the wind died down. Calmness returned to Nakuru's Kamukunji grounds. Then, the tall, lean, politician took to the podium.

I sat quietly in the crowd, very close to the dais. Despite the windy commotion above our heads, nobody moved. As residents of the dusty but beautiful town of Nakuru, we were inured to sudden gushes of violent winds we referred to as Kisulisuli. In fact, there was an estate named after the frequent whirlwinds.

Nakuru politician Dixon Kihika Kimani started tearing through the character of the country's Vice President Daniel Moi. As he violently gesticulated, hurling unprintable expletives, Moi sat quietly. With his right hand on his chin, he watched Kihika who at one time, turned swiftly as if to slap him. He paused, his hand inches away from Moi's face. Moi never moved.

He never even flinched. Kihika stood still, as if struck by paralysis, with his hand held above his head. Then he turned to Mzee Kenyatta, and asked in Kikuyu, "what kind of vice president is this that you have?" When he was satisfied that he had thrown enough verbal explosives, he allowed the next speaker to take to the podium.

Under siege

Moi never moved. He stoically watched the drama as leaders challenged his loyalty to the president. When Jomo stood to speak, he cleared his throat before letting out his traditional shout of Harambeee. He spoke about other national issues. He never referred to what had just transpired. His deputy was under siege.

I recalled the Kamukunji incident when tables turned against former Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi.

Matiang''i was an all-powerful minister in the government of Uhuru Kenyatta. He was in charge of security apparatus. He wielded massive power. He issued threats against the then Deputy President William Ruto and his supporters.

During the first five years of the Uhuru presidency, opposition leader Raila Odinga and his followers tasted the raw power flowing from Matiangi's hand. They withstood the bashing from his tongue. After the handshake between Uhuru and Raila, Matiang'i turned his guns on Ruto, who was accused of undermining his boss.

Each time I watched him on television, telling off members of the opposition, or addressing killings of citizens by the police during political unrest, I shook my head at the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, when he said: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

In the mid 1970's, Kihika Kimani, then MP for Nakuru North was a powerful politician. He is the man upon whom the Kikuyu mafia had placed the mantle to ensure the Constitution was changed to stop Moi from ascending to power. Jomo was ailing.

Frail, and with his health failing fast, he was only counting days. In fact, the famous South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard, had in 1977 given Jomo, whose heart was failing, a few months to live. As the top civil service prepared for Jomo's demise, the Kikuyu mafia were scheming and conniving a power takeover. They knew that if he died in office, his deputy would ascend to power in acting capacity for 90 days before calling for an election.

Dreadful leaders

Kihika joined a long list of leaders who had made it their responsibility to torment, belittle, humiliate and constantly insult Moi. Rift Valley Police boss James Mungai, and Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge, became Moi's worst nightmare in Nakuru.

They would arbitrarily stop the vice-presidential motorcade and harass the country's second in command. Behind these two were influential and dreadful Kiambu leaders; Njenga Karume, Mbiyu Koinange and Dr Njoroge Mungai, who had vowed that Moi, and other non-Kikuyu's, would never become Kenya's president. They swore that the Presidency would never cross the Chania River.

It was bound to stay in Kiambu. But they had major obstacles; an all-powerful Attorney General Charles Mugane Njonjo, and the Head of Civil Service Geoffrey Kareithi.

Kareithi, in his unpublished memoir 'Cool Under Fire', says that the Change the Constitution Movement, had a clearly thought-out plan of stopping Moi from becoming president. They therefore launched countrywide political rallies to seek public support. They had even put together an assassination squad. In the event that their campaigns failed, Moi was to be taken out.

However, says Kareithi; "The choice of the emotionally imbalanced and barely literate Kihika Kimani as group key spokesman would prove a disaster for the Change the Constitution movement. The first of the Change the Constitution rallies was held at Kihika's backyard of Nakuru town. It was attended by more than 20 MPs."

Among the leaders who attended the rally were Dr Njoroge Mungai and cabinet ministers James Gichuru, Jackson Angaine, and Paul Ngei. Others were MPs Njenga Karume (Nominated); John Konchellah (Narok West), George Anyona (Kitutu East), S Mageto (Mugirango West), Mark Bosire (WanjareSouth Mugirango), Evanson Kariuki (Nakuru West), Dr Joseph Masinde (Bungoma South) and a former cabinet minister and key ally of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Achieng Oneko. Oneko had just been released from detention.

Kareithi says that Kihika warmed up to the meeting with words that touched on the vulgar. Ngei picked the gauntlet. Said Ngei: "In the 90 days the vicepresident would act as president, a lot of things can happen. If you give me that period, I can really teach you a lesson, and I can assure you it would not be a pleasant one!"

