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Malala joining Cabinet: A case of trusted presidents' allies whose word became law



I looked at Jerry. He was a pitiful sight. He was shaking like a leaf and had completely lost control of his bladder. I turned to Kwendo who was smiling and he gave me hope. He looked calm and collected. For hours, we had been sitting at the sharp corner of the road leading to the river. We were waiting for the moment of reckoning. Seven of us teenagers had spent the night in the forest on the banks of River Wandachu, in the former Kakamega district. The terrain was familiar. For it is here that we hunted small animals and did our fishing. It is here that we occasionally sneaked in late at night to harvest honey. It is here that we encountered countless black forest cobras during our honey harvesting escapades. We never bothered the reptiles and they never noticed our presence. We had learnt from the elders that animals reacted violently to human fear. The previous night, we had slept in the forest as part of our cultural passage into adulthood. The numbness and chill that we desperately sought by immersing ourselves into the icy water for hours, was meant to prepare us for the circumciser’s knife. 

At last, the sound of drumbeats hit our ears and slowly drew closer. Then, just as the ‘traditional surgeon’ appeared at the corner, Jerry shot up and bolted. The bigger village boys attempted to run after him but he was too fast. His tiny legs could have outperformed Ferdinand Omanyala. We burst into laughter and shook our heads in dismay. His fear of the knife had just put Jerry’s family into a spotlight of shame. He couldn’t qualify to sit with the big boys. He couldn’t shake the hands of elders. 

Among the Luhya anxiety starts to build up among boys as they enter into teenage. The ridicule that is piled on boys who have not encountered the knife can be depressing. The respect and privileges on the other hand that came with the cut, was enough anesthesia to face the knife.  

Kenyan politicians suffer similar anxiety attacks whenever they are in the cold. They dream and wish for the sound of the drumbeats that will announce their entry into the inner circle of the head of state’s trusted team.

This week, President William Ruto enjoined four individuals into Cabinet sittings. Cleophas Malala, UDA secretary general, advisors Dr Monica Juma (national security), Dr David Ndii (economic affairs) and Harriett Chiggai (women affairs) to the Cabinet. Ruto is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, who surrounded themselves with men and women that were strangers in government, but had massive clout and say on matters of national importance. President Uhuru Kenyatta, had a few men whose word he took seriously. During his administration, Uhuru appointed Raphael Tuju, minister without portfolio. 

Malala’s elevation came three days after he spoke about UDA launching an audit of Cabinet Secretaries. Malala is a newbie in UDA. Where did he get the guts to make bold pronouncements? Was he airing the Big Man’s thoughts? These happenings in the Ruto administration remind us of the many political minnows, whose words at a village function, would send massive shockwaves across the Republic of Kenya and bring down political giants. We are yet to know if Malala and co will wield as much power as did a man like Simon Kuria Kanyingi. 

Kanyingi, a tiny man with huge influence, didn’t need to sit inside the Cabinet. His influence was enough to make Cabinet ministers tremble even in his absence. A struggling mechanic with little education, Kuria Kanyingi rose to become one of the most powerful men in central Kenya during the reign of President Daniel arap Moi. Kanyingi became Moi’s friend after he repaired his car while he was vice president. Once in power, Moi appointed him Director of the Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit, then gave him massive powers. Moi used Kuria Kanyingi to clean up the old cobwebs of resistance to his leadership. Even powerful billionaires such as Njenga Karume and George Muhoho found themselves in the cold after refusing to bow to Kuria Kanyingi. 

Kuria Kanyingi and Embakasi legislator, David Mwenje, both short and vicious men, were unleashed to tackle another giant Dr Josephat Karanja. Dr Karanja had been appointed vice president to replace Mwai Kibaki, but his detractors said he was; colourless, proud, aloof and out of touch with the grassroots. Kanyingi and Mwenje launched public attacks against the VP accusing him of undermining the president. They claimed that he was forcing politicians and other Kenyans to kneel before him in supplication. In other words, they implied that the vice president was too eager to become president. 

Frustrated and confused, the former Nairobi University Vice Chancellor angrily said: “Common decency has been thrown out of the window and replaced by political thuggery and vindictiveness.” He shortly resigned and watched his political career flow down the drain of deceit.   

David Mwenje became so powerful, he was untouchable. He could order thousands of impoverished people to occupy any piece of land in Embakasi, and even the police couldn’t evict them. His ability to ‘give land to the landless’, made him extremely popular among the voting poor in Embakasi- then the most populated constituency in the country. He became so bold that he could publicly tell his detractors to; “Let Moi and Mwenje rule” 

President Moi invested his time in reaching out to ordinary citizens. Moi, the master politician, chose to keep strange company close to his political heartbeat. He surrounded himself with a group of illiterate men and women. The opposition on the other hand, had luminaries in its camp. Led by prominent lawyers, scholars, and human rights activists, they lacked in political influence. Moi’s comical advisors were strategically positioned. Their strength lay in the fact that they were deeply networked at the grassroots, where it mattered most in politics. Memorable among them were; Kariuki Chotara, a comical character and the Chairman of Kanu in Nakuru District; the outspoken Ezekiel Bargetuny in north Rift; Mulu Mutisya, the president’s eye and ear in the Ukambani; and Shariff Nassir in Coast Province. 

