Sifuna and his 'bearded sisters' kept alive seed of active debate

Sifuna Lawrence, 1989. [File, Standard]

Former firebrand opposition leader Lawrence Sifuna, who passed away on Sunday last week, was a lively debater in Parliament when he served first as the MP of the larger Bungoma South and later Kanduyi constituency.

Bungoma South was split into two to create Kanduyi and Bumula constituencies and also encompassed Bungoma Town, the county headquarters which now lies in the former.

He was among a group of aggressive MPs that graced the August House after President Daniel arap Moi was forced by the opposition, church leaders and civil society to repeal section 2(a) of the constitution to re-introduce multi-party democracy.

Together with Wasike Ndombi, Mwachofi Mwashegu, Abuya Abuya, James Orengo, Chibule wa Tsuma, Koigi Wamwere and Sifuna himself, they were branded the “Seven Bearded Sisters” by the then Attorney General Charles Njonjo because of their relentless attacks against the government in Parliament.

The youthful parliamentarians, mostly elected for the first time in 1979, took what was seen as a dangerous stand to oppose the new regime of Moi that took power in 1978 and some of its policies from within Parliament.

Njonjo, who was then Moi’s fiercest supporter, coined the phrase “Seven Bearded Sisters” in reference to the seven ‘hard-headed’ MPs, and the name stuck.

Although Njonjo himself did not come out to explain exactly how he arrived at that title, it was believed he was paraphrasing the book The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Shaped by British writer Anthony Sampson.

It is also not clear why Njonjo named only seven because in an earlier interview with The Standard, Orengo also listed the then Eldoret North MP Chelagat Mutai another firebrand who ran into exile for fear of persecution, former Kitutu MP George Moseti Anyona and former Muhoroni lawmaker Onyango Midika.

It should however be noted the latter three were in Parliament as early as 1974 and are recorded to have given President Jomo Kenyatta and his government a difficult time, leading to either their detention or frequent arrests and police harassment.

One of Sifuna’s pet subjects in Parliament was the welfare of sugarcane farmers, especially those in the Mumias and Nzoia out-grower zones, then known as Moco and Noco.

He also frequently advocated for the rights and freedoms of university students, and one time protested loudly supporting then Saboti MP Michael Wamalwa Kijana after riot police entered the University of Nairobi halls of residence and Taifa Hall where they beat students and damaged property.

Sifuna was also a serial troublemaker in Parliament and could frequently, during the first multiparty Parliament, get into trouble with former House Speaker Francis ole Kaparo, who at one time suspended him for what he described as grave misconduct. In one of the sittings, the then Ford Asili MP invited the wrath of the speaker when he lashed out at the deputy speaker who was in the chair and told him “get out you bastard.”

The MP wearing his trade mark hairstyle that was always parted at the dead centre (known loosely in the day as a hair row), was irked when the deputy speaker called for the next order ignoring his spirited effort to ask a question in the question time session.

Later that afternoon, the then Minister for Labour and Manpower

Philip Masinde brought the matter to the attention of Speaker Francis ole Kaparo asking that he be named for misconduct.

Kaparo said: “Members I have no hesitation in naming Hon Lawrence Simiyu Sifuna for the gravest misconduct ever witnessed in a commonwealth country and they are many.”

The Minister for Transport and Communication Dalmas Otieno thereafter moved that Sifuna be suspended from enjoying services of parliament, which Kaparo did, excluding him from the precincts of the House for three days.

The likes of Sifuna were admired because although the adoption of multiparty elections and the formation of opposition parties in Kenya in 1992 was received with much celebration and relief, it did not bring as much change in governance as had been expected.

Crackdown against political decent, abuse of human rights and denial of political freedoms like the right to assemble and human rights abuse continued.

“Expectations were high and it was hoped everything would change. But with an imperial presidency and when the doctrine of separation of powers and checks and balances were not well placed, the president controlled the majority of power in Parliament, so he could have his way,” says Orengo.

Sifuna played a big role in the infamous “Njonjo Affair” and was the first MP to propose on the floor of the House that the then Attorney General Njonjo be expelled from Parliament for allegedly undermining the government of President Moi.

At the instigation of Moi, a campaign had been mounted by Luhya leaders led by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Elijah Mwangale and Butere MP Martin Shikuku, another motormouth who had been detained by President Jomo Kenyatta.

The president had shortly before that motion in August 1982 faced an attempted coup by Kenya Air Force soldiers and reshuffled his government, removing Njonjo as Attorney General and creating a new Ministry for Constitutional Affairs for him.

He thereafter decided to apply ethnic fragmentation as a strategy for controlling opposition and effectively used fiery Luhya leaders like Sifuna in parliament to take on Kikuyu representatives in his Cabinet.

And so in December 1982, only four months after the coup attempt, he decided to clip Njonjo’s wing’s by launching an attack using the Luhya leaders which ended with his expulsion from the government and from the party on July 9, 1983.

Sifuna was also an avid reader of newspapers and frequently either referred to articles that had been carried in his debates or complained to the speaker that he said during the debate had been misquoted.

He was also an avid sports fan and repeatedly took on the Kenya Football Federation (KFF) leadership at the time led by former Kanu YK92 member Sam Nyamweya.

He in one of his spirited debates claimed that the KFF Governing Council was in contempt of the House after they called a press conference and told Sifuna to concentrate on development projects in his constituency instead of encroaching on KFF matters.

They were reacting to Sifuna’s demand in Parliament that KFF pay players transfer fees which the federation had not done despite receiving subscription money from member clubs among them AFC Leopards and Nzoia FC.

“Mr Speaker, all I said last week and I would like to repeat it here, is that KFF is in a mess and we wanted the Minister concerned to make sure that those messes are rectified. Otherwise, the minister should dissolve KFF, the reason being that up to now all clubs have not received the transfer fee of players,” said Sifuna

He added to a big round of applause: “I would like the Minister for Culture and Social Services who is here to educate KFF that MPs don’t just deal with matters in their constituencies. I deal with matters related to every part of the nation and that is why this place is called Kenya National Assembly.”

The MP then demanded to be told why no officials from either the Ministry or KFF were present at the airport to receive AFC Leopards players when they returned from Zanzibar after winning the Cecafa Cup.

Sifuna was born on January 23, 1946, in Bungoma County, attended Sang’alo School and later joined Nalondo Intermediate School.

He thereafter joined Mariri College in Uganda and later trained as a chartered accountant.

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