Kenya’s Environment minister John Michuki died of a heart attack on Tuesday. He was 80. What a fellow! Michuki, a wealthy man, was not universally popular. His critics alleged he was an “ethnic entrepreneur” (read that as tribalist).
The Kenya nationalists contingent considered him a traitor who worked with the colonialists as an enforcer at a time when the people had risen against the British in the Mau Mau rebellion.
He was a perfect African product of his age, who had a thinly disguised contempt for the lowly, and did not particularly care for the fine points of democracy.
He did not like us journalists; he thought we were a pain in the backside.
Several years ago, after taking a particularly menacing anti-media freedom stance, he was cornered about it. He was unapologetic, saying, “when you rattle a snake, you must expect to be bitten by it.”
And, confronted with runaway crime, he gave shoot-to-kill orders, bringing the whole human rights world down on his head.
Yet, you have the ultimate irony. Michuki’s weaknesses and failings made him easily the most effective of President Mwai Kibaki’s ministers.
African politicians and public servants are notoriously incompetent. They talk, talk, and talk, and do little or nothing.
Michuki seemed to believe that he had rather be blamed for doing the wrong thing than doing nothing.
Outside of Rwanda, one of the few African countries that was able to crack down on the road madness that kills thousands of people every year, and the insanity of the matatu or daladala industry, was Kenya.
And then, only between 2004 and 2006, the period when he was still Transport minister and decided to deal with the problem.
The matatu industry is the most difficult to tame in Africa because there are too many vested interests.
Often ministers own matatus, traffic police officers, who are supposed to enforce road rules are matatu owners, small and big and ruling officials are into matatus.
So, it becomes impossible to manage.
Michuki, though, had utter contempt for things matatu — the people who drive them, the people who own them, and probably the people who travel in them.
When the matatu strike to protest the “Michuki Rules” was on, you could see him talking about it on TV, looking like he was resisting a swell to throw up on his shoes.
So accidents dropped drastically and some hospital intensive care units in Nairobi all but stopped working at night. When Michuki left and matatu-appeasing and coddling Transport