By JOSEPH KARIMI
It is not easy for a battle-hardened, adult male to shed tears of humiliation in public. It is even harder when that man is Shariff Nassir, the former powerful Coast politician.
But on December 2, 1986, Nassir sat in a room at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre following an altercation with Bamburi councillor, Emmanuel Maitha. The two were before the Kanu disciplinary committee, which had been unveiled by President Moi only two weeks before.
Chaired by Nyanza politician Okiki Amayo, it was mandated with grilling members on issues of discipline, and punishing those found to have flouted the party’s code of conduct or brought it to disrepute.
Nassir sat next to Simon Msechu, the Mombasa branch secretary, as the accusations were read. Maitha, who had also been accused of being disrespectful to Kanu officials, called Nassir an ‘illegitimate child’. Another accusation contained in an unsigned letter said Nassir was ‘the Bokassa of Mombasa’.
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It was then that Nassir banged the table, covered his head with his hands and drew a handkerchief to wipe tears streaming from his eyes. Although the committee asked Maitha to apologise, that sitting epitomised the drama and puerile accusations that would characterise its life.
“It is disrespect to this committee to call Hon Nassir a bastard,” said Amayo.
Two weeks earlier on December 17, Moi had named the committee after a series of provincial Kanu conferences and a national seminar at the Kenya Institute of Administration, Kabete.
Within a year, it would strike dread into the hearts of many, ruin careers, build others and even ignore the protection accorded to MPs by the Constitution. So powerful was it that in just one-and-a-half years, Moi thought it was trying to usurp his powers.
Its sitting became a platform for humiliating those unfortunate enough to be brought before it. Politicians used it to throw muck at each other and to seek favours. It would read the riot act to politicians and order them to go back home and write apologies.
“The committee seems to be drunk with power,” Moi said on Madaraka Day, 1987, as the journey to its disbandment began. “If you give a person power and money, he forgets his limits of authority.”
In those days, it was difficult to distinguish Kanu, the only party, with the government.
Kanu’s road to absolute power had started soon after independence. After triumphing in the 1963 elections, the party went through its most trying period when Kenya’s first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga differed with President Jomo Kenyatta politically and ideologically. The two leaders were weighed by their powerful allies of the east and west, with each being enticed to sign on and boost either capitalist or socialist goals.
As the two sides pushed and pulled, checks and balances had to be created to tame errant party members as each group consolidated its political power. The voluntary dissolution of Kadu in 1963, making Kenya a one party state, strengthened Kanu’s position. Jaramogi would later form the Kenya People’s Union, which Kenyatta banned in 1969.
To silence critics, President Moi’s government enacted a de jure system in 1982, making it illegal to form any other political party in Kenya. Kanu was the only party.
As Moi consolidated power after a coup attempt in 1981, the party became more powerful. A mechanism to have senior politicians toe the line was proposed, and so the disciplinary committee was born.
It would discipline senior politicians, including cabinet ministers, for simply expressing their opinions, which were often labeled as ‘false accusations.’
As soon as it started work, the committee left no doubt as to who was in charge. That it could decline to re-admit expelled members on the grounds that their apology letters “were not properly written” spoke a lot about its arrogance. Some petty issues discussed in the committee even appeared childish, if not hilarious.
On entering the grilling room, one would be asked to state their names, occupation, whether he had pledged total loyalty to the government, the party, President Moi and the ‘Nyayo Philosophy.’
When six members expelled from West Pokot appeared before it, the committee ruled that they had been properly thrown out of their local branch. Among other issues, they were accused of not supporting efforts to stop cattle rustling. The six included a former assistant Minister, Francis Lotodo. The committee passed a guilty verdict and asked them to write better letters of apology and appeal for re-admission.
Take the case of Peter Okondo, the Minister for Labour in 1987. He stood on a point of order in Parliament to support the MP for Karachuonyo, Phoebe Asiyo who had made passionate attacks against the conduct of the committee. She alleged that Amayo was using his position as party chairman to intimidate her.
Okondo told Parliament he had been a victim of Amayo’s ‘boisterous and bloated’ conduct of party affairs which to him was so ‘bombastic’ as to make ‘utter nonsense of reality and truth.’
In a matter of hours, the party regrouped and summoned Okondo. He received a terse note asking him to appear before it and “show cause why disciplinary action should not be taken against you for making unjustified attacks on its chairman.”
His hour-long appearance turned out to be a big humiliation and an embarrassment as he made little effort to defend himself. As he was being torn into pieces, Okondo, according to Weekly Review sat ruefully and appeared bereft of the bravery he had effortlessly displayed in parliament.
Despite his remorsefulness, Okondo was ordered to “go and withdraw the remarks and apologise for the same in Parliament”. The incident brought into question Kanu’s respect for the Constitution, which accorded immunity to MPs for words spoken in the floor of the House.
In less than two years, Moi was unhappy with the team, which had spread fear and intimidated people. In 1987, he cautioned top committee officials against loose talk. “Although they are disciplinarians themselves, I will also discipline them so that they toe the line”
The axe fell on September 10, 1987. The President had just arrived from an eight-day tour of Finland and Romania, when he spoke at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
“I want to dissolve the Kanu disciplinary committee and it is hereby stamped out,” said the Head of State. “I want wananchi to live without fear.”