How violent campaigns were nurtured 60 years ago

Youth engage police in running battles in Mathare 4A on Monday, March 27, 2023. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

When Winston Churchill visited Kenya, he prophetically described Nairobi as a hotbed where every man was a politician.

Although Churchill’s pronouncements were made in October 1907 when he visited as an undersecretary, it is like he cast a spell over the country so much so that political competition has become a do-or-die, zero-sum game.

This cutthroat competition among the ruling class over who among them would lord it over others and distribute resources climaxed at the onset of the country’s independence when Kenya Africa Democratic Union (Kadu) was formed on June 25, 1960.

One month and four days later, Kenya Africa National Union (Kanu) was formed, opening a political contest that had never been witnessed before.

The intensity of this competition in areas which are normally perceived to be apolitical is best captured by the harrowing nightmare one politician went through when he contested for a parliamentary seat in Maasai land.

When a self-taught teacher, Shompole Leroka, signed up with Kanu and declared his interest for the Kajiado North parliamentary seat, little did he know that he had unwittingly signed his death warrant.

On more than three occasions, Leroka cheated death when youths sent by his friend-turned-rival John Keen drove him out of his home and attempted to run over him with a car at night in 1963.

“I had convened a meeting in Ngong. The meeting was to be addressed by James Gichuru and other Kanu luminaries... A group of rowdy Kadu youths stormed in, unleashing mayhem on anyone in sight. I was obviously the main target,” says Leroka.

He explains in his memoirs, Dare to Defy, how his group fought with sticks, chairs and stones but he was chased away.

“They chased me towards Catholic Township Primary School... I met one Mr Kamonde who was coming out of a bar and moved in the direction of the ill-fated meeting. A few minutes later, he was speared to death. In the ensuing commotion, I fled to Kiserian and hid there,” he writes.

His pursuers later traced him to his home where they stormed atop several Land Rover vehicles, which they used to flatten Leroka’s house.

“Luckily I was not hurt and neither was any member of the family. When the enemies dispersed shouting victory songs, my Kanu youth wingers led by Kimuthe Mbitho arrived and whisked us away to a village where my security was guaranteed.”

He was to face more wrath when he went to seek for security from government as he was ambushed at night at Oloosurutia valley, but was miraculously saved by his supporters who were riding in a different bus when they happened by the scene of the battle.

Ironically, Keen would later join Kanu when his party was swallowed, but Leroka’s distate for the violent politics made him pull out of competitive politics, although he would later make up with his rivals and even campaign for him in later elections.