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Kibaki Cabinets: Wamalwa Kijana the eloquent, unapologetic Anglophile

KIBAKI CABINETS
By Kenya Yearbook | May 21st 2021

Michael Christopher Kijana Wamalwa was a charismatic leader and an unapologetic anglophile whose love for classical music, Saville Row suits and sports cars tended to eclipse the keen intellect that attracted him to President Mwai Kibaki. In our first serialisation of Kibaki Cabinets, which is published by the Kenya Year Book Editorial Board, we take a look at the Cambridge-trained lawyer who became Kenya's eighth vice president

Some critics derided his liking for the age-old television cartoon series, Tom & Jerry, as though life consists only of serious matters. It is, however, his oratorical skill and generosity that many Kenyans remember him for.

Wamalwa, the son of a former senator, was the eighth Vice President of the Republic of Kenya and the first of three vice presidents who served in Kibaki’s two-term presidency.

His ascent to the vice presidency was occasioned by the historic victory of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) in the 2002 General Election. His charisma transcended tribal boundaries and ethnic chauvinism, and in him, many saw Kibaki’s automatic successor.

Wamalwa was born on November 25, 1944, in Sosio, a village near Kimilili in present-day Bungoma County. 

At birth, he was named Michael Christopher Simiyu. He was the son of William Wamalwa, an influential politician of his time, and Mama Esther Nekesa.

He attended St Joseph’s Primary School in western Kenya before transitioning to Chewoyet High School in Rift Valley Province. In 1962, he joined Strathmore School where he scored straight A’s in history, English and economics besides being the best debater and school head boy. 

It was at Strathmore School that he won a national essay writing competition and represented Kenya at a United Nations students’ forum.

In 1965, Wamalwa was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship that enabled him to join King’s College, Cambridge University, to study law. He graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1968. 

Wamalwa wound up his King’s College sojourn by studying for an intercollegiate Diploma in Comparative Religions, earning himself the prestigious title of Associate of King’s College.

He proceeded to the London School of Economics and, in 1970, was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. 

He returned to Kenya to join the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law as a lecturer. During this time he also ran his family’s farming business in Kitale. 

Wamalwa was also the director of the Kenya-Japan Association as well as the general manager of the Kenya Stone Mining Company.

Wamalwa made his political debut in the 1974 parliamentary elections, running for the Kitale West Constituency (present-day Saboti Constituency) seat. 

But he was just 30 and his age worked against him – his detractors dismissed him as a neophyte who could not effectively represent his constituents, and he lost to Wafula Wabuge. 

He walked out of his first electioneering season with a new name, Kijana (young man).

 In 1979 he was back in the running, with the blessings of veteran politician Masinde Muliro whose protégé he was, and clinched the seat. He would be re-elected two more times, in 1992 and 1997.

When the clamour for multi-party politics gained momentum in the early 1990s, Wamalwa threw his lot with the FORD-Kenya faction of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party.

 In the 1992 General Elections, he ran for the Saboti parliamentary seat and won. He was also elected vice-chairman of FORD-Kenya.

Following the death of Opposition politician Jaramogi Oginga Odinga on January 20 1994, Wamalwa took over the chairmanship of FORD-Kenya. This was met with opposition from some quarters, not least Odinga’s son, Raila Odinga, which would morph into a protracted tussle.

 It was not until 1995 that Wamalwa sealed his party chairmanship during the chaotic party polls held at the Thika Municipal Stadium. 

Soon after these elections, Raila walked out of FORD-Kenya and took over the National Development Party (NDP).

In 1997, Wamalwa vied for the presidency and emerged fourth after Daniel arap Moi, Kibaki and Raila. In the run-up to the 2002 General Elections, he teamed up with other Opposition luminaries, Charity Ngilu and Kibaki, under the umbrella of the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK), which had been founded in July 2000. 

Eloquent: Wamalwa addresses a political rally in 2002. [File, Standard]

The party worked with 13 smaller parties and would later grow to include Raila’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and some disgruntled Kenya African National Union (KANU) party stalwarts. 

This prompted the transformation of NAK into NARC, which rode on the strength of a strong and broad Opposition alliance to a landslide victory that brought KANU’s 40-year rule to an end.