These men knew their way around ordinary citizens. They also knew the president deeply. Former Kitui Senator David Musila says in his memoir, Seasons of Hope, that: “A word in the president’s ear or just a hint from them was enough to either build or destroy a political career.”

I grew up in Nakuru attending political rallies addressed by Kariuki Chotara and others. Before his speech, Chotara would lead the crowd in singing Kanu praise songs. He would then declare in public that the only god he believed in was the ruling party, Kanu: “Mungu wangu ni Kanu. Amri ya mtukufu Rais ni amri na decree kutoka kwa Mungu.”

At one such rally at Nakuru’s Kamukunji grounds, Chotara had a spat with an assistant minister Amos Kabiru Kimemia. Kimemia dared Chotara to do his worst. Chotara responded; “If by this evening you are still assistant minister, then I am not Kariuki Chotara” a few hours later, VoK (Voice of Kenya) announced the sacking of Kimemia. Chotara was used to punish and put in his place a man such as Kihika Kimani who, in the mid 70s, had fought hard to stop Moi from ascending to power. 

Former ambassador John Mwaura says in his forthcoming book, For my Flag and Country, that: “Kariuki Chotara became a useful figure in the Moi government as soon as Moi ascended to power. Chotara took over as Chairman of the ruling Party Kanu in Nakuru District, president Moi’s home. Chotara became a vicious defender of Kanu and the President.  A clique of wealthy Kikuyu’s who had emerged in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya to stop Moi from ascending to power needed to be tamed. Chotara was therefore used to cut the political limbs of Kihika Kimani and others. Moi gave him so much leeway that his word became law.”   

David Musila, used to hear about the powerful Ukambani kingmaker, Mulu Mutisya. He had never met him physically, but one day, he had the misfortune of sitting on the ‘wrong side of the Presidents man.’

“President Moi was once a very good friend of mine; but now here I was looking over my shoulder, pondering at the turn of events…After the relationship between President Moi and I took a dramatic nosedive, I was left wounded and confused. I did not understand what had gone wrong. I had done everything according to the rule book, discharging my professional duties and conducting myself diligently and with dignity. Perhaps, I should have heaped the blame squarely at the feet of politicians who considered themselves to be ‘more Nyayo than the President himself’, as they jostled for attention, especially after the elections of 1983,” writes Musila

After the failed August 1, 1982 coup, Moi began his political clean up. Musila, being the provincial commissioner central province, was caught between major political duels. There were spirited efforts to remove him from Nyeri. When these machinations failed, his detractors took the battle to Ukambani. Mulu Mutisya was the most respected Kamba leader at the time. An astute businessman, Mulu was close to Kenya’s founding President, Jomo Kenyatta. He later became a bosom friend of President Moi. What Mulu lacked academically, he made up for with his many special talents; he was witty. He had amazing skills of mobilising grassroot support.

Mulu Mutisya sneaked into political limelight during the change the constitution movement in the mid-1970s, when the leading Kamba leader Paul Ngei sided with those keen on stopping Moi. The movement fell out of favour with Jomo Kenyatta. Mulu Mutisya’s star eventually eclipsed Ngei’s and in 1974 he became the Kanu chairman for Machakos District. 

Mulu helped the two presidents get a strong foothold in Ukambani. He played political godfather to a galaxy of politicians and senior government officials from Ukambani. Like Chotara and Kuria Kanyigi, Mulu had unlimited access to the president. Both presidents did not hide their fondness for Mulu. In return, Mulu traversed the country implementing political deals for the Presidents. In Moi’s time, when the Presidential Commission on Soil Conservation and Afforestation was established, Mulu was appointed Chairman. Moi’s flagship project was soil conservation and afforestation. Mulu used his work in the Commission, to gain more influence. Those who fell out of favour with Mulu, especially those from Ukambani, found themselves in serious trouble with State House.

Musila says that his rise in the civil service had nothing to do with Mulu. He did not even know the man well. He only knew him through what he heard from other people. But then in late 1983, he got into Mulu’s wrong books.  

One day, Kitili Mwendwa, then MP for Kitui West, invited Musila to his Gigiri home. Kitili had made history when he became the first African Chief Justice of Kenya. He informed Musila about a plot to remove him from Central Province and the civil service. The plot, said Kitili, was led by Mulu Mutisya. “He suggested that he could mediate between Mulu and I. Thanking Kitili, I also expressed my reservation about meeting Mulu to discuss any reconciliation. I did not understand the source of our disagreement, if at all it existed, because I had never even met him. Nevertheless, Kitili insisted that a meeting would be in my best interest, and so we set a date”

At around 8pm on the agreed day, Musila and Kitili arrived at a posh house in Garden Estate off Thika Road. Musila noticed there was a police officer at the gate. He thought the home must belong to a Cabinet minister. To his utter surprise, the man who received them was the Attorney General, Mathew Guy Muli. Mulu was waiting for them in the lounge. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Kitili Mwendwa introduced the subject. “He then pleaded with Mulu not to destroy my career, explaining that I was a young and promising community leader. I could not ignore the sense of irony as we huddled together talking. Guy Muli and Kitili Mwendwa, both distinguished learned men, and myself, a senior government administrator, on one side, and Mulu Mutisya with none of these credentials, and yet not even a combination of our excellent academic credentials and high offices put together could compare with the influence of the indomitable Mulu Mutisya.”

