Lessons from the early politicians who shaped Kenya

Sunday April 29 2018

Combined photos from left: Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Kenneth Matiba and Simeon Nyachae. They had a huge impact on the country’s politics. PHOTOS | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The death of second liberation hero Kenneth Matiba two weeks ago has further cut down the numbers of an exclusive group of independence leaders whose defining attributes were their dedication to public service, business successes and the huge impact they had on the country’s politics.

Members of this group include retired presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, the first African mayor of Nairobi Charles Rubia and former Cabinet minister Simeon Nyachae.

Matiba, who was cremated on Friday, was eulogised for, among other things, his business acumen that enabled him to build an empire which sadly crumbled with the onset of health complications brought about by his incarceration in 1990 for calling for a return to multiparty politics.

He was also remembered for dedication to public service, where, aged 31, he served as the youngest Permanent Secretary (PS) in Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s administration from 1963 to 1968 before resigning to join the Kenya Breweries Ltd where he rose to be general manager. 

Like Matiba, who died at 85, most of the five leaders mentioned above, now in their 80s or 90s, today suffer bad health attributed to old age, but most of what was said about Matiba could easily be said of them too.

Mr Nyachae is still admitted to a London hospital for further treatment after falling ill a month ago, while Mr Moi, 93, recently travelled to Israel for a knee check-up.


Mr Kibaki has had throat complications, too, that have almost rendered his speech inaudible.

Wrinkled with age and wracked by disease, today they might be a far cry from the vivacious entrepreneurial youthful nation-makers of yesteryears, but their influence endures.

This is not to say that they are without blemish; Mr Moi, for example, stands accused of detaining many of his political opponents, including Matiba and Rubia.

Former Imenti Central MP Gitobu Imanyara was withering in his analysis of the legacy of the five leaders still alive and their departed colleagues who include the late Njenga Karume and John Michuki.

“The thread that runs through their stories,” he said, “Is that they acquired their wealth by exploiting the public offices they held.

"Only Matiba managed to distinguish his public service from his personal businesses to a certain degree, but he paid the price for it. Without political patronage, these people would not have become as wealthy as they did.”

Nonetheless, this does not take away the fact that these were men with extraordinary drive and an ability for hard work that was sometimes of legendary proportions.

While he was president, Mr Moi was known for his punishing schedule which began as early as four o’clock in the morning and ended past midnight.

He mostly traversed the country by road, not helicopter, holding multiple meet the people tours even when it was not election time.

As President for 24 years, not once did he report to office later than 6.30am, recalled his long-time press officer Lee Njiru.

And, on some days, the President and his staff would be taking breakfast at 3am.

“He used to have appointments even at 6am,” Mr Njiru said in a previous interview. More than a decade after retirement, Mr Moi’s mornings are still busy.

Mr Moi has interests in almost all sectors of the economy, including media, agriculture, manufacturing and banking.

His schools include Moi Educational Centre in Nairobi, Sunshine Secondary School in Nairobi, Moi High School, Kabarak, Sacho High School in Baringo, Kabarak University and Moi Primary School.

Mr Kibaki, 86, served as Moi’s Vice President for one decade from 1978 through 1988.

While most of these elderly statesmen were teetotallers — such as Matiba — or partook alcohol in moderation, Kibaki was an exception.

“Kibaki had an admirable streak of drinking huge amounts of beer without getting drunk,” Mr Kereri, who was Comptroller of State House for one year from 2003 to 2004, said.

Mr Kibaki’s personality and leadership is a contrast to that of his predecessor.


When he rose to the presidency in 2003, he adopted a laidback attitude that allowed civil servants to work without fear of being micromanaged.

He, too, is wealthy with huge land holdings, including 10,000 acres in Nakuru.

From 1963, when President Kenyatta appointed him the first black Attorney General, Mr Njonjo bestrode Kenya’s legal and political landscape, scheming for Kenyatta’s succession before his ignominious downfall in 1983.

Mr Njonjo was widely suspected to have been plotting to succeed President Kenyatta, which placed him at odds with other contenders from central Kenya who felt better suited for the top job than him.

Ostracised by fellow politicians from Mount Kenya region, he formed an unlikely alliance with Vice President Moi, who was considered a passing cloud by the schemers around President Kenyatta who came up with a plot to lock out the VP from automatically succeeding President Kenyatta upon his demise.

Mr Moi assumed office following Kenyatta’s death without a legal hitch — thanks in large part to Mr Njonjo’s scheming — but in the classic Machiavellian manner, the former set in motion events to cut his “kingmaker” to size and tighten his grip on power.

Mr Njonjo was forced to resign as an MP in 1983. He then kept a low profile, largely concentrating on expanding his vast business empire, which spans nearly all sectors of the Kenyan economy.

Known for his pin-striped suits, Mr Njonjo, who turned 98 in January, acquired the moniker the “Duke of Kabeteshire” for his English mannerisms and the constituency which he represented in Parliament. He married at the age of 50.


Mr Nyachae’s legendary efficiency in the public service was so admired that he, and three other Kenyans, became the subject of an academic study by an international scholar in 1988.

“Nyachae began his day early, worked through lunch, and kept to a rigid schedule of exercise,” David K. Leonard wrote in The Secrets of African Managerial Success, which he wrote for the Institute of Development Studies.

“He was famous for the speed with which he gave written replies to memos. Mr Nyachae believed in total abstinence from alcohol and would not even drink coffee,” he wrote.

As Chief Secretary from 1983-1986, Mr Nyachae’s influence permeated every department of government operations and he was the most articulate exponent of most economic policies.

The son of a wealthy Paramount Chief, Musa Nyandusi, Mr Nyanchae became an even wealthier wheat farmer in the Mau-Narok area in 1970s and started the Sansora Agricultural Group.

At independence, Mr Rubia was one of the highest-ranking diplomats.

As the first black mayor of Nairobi, he hosted civic receptions at City Hall for every ambassador who presented his credentials to the new President, Jomo Kenyatta, at State House.

Mr Rubia, now 95, then served as the MP of Starehe constituency from 1966 to 1988 rising to be a Cabinet minister.

However he is not on the list of Kenya’s wealthiest people even though he once played in that league too.


While serving both Presidents Kenyatta and Moi as a minister, privately, his businesses, especially a tour company called Kenya Mystery Tours, boomed.

All that changed in 1990 when he and Matiba teamed up to demand a referendum on the country’s political future.

He was thrown in jail for this and has never recovered financially.

Prof Jacob Midiwo of the University of Nairobi said that despite the political and economic influence that the leaders have had in the country, the masses have not benefited much from them.

“Perhaps if they had acted differently, in a way towards more equitable distribution of resources as opposed to amassing it for themselves, we would be having less of the conflicts that we see today,” he said.