In the NARC power structure, Wamalwa became Kibaki’s running mate and, as expected, was appointed Vice President when the 22-member Cabinet was named. Curiously, President Kibaki did not assign Wamalwa a ministerial docket.

Wamalwa’s appointment elicited mixed reactions among his supporters. Many were happy because the President had honoured a pre-election pact and named their man VP. But others had misgivings about the ‘incomplete’ portfolio – without the Ministry of Home Affairs that had hitherto come with the vice presidency. They considered Wamalwa nothing more than a ceremonial VP.

Wamalwa handled the dissent in his camp with characteristic self-assuredness and equanimity, assuring his supporters that there was nothing amiss and insisting that the President meant well and that they should trust him.

 Not long afterwards, Kibaki named Wamalwa the Minister for National Reconstruction. The VP was tasked with overseeing the revival of projects that had collapsed under the KANU regime, including the Nyayo Tea Zones, Nyayo Bus Corporation and the development of a reconstruction policy.

According to some legislators allied to Wamalwa, this was a featherweight portfolio. But contrary to their expectations, he never showed any dissatisfaction with his new role or even a hint of disaffection with the President. 

Wamalwa (centre), Charity Ngilu (left) and a-soon-to-be president Mwai Kibaki on the campaign trail. [Archive, Standard]

Unknown to many, Wamalwa had a special place in Kibaki’s inner circle as a trusted adviser. And it was this relationship that informed the President’s keenness to keep his VP’s hands free.

Wamalwa’s vice presidency was short-lived. In the dying hours of the 2002 election campaigns, Kibaki was involved in a road accident and consequently flown to London for medical treatment. It was while visiting Kibaki in a hospital that Wamalwa was also taken ill. 

In early 2003, he was hospitalised in London again. When he recovered, he returned to Kenya to marry his longtime partner, Yvonne Nambia, in a memorable wedding that bore pronounced marks of his Anglophile persuasions – he not only submitted his proposal to the bride in Shakespearean parlance but also arrived in church in a vintage Ford and dressed in a morning coat.

On June 1, 2003, Wamalwa travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to represent Kenya at the International Labour Organization’s 91st session. He led a delegation of government officials, trade unionists and employers to the meeting. 

After staying three weeks in Geneva, he flew to London for a medical checkup accompanied by his wife and daughter. Unfortunately, Wamalwa died in London on the morning of 23 August 2003.

Wamalwa’s was not the first death to plague the NARC government in its first year in office. Apart from being the first sitting Vice President to die in the history of independent Kenya, he was the third Cabinet Minister and fifth NARC MP to die within the first eight months of the coalition’s reign.

Wamalwa was given a State burial, the second Kenyan to be so-buried after founding father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. [Archive, Standard]

The first was Ahmed Khalif, NARC’s first Minister for Labour, who died in a January 2003 plane crash in which several other ministers suffered injuries. He was followed by Naivasha MP Paul Kihara, who passed on in a South African hospital in February of the same year. 

In April, Yatta MP James Mutiso drowned in raging floods and in June 2003, Geoffrey Parpai, a Minister in the Office of the President, who started ailing soon after he was sworn in, also died.

Within the Cabinet, Wamalwa was considered a gentleman; a good competitor who kept the game clean. Almost all his colleagues captured this quality in their tributes to the fallen Vice President.

Due to the special working relationship they enjoyed, Kibaki suffered a huge loss in Wamalwa’s death.

 Wamalwa’s successor, Moody Awori, captured this well in his memoirs, Riding on a Tiger, revealing how overwhelmed by grief Kibaki was on losing his deputy.

 Awori recalls how Wamalwa was hospitalised in London just six months after assuming office. He gives vivid recollections of how the President relied on his ministers and other members of his government who made stopovers in London en route to other destinations for briefs on Wamalwa’s health. 

When Awori made a trip to London in August 2003, the President also asked him to check on the Vice President.

When Wamalwa’s body arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, there was a huge crowd led by President Kibaki. The sombre atmosphere was overpowering as the President declared that Wamalwa would be accorded a State funeral – the second in the history of independent Kenya after that of founding President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.