Mulu accused Musila of disrespecting MPs from Ukambani, fighting Moi’s supporters in central and supporting Vice President Mwai Kibaki. “Last, and most serious of my failings, was that I had refused to accord Mulu Mutisya the respect that befitted his status as the leader of the Akamba. He told me to my face that I did not acknowledge him properly when he visited Central Province.”

After a lengthy discussion about his alleged misdeeds, the Attorney General turned to Musila and prodded him to apologize to Mulu. He used diplomatic language, delicately referring to his alleged misdeeds as misunderstandings. “I knew he was telling me to make peace with the King of Ukambani, for my own good. The willy old man was determined to rope me into his fiefdom so that I could become one of his subjects. I refused to apologize and the meeting ended abruptly. Kitili Mwendwa drove me to his house, where I told my driver to take me straight back to Nyeri. I was terribly disturbed by this turn of events and I needed no further hints to know that from that day on, all guns would be trained on me!” says Musila   

Kalonzo Musyoka, in his autobiography, Against all Odds, attests to the power of men in the presidents inner circle. In 1983, Kalonzo contested for the Kitui North parliamentary seat after Moi called snap elections. Kalonzo was naïve enough to believe he could defeat the incumbent Phillip Manandu. “Manandu won the election with a landslide, 15,041 votes, Mulei was second with 9,327, Dr. Kitonga third with 6,295 while I limped in with 3,138 votes ahead of my learned senior JMD Musyoka who scored just over 1000 votes” recalls Kalonzo

In 1985, Manandu was murdered. Then one evening, before the by-election, Kalonzo received a call from a powerful cabinet minister and Kanu National Treasurer, Justus ole Tipis. “Bwana Wakili, where are you. I want to see you” ole Tipis said. When Kalonzo met ole Tipis, the minister told him that he should run for the seat left by Manandu. “I said that I did not want to run because I was not financially and mentally prepared. In addition, I told him that I had agreed with other leaders that we would all support Mulyungi. We left it at that. But then there was a twist that swung things my way. When Mulyungi went to present his papers the following day, they were rejected. He was accused of being in possession of a seditious publication known as Pambana.” Says Kalonzo who later rose to become Kenya’s 10th Vice President. Kalonzo ran and won but he acknowledges that: “Mulu Mutisya, the Kamba political kingpin, added strength to my popularity when he asked people to support me. It was Kitili Mwendwa who introduced me to Mulu and subsequently requested him to support me. From then on things moved with much relative ease” 

Mwai Kibaki had his own Mulu Mutisya’s. His were men and women who had been his friends from his days at Mangu’s High School or Makerere University, business partners or clubmates and fellow golfers. They wielded more power than most ministers could. Kibaki however, was not prone to flaunting his ‘friendship excesses’.

Mwaura says in his memoir that in 1979, when he served as Kenya’s ambassador in Germany, Moi visited the Netherlands. He was accompanied by a host of ministers and a large number of his political cronies. Most of the discussions the president engaged in with those close to him, says Mwaura, were political in nature. They revolved around political gossip of happenings in Kenya.

“There were those who would gossip nonstop. Moi flew to Holland on a Kenya airline. He was accompanied by a very large delegation. The Dutch government said it could only accommodate about 20 officials of this huge delegation. The government of Kenya would cater for the rest. This meant that a large number of these people were holed in their individual rooms. They couldn’t join us during dinner or breakfast paid for by the host government. It was during this dinner or breakfast that political gossip would feature. Here, I had the opportunity of knowing those in good books and those considered to be anti-Nyayo.” 

Mwaura says that some of the stories told bordered on the personal. Some were extremely petty. For instance, “Josephat Karanja was not considered to be Nyayo enough. It was said that he was careless and reckless. That he was so shameless he couldn’t even take care of his own old mother. In fact, it was emphasized, that his mother lived in a mere hut. Political back-biting of the then vice president Mwai Kibaki became regular during these discussions.” 

Global history is replete with political advisors. The most famous, is the mystic Russian, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. Rasputin, befriended the imperial family of Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia. He slowly gained massive influence in the family and the Russian empire. Rasputin’s extensive powerful influence on the ruling family infuriated the nobles, the church and even peasants. Rasputin, a monk who specialized in reading Orthodox Christianity, became a self-declared healer. His rise and fall has inspired countless writers, musicians and filmmakers.             

Now that Malala has entered the inner chambers of power, like we did during our ‘cut’, will he be a Rasputin or a reincarnation of Mulu Mutisya? Time will tell.

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