On October 3 1976, Kihika took the campaign to Kiambu. He exhorted Kenyans to amend the Constitution and "make it impossible for anybody to try to lead them by the nose." He termed the constitutional clause that allowed the vice president to take over for 90 days as an unnecessary political promotion." Such a procedure might cause chaos in the future."

Moi supporters led by the member for Mombasa Central Shariff Nassir launched a scathing counter offensive, describing the Kihika team as "daydreamers, greedy and jealous people."

However, it is Kihika's utterances at a rally in Meru that alarmed the security and provincial administration. He told a cheering crowd: "There is no section in the Constitution we cannot amend. Let them also know that we are very serious men and can dispatch to the other world anybody joking around with Kenyatta and Mama Ngina. Yes, we can kill for Kenyatta and Mama Ngina if need be!"

He went on: "Do not just joke around with Kihika Kimani, Angaine, Karume, Ngei or Gichuru. We can laugh with you but we can be very vicious if you play around with us! I fear nobody except God and Kenyatta."

Dubious provisions

The crowd cheered as security personnel tensed. Kihika was not finished yet: "We cannot give the hyena some meat for the second time. No way! This time we must tell the hyena to venture out there and hunt for itself. We are not going to hand over power to somebody who has not worked for it, and want to exploit some dubious provision in our Constitution that allows lazy people to be presidents for 90 days even when they do not know how we got our independence from the colonialists. We are extremely dangerous to anybody who should be against us. We can get rid of anybody through the back door." It is after the Meru meeting that Jomo summoned the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (Gema) leadership, whose ideas Kihika was spewing, for a serious tongue lashing.

The anti-Moi group was so sure that they would succeed. They therefore didn't relent in their war against Moi. On August 22 1978, Jomo closed his eyes and joined his ancestors. Kareithi, Njonjo and an efficient civil service, quickly organised a Cabinet meeting. Moi was sworn-in as Acting President. By the time the assassination squad went to flush out Moi from his residence, he had already been taken to Nairobi by the General Service Unit (GSU). The would-be killers missed him by about 20 minutes.

Moi became President. Police boss Mungai fled to Ethiopia. Kihika and his group were shell shocked. But they still encouraged themselves. They believed that Moi was so naive and incompetent that he wouldn't last long in power. "He is," they said, "But a passing cloud."

Moi stayed on in power. He actually consolidated power. Then one day, Moi, publicly received some of Kihika's wives into the ruling party Kanu. "Kama Bibi zake wameona mwangaza, mbona yeye (Kihika) azidi kukaa gizani," he told a rally at Nakuru's Afraha Stadium. Kihika became confused. He turned into a Moi sycophant. Many of those who attended the Nakuru Kihika rally went into political cold. Angaine was retained in government for some time but as a cheerleader. George Moseti Anyona suffered police harassment and incarceration. One day, just like Kihika's, Anyona's wife joined Kanu. Anyone died a lonely man.

The fall of Njonjo

Ngei and others were right. The 90 days were long enough for Moi to rapidly consolidate power. One of his most powerful allies, Charles Njonjo was said to have had his own ambitions of becoming president. Moi knew this.

He encouraged Njonjo to enter active politics and became MP for Kabete. He then appointed him minister for Constitutional Affairs. The amount of power Njonjo wielded was so massive.

The political changes were swift and brutal. Soon after the 1982 attempted coup, campaigns sprung up from across the country that branded him a traitor. A commission of inquiry was instituted to look into his conduct. The Njonjo Commission of Inquiry was established in 1983 under the chairmanship of Justice Cecil Miller. Its mandate was to investigate allegations that he had been involved in the failed August 1st 1982 military coup.

Njonjo refused to be cross-examined by his own lawyers at the inquiry. He instead thanked Moi and issued a statement saying: "But I do believe that the very fact that such proceedings have taken place is a tribute to the maturity and stability that exists in our country and the Christian wisdom of His Excellency the President."

By refusing to be cross-examined, the Commission said, Njonjo appeared to be least concerned with the proceedings of the inquiry. The commission ruled that: "Njonjo conducted himself in a manner prejudicial to the security of the State. We find this allegation well established". He was later pardoned by President Moi. He vanished from the political limelight.

Njonjo was a giant tree. His fall crashed and destroyed smaller trees around him. One such tree was Stanley Shepashina Oloitiptip. He was a big man physically and politically. He was powerful and wealthy. He was feared and respected in Maasailand. He had accumulated both power and wealth as MP for Kajiado South and minister for Home Affairs since the days of Jomo. However, being Njonjo's friend made him an enemy of the State. As soon as he fell out of favour with the system, he was immediately deserted and isolated.