Wamalwa’s body lay in State at Parliament Buildings for public viewing as the country went into mourning. And in a public manifestation of his grief, President Kibaki let tears for his fallen friend flow freely during the burial in Kitale.

Kibaki’s opinion of Wamalwa was crystallised in a 2016 memorial article titled Wamalwa was not merely a politician, he was a political leader (Saturday Nation, 20 August 2016), in which he wrote candidly about his departed deputy.

The President talked about Wamalwa’s attributes such as wit, charm and authenticity. He also acknowledged Wamalwa’s critical role in the formation of NARC and his contribution to its victory. 

In the President’s view, Wamalwa was a man whose politics and leadership were distinguished by unequivocal convictions and causes. He was a leader with a national outlook – his worldview resisted tribal or ethnic limitations.

It was a rare and fascinating glimpse into the character of the Vice President from a person imminently qualified to talk about him. As a constant and calm voice of reason during the agitation for political pluralism in the 1980s and 1990s, Wamalwa shunned the confrontational style that some of his peers and contemporaries found attractive, Kibaki noted, while hailing Wamalwa’s ability to work with other leaders towards the realisation of a progressive agenda.

Wamalwa’s mastery of government operations made him an asset to NARC. He had a particularly good understanding of the working dynamics between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. Kibaki often relied on Wamalwa to smooth the rough edges that are the hallmark of this relationship.

As noted earlier, Kenyans knew Wamalwa most for his gift of the gab. There was hardly any subject that he couldn’t convey to ordinary people to bring them on board. It was an asset that did not escape the President’s praise in his recollection. Kibaki noted that eloquence was not just about mesmerising the masses; it was an instrument for building consensus and amassing political capital for the benefit of the teams he worked with.

But Wamalwa could also be pointed, pithy and perhaps even brutal when he directed his wit at his opponents. At FORD-Kenya, his long-running dispute with Raila led him to say: “Raila is not my peer intellectually by any description. I don’t think he has any leadership capabilities because he is a very dictatorial fellow. Whenever he talks in NEC meetings, he always says, ‘We must do this’ and people answer back, ‘You can’t force us to do this.’”

That Wamalwa was the gentleman of Kenyan politics is not in doubt. Maybe the working chemistry between him and Kibaki can be attributed to this – the two politicians were generally non-confrontational in their politics. Either by design or default, Wamalwa consistently cut the image of a reliable and trustworthy deputy. 

Some believe had he lived, this might have averted some of the political misfortunes that stalked Kibaki’s presidency, such as the 2005 referendum on the Constitution of Kenya that split the NARC government into ‘banana’ and ‘orange’ factions, and the 2007-2008 post-election violence that enveloped the country. 

In fact, given his affability and charisma, many like to think Wamalwa would eventually have succeeded Kibaki.

Because of the well-established culture in Kenya of politicians using public office for personal gain, it was generally expected that Wamalwa was no different. But when he died, many were shocked. 

Put on a scale against other Kenyan VPs, he emerges as the ‘poorest.’ Compared to an average contemporary Kenyan politician, Wamalwa had puny assets. 

Those who knew him attributed this to his generosity. Stories abound of how on many occasions he would walk into a social place with money in his wallet and walk out without a penny. He was also known to bail out those in need of school fees or food among other necessities.

Wamalwa was still living in a rented house at the time of his appointment as Vice President in 2002, perhaps another indicator that in a setting where politicians are known to live large, he was a different kettle of fish. Given this disposition, would he not have been a great asset in helping the NARC government slay the dragon of corruption? This is certainly not an idle thought.

When Wamalwa passed on, Kibaki appointed Moody Awori as the Vice President and Musikari Kombo took over the FORD-Kenya chairmanship. There is, however, one gap he left that is yet to be filled – the long-sought dream of enduring unity among the Luhya community.

Under Wamalwa’s stewardship, the Luhyas bought into the NARC vision. In addition to his sociable personality that endeared him to the people, the Luhyas considered him a homegrown politician who fitted well in the league of legendary Luhya politicians who had gone before him, such as Masinde Muliro and Moses Mudavadi.

Ultimately, the young man they had initially rejected as being too immature – the kijana – in their view progressively grew into a political giant; one whose promising career as Vice President turned out to be poignantly brief.

Kibaki Cabinets, Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board (2021)

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