A reflection on the legacy of Kenneth Njido Matiba

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Greatness is seldom true unless there is a virtue that both friends and foes agree on about you. For Kenneth Matiba, a man of many accomplishments who died a fortnight ago, friends and foes have eulogized him as a man of phenomenal courage – that rare and most admirable of human virtues that Ernest Hemingway defined as “grace under pressure”.

Amongst Matiba’s Gikuyu community this virtue was one of the most celebrated which is why the njamba (warrior champion) had a special place. In his nation’s collective memory Matiba died as the njamba who stood up to the Nyayo dictatorship to break down its resistance to multi-party democracy.

It seems to me however that to remember Matiba as the njamba of multipartyism in Kenya is insufficient honour to the memory of a man and a life that had momentous impact to the lives of many who followed him and the political course of his country. In his tribute to Matiba during his funeral service at the All Saints Cathedral, President Uhuru Kenyatta described him as a national hero, a father and a mentor to him and in a unique display of emotional intelligence, the President did well to join the family pall bearers to carry Matiba’s casket out of the historical church.

Fairness demands that from the outset I should declare my own deep emotional connection to Matiba although in the times and circumstances of our lives I never had the privilege to meet him in person but I am glad I interacted with his daughter Ivy Matiba when she managed The People newspaper. Besides the obvious fact that Matiba was my personal political hero as he was to many Kenyans of my generation, I must confess that he had a greater impact in my life.

My late father Joseph Mungai Kongoni was a building carpenter and so until mid-1990 when I was a KCSE candidate my ambition was to become a civil engineer. But then Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia happened. In May 1990 they demanded the reintroduction of multiparty democracy and two months later, the Saba Saba riots happened and the aftermath left a lasting impression in my life.

As it were, Matiba’s struggles introduced lawyer Paul Muite into public limelight across the villages of Kenya its immediate effect to me was to switch from civil engineering to law as my preferred career. Later in 1993 Matiba would establish The People weekly newspaper where I was a regular commentator. In many ways therefore Matiba influenced the trajectory of my career as a public law practitioner and in all probabilities this writing is partly attributable to the forum his newspaper offered me to nurture my writing skills.

As a capitalist State Kenya can only succeed when it gets a critical number of successful African capitalists. Matiba was such a successful capitalist who made his money from real productive work unlike the current generation of politician-billionaires who cannot match their wealth to productive undertakings. I salute Matiba for running The People newspaper as a business venture besides offering a necessary platform for political pluralism to thrive. Even better he gave me my first pay cheque for commentaries that I enjoyed writing as a hobby.

This is the true mark of a capitalist. Moreover, The People weekly magazine played a major role in advancing democracy, human rights and constitutional reforms whose fruits we enjoy today. Another lasting achievement is The People weekly magazine helped to launch the careers of first rate journalists and freedom warriors in the mould of Mwenda Njoka, Kamau Ngotho, David Makali, John Kamau, Mukalo Kwayera, Kiruri Kamau, Tom Osanjo and many others.

Matiba’s major fall-out with the Nyayo regime had its genesis in the infamous mlolongo general election held in September, 1998 when each and every Machiavellian strategies and foul means were deployed to try and establish a Parliament of regime preferred representatives. According to the Constitution of the day the next general election was to be held by September, 1993 and although by early 1990, clergymen like Timothy Njoya and Henry Okullu had called for a return to multiparty democracy, majority of Kenyans were resigned to the reality of another general election under single party democracy.

We should never take it for granted that the 1992 general election was a multiparty one. Throughout the 1980s many valiant Kenyans ranging from Koigi Wamwere, James Orengo, Paul Muite, Raila Odinga, George Anyona, John Khaminwa, Gibson Kamau Kuria, Tirop Kitur, Willy Mutunga, Njeru Kathangu, Martha Karua, Wafula Buke, Kiraitu Murungi, Mwandawiro Mgangha, Pheroze Nowrojee, Davinder Lamba, Kang’ethe Mungai, Wanyiri Kihoro, David Onyango Oloo, Gitobu Imanyara, Pius Nyamweya, Wangari Maathai, Alexander Muge, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Mukhisa Kituyi, G. B. M. Kariuki, Mirugi Kariuki to Jaramogi Odinga and Masinde Muliro paid personal sacrifices for standing up against the Nyayo dictatorship. Yet all these luminaries were political outsiders and their struggle was easily criminalised and many were labelled dissidents. Sad as it may sound, in the pressure cooker climate of single party politics on their own the dissidents stood a slim chance of draining the Masinga dam of authoritarianism that held the Nyayoists together.