A tall, bulky man with 13 wives and 67 children, Oloititip owned vast land and properties. But when he was fired in 1984, his loans were immediately called in by financial institutions. He was arrested for allegedly failing to pay taxes and thrown into police cells. The shock of the sudden fall and dejection were enough to kill the Maasai Kingping. In January 1985, he passed on, a sad and dejected man.

Kenya has seen men whose tongues carried the power of life and death. Men whose presence sent tremors down the spine of fellow mortals. Men who were deities in their own right. Men who eventually lost every single claim to power and the system they once controlled turned against them.

Oyugi and power

Hezekiah Oyugi was such a man during the Kanu era. An all-powerful individual whose telephone calls to the police commissioner's office would be answered by the police boss standing upright and continuously saluting at the telephone line.

Oyugi, the son of Kamagambo in South Nyanza, rose from the rank of District Officer, (DO), to Internal Security PS. After the president and Nicholas Biwott, there was no man more powerful than Oyugi. I witnessed ministers kneeling or lying prostrate in his living room as they waited to receive his blessings. He had a magnificent home, with a beautiful house for each of his three wives.

In the vast compound, stood a prestigious lounge designed for the purpose of hosting Moi whenever he visited the region. I met Oyugi a few weeks to his demise. He had grown pale, frail and weak. We were at a rally in Nyando where Moi called me to the dais to defend my story which had appeared in the Sunday Nation. Oyugi, the man who had hosted Moi countless times, couldn't be allowed an inch close to Moi. When he died, most leaders avoided his burial like the plague.

Just like Matiang'i, the policemen Oyugi used to control, were the ones who harassed him. They conducted the humiliating rituals that brought their former boss to his knees. When he came round many days later, he had scratch marks behind his neck and was thereafter diagnosed with motoneuron disease. Oyugi died a sad, lonely and heartbroken man.

Mungai humbled

On many occasions, I sat on the veranda of Dr Njoroge Mungai's farmhouse at his Magana Flower farm and listened to his tales of sorrow after the passing of Jomo. Mungai, Jomo's nephew, and a once powerful cabinet minister, said he had very little respect for Moi. He however confessed that the mistake he and other Moi adversaries made was to undermine him for his lack of high academic credentials. By the time they realised that Moi was a political chess master, he had turned tables on them.

With the advent of multi-partyism in the early 1990s, Dr Njoroge Mungai felt strong and free enough to exercise his democratic right. He called the media to denounce Kanu and announce his membership in the Ford Kenya party. The day his defection story appeared in the Sunday Nation; Moi called him to congratulate him.

"The following day, very early in the morning, some Kenya Revenue Authority officials in the company of security men, visited me. They had a very subtle message. They said that they were aware of the amount of money I owed the State in form of unpaid taxes. I was given 14 days to clear the huge, mindboggling figure, after which I would be free to continue with my political tourism. I had to hurriedly call the press again and announce that I was still in Kanu. After I denounced the opposition, I was never harassed again but my political career had just ended abruptly. The man I had tormented was now powerful indeed. I learned hard lessons too late in life. Power is fickle. Once in power, always temper power with mercy," said Mungai.

Political fortunes turned against Mwai Kibaki when he was VP. Many of his friends suddenly fled. When he first contested for the presidency under the Democratic Party, a legislator from Luo Nyanza swore that "even God would never allow Kibaki to become President of Kenya." His fellow Kikuyu's described him as "The Cowardly General". He was vilified, condemned and publicly humiliated. Then, in 2003, Kibaki became the third president. The Luo legislator found himself in a nerve wracking situation. His daughter who was studying in a far east country had been arrested on drug trafficking charges that carried a death sentence. Only one man could save her, Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki put a call to his fellow president across the Indian Ocean and the girl was set free.

Then there was GG Kariuki, a man who used to regularly share a ride with Moi in the presidential limousine. He held a docket similar to the one Matiang'i held. Many, especially in north eastern Kenya, suffered under his watch. He carried the power of life and death.

I watched Matiang'i as he grew in stature. When he served as ICT CS between 2013 and 2015, he was humbler. Then, he was appointed CS Interior. When Uhuru Kenyatta fell out with Ruto, he transferred some functions from Ruto's office to Matiangi's. The media and the world cheered Matiang'i on. He was the chosen one. His powers had been enhanced.

Prof Kithure Kindiki, now wearing the shoes that Matiang'i wore, has promised to use his office and power wisely. I hope he reads the history of all those who served before him.

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