Don't rattle a snake: John Michuki the man who tamed matatus, Mungiki

He was probably the most hawkish minister in the Kibaki Administration, what with his warnings to citizens that they would be bitten if they rattled snakes. In our fourth serialisation of Kibaki Cabinets by the Kenya Year Book Editorial Board, we look at the man who scared matatus into behaving themselves and almost eliminated the Mungiki menace

Buddies: Matere Keriri, President Mwai Kibaki and John Michuki. [Archive, Standard]

Barely 20 minutes after President Mwai Kibaki had announced his Cabinet, John Michuki, then aged 71, arrived at the headquarters of the Ministry of Transport and Communications in Nairobi’s Upper Hill area to take over as minister.

He was one man in a hurry to help the newly-elected President reverse the economic decline and indiscipline that had taken over the transport industry. At the time, most public taxis (known as matatus) in Kenya operated under the Matatu Owners Association, which had replaced the Matatu Vehicle Owners Association formed in 1982 to allocate matatu routes but proscribed in 1987 after calling for a nationwide strike.

While matatus provided affordable transport for the general public, Michuki realised that the owners were losing billions of shillings every year to cartels and members of the Mungiki sect, a self-styled vigilante group that had taken control of matatu routes in Nairobi.

He had also to deal with Mungiki offshoots such as Taliban, Jeshi la Mzee and Kamjeshi – which were extorting money in the name of “protection fees” from matatu owners. Those who didn’t pay up had their vehicles burned or their owners killed.

This was the kind of mayhem that Michuki inherited from his predecessor, and one of his first promises was to bring order to the sector. He told Parliament that the “matatu industry is not different from any other industry, where ownership, be that of land or any other property, is guaranteed”.

Born in 1931 in Iyego, Murang’a District, Michuki had had a distinguished administrative career since he joined the civil service at the tail end of colonial rule, first as a clerk before he was appointed a District Officer in Busia District. Aged only 27, he became the first African District Commissioner for Nyeri District in 1961. That was shortly after he graduated from Worcester College, a constituent college of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where he studied public administration and economics.

Shortly after independence in 1963, Michuki was one of the young administrators picked by President Jomo Kenyatta to shape the course of the new republic. These were men in their late 20s and early 30s, and included young economist Mwai Kibaki, Kenneth Matiba, Duncan Ndegwa, Tom Mboya, Peter Shiyukah, Geoffrey Kariithi, John Koitie and Julius Kiano.

Michuki was first appointed Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance on July 1, 1965, having worked as Deputy Permanent Secretary in the National Treasury since December 12, 1964. He soon started asserting himself as a strict disciplinarian who eschewed disorder in the public service. He was young, aggressive, and spoke his mind.

And so, it was that almost four decades later, on January 3, 2003, Kibaki would pick him as Minister for Transport and Communications to turn around an economy that had a gross domestic product growth of 0.5 per cent, down from four per cent the previous year.

Michuki restored order in the matatu industry and liberated it from Mungiki and other extortionist gangs. [Archive, Standard

Deputising him was Assistant Minister Andrew Ligale and Permanent Secretary Gerishon Ikiara, an economist who had been plucked from the University of Nairobi.

Michuki started tackling the problems in the transport sector with gusto. That October, he announced that all public service vehicles would be fitted with speed governors and seat belts as part of efforts to reduce road carnage and increase safety. He was, in essence, confronting a cartel that controlled a fleet of more than 40,000 matatus in urban areas and bringing order to a multi-billion-shilling industry that was largely unregulated.

The unveiling of the new regulations – which quickly came to be known as the ‘Michuki Rules’ – was, unsurprisingly, met with opposition considering statistics that showed matatus constituted around 78.2 per cent of the country’s public transport system. Michuki’s rules also stated that 14-seater matatus, which previously crammed in as many passengers as possible, could carry only 14 at a time. Buses were restricted to 62 sitting passengers.

In addition, all public services vehicles were required to have speed regulators that limited them to 80 kilometres per hour. Meanwhile, matatu crews were required to wear uniforms and the drivers, especially, had to display proper identification documents in their vehicles.

The sector reacted by calling for a strike that paralysed the entire public transport system. But Michuki had the President’s backing and ordered the matatu owners who did not wish to comply with the new rules to simply remove their vehicles from the road.

“Some of the matatu owners were expecting that I would soften,” Michuki told a news conference when the strike collapsed. “We have been enslaved by these matatus. We want to get out of this, and we must get out once and for all.”

 On February 21, 2012, at the age of 79, Michuki died at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. [Archive, Standard]

Michuki also maintained that those who failed to fit their vehicles with speed regulators would have their licences withdrawn. The Matatu Owners Association went to court, and lost, as the return of discipline to the sector became one of the hallmarks of Kibaki’s legacy.

With the 1990s clamour for multi-party politics, the one-time MP for Kangema Constituency in Murang’a (1983 to 1988) threw his weight behind Kenneth Matiba, the Ford-Asili party’s founder and presidential candidate. It was a delicate relationship since Kangema bordered Matiba’s Kiharu Constituency and Kibaki’s home village of Othaya in Nyeri. By then, Kibaki had founded another opposition outfit, the Democratic Party (DP).

But this did not damage his relationship with Kibaki. Interestingly, even after Matiba’s Ford-Asili broke up and he boycotted the 1997 elections, Michuki did not join Kibaki’s DP but instead decamped to Ford-People, a splinter group of Ford-Asili. It was not until 2002 that he joined the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) and became part of the team that removed Kanu party from power.

After two years of a colourful performance at the Ministry of Transport, Michuki was appointed the Minister of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security, swapping positions with Chris Murungaru. He worked with Mirugi Kariuki as his Assistant Minister and Cyrus Gituai as the PS at a time when organised criminal gangs reigned in urban centres. It was time for Michuki to run the likes of Mungiki out of town.

He clashed with Chief Justice Evan Gicheru when he accused the Judiciary of frustrating efforts to tame crime. While Gicheru said it was not the Judiciary’s role to investigate and prosecute suspects, Michuki said the courts were supposed to send a message that crime does not pay but instead they were releasing suspects.

A man well-known for speaking his mind, Michuki declared total war on Mungiki and warned them to either stop their activities or face the full force of the government. “Tutawanyorosha... Nyinyi mtakuwa mkisikia mazishi ya fulani ni ya kesho (We will deal with you... You will only be hearing about your colleagues’ funerals),” he was quoted then as saying.

His statement did not go down well with human rights activists, who accused him of promoting an extra-judicial killing culture. He also came under the spotlight when he came out in support of a police raid on the Standard Group, which suffered losses when the media house’s TV station and printing press were temporarily shut down. The next day, Michuki said the raid was a State security matter: “If you rattle a snake, you must expect to get bitten!” he told the press, sparking another uproar.

Michuki was the man at the helm in the run-up to the 2007 General Election that erupted in bloody violence across the country. At one point, he even ordered a ban on live television broadcasts of the chaos that followed the announcing of the presidential results; he believed the footage would do the country more harm than good.

Following that election, on January 8, 2008, Michuki was appointed Minister for Roads and Public Works. He would however hold this brief for only a few months as negotiations on a power-sharing structure of government commenced. When the coalition government – that had Kibaki as President and Raila Odinga as Prime Minister – was put in place, he was appointed Minister for Environment and Mineral Resources.

One of the things he did in Environment was order all squatters in Mau Forest to leave. He countered criticism for his action from Rift Valley region MPs with: “As the Minister for Environment, I will have failed in my responsibility to ensure that the Mau is conserved. We should not allow ourselves to play politics with an issue that is so internationally charged.”

He added: “I would prefer that we lose out on politics because we will get an opportunity to recover it (referring to the forest). But as we lose Mau, we should know that it will be gone forever.”

He also set out to save the Nairobi River from pollution and was honoured with a United Nations Environment Programme award for his efforts. He also created a park that had previously been known as a base for criminal activities in the capital city. The park was named Michuki Park in his honour.

Michuki also set about restoring the country’s water towers in the Aberdares and Mt Kenya and stopped encroachment by loggers.

However, his determination to tackle the country’s environmental issues was slowed down by ill-health. On February 21, 2012, at the age of 79, Michuki passed on at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. There was an outpouring of praise from those who knew him. President Kibaki described him as a “dear friend, colleague and patriot”.

Aside from politics and public service, Michuki was also an astute businessman and community organiser. In later years, inspired by the Gleneagles Golf Club in the United States of America, he decided to turn part of his coffee farm in Kiambu District into a golf and country club. The Windsor Golf and Country Club was born out of a passion to offer world-class golf in Africa.

Michuki brought in Jim Archer, a graduate of the Oxford School of Architecture, and Tom Macauley, a renowned golf architect at the time, to lead the design team. That was typical of how this no-nonsense public servant approached all issues — with perfection and as a visionary.

-Excerpts from Kibaki Cabinets, Kenya Year Book (2021)