In order to dismantle the dictatorship of KANU one of the building blocks of this dam of authoritarianism needed to be knocked off. In breaking ranks with President Moi and revolting against single party rule Matiba and Rubia became the blocks off the dam of Moi dictatorship that triggered the massive haemorrhage of KANU and rapid events in the aftermath of the Saba Saba riots of July, 1990 that finally led to the repeal of the infamous Section 2A of the Constitution that declared Kenya a single-party State.

Loyalty and solidarity of the political nomenklatura are vital to the survival of authoritarian regimes and perhaps any organized society. All dictatorships must have a head and personification but it would be naive to forget that successful dictatorship is a system that dominates the social economic and political aspects of life. Viewed this way, in joining the multiparty band wagon, Matiba not only betrayed and revolted against his old friend Moi but also the complex system that had ran and controlled the Kenyan State since independence. And so this hero of my generation who helped the earlier return of multipartysm in Kenya was a traitor to the system and his privileged erstwhile political friends.

Like with the mafia, nobody escapes unpunished for betraying the system. And so, if any proof of the folly of an insider in rebelling against the system was required we need not look beyond the State instigated illness of Matiba, his political self-destruction and collapse of his family businesses. A governing elite is a society of solidarity which commits itself to look up for the welfare of its loyal members. Pitifully, Matiba did not live-up to the loyalty creed of the feudal class that runs Kenya. It is not an accident therefore that this feudal class denied Matiba the economic rescue package to salvage his business which was more justifiable than the blackhole that is Mumias Sugar Factory.

We say that politics is a game of numbers. In the 1992 General Election Matiba was the opposition presidential candidates with the most supporters but through some funny logic apologists of the status quo blame him for not letting Jaramogi Odinga or Mwai Kibaki to challenge Moi. It is just as well that Matiba contested for the presidency in the 1992 general election because it gave my generation of first time voters opportunity to cast their vote for the one Kenyan politician with the potential to become our Lee Kuan Yew and this is not hyperbole.

In the 1960s Matiba served as a permanent secretary in Jomo Kenyatta’s government a position that gave him the vantage position of taking the easy path to prosperity by living off the State. Today politics is a trillion-shillings industry in Kenya and happens to be the only industry controlled by African Kenyans. In the 2017 general election over 50,000 Kenyans sought to leave other productive sectors of the economy to join this industry and live off the State like parasites. When this political industry was being established in the 1960s Matiba had the choice of becoming its lifetime member but in 1968 he forfeited the chance to join private industry where he made his billions through sheer hard work and determination.

It is a pity that because of the State-sponsored atrocities against his businesses the example of Matiba is not available to inspire talented and productive young men and women who increasingly find it easier to join the political industry than work their butts off as Matiba did. It pains me all the more that even for me I would be hard-pressed to convince my children that in Matiba Kenya had its best chance to chart a different course.

The irony of all this was played out after Matiba’s death. In recent years whenever a former presidential candidate dies, the media and elite class quickly declare him the best President Kenya would have had. It is both comforting and revealing that with Matiba, this hypocritical class could not deign to make such a declaration. Two last ironies. In the heady days of the 1990s Mwai Kibaki was dubbed a coward in contradiction to Matiba. Yet in 2002 it was Kibaki rather than Matiba who succeeded Moi. Finally, William Ruto entered Kenya’s politics as an errand boy of the Cyrus Jirongo led YK 92 outfit whose major mission was to stop Matiba from ascending to the presidency. Today Ruto is the presumptive fifth president of Kenya. Long live the system!

In his book Profiles in Courage (published in 1955) John F. Kennedy the US President from 1961 to 1963, wrote that modern “political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanised and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment”. He went on to quote the advice allegedly given during the 1920 campaign by former Senator Ashurst of Arizona to his colleague Mark Smith:-

Mark, the great trouble with you is that you refuse to be a demagogue. You will not submerge your principles in order to get yourself elected. Your must learn that there are times when a man in public life is compelled to rise above his principles.

Fare thee well my hero Matiba. This land is better because of your sacrifice and high principles. It bleeds my heart that our nation did little to mitigate your suffering and honour you enough.

*The writer is a constitutional lawyer (kibemungai@yahoo.com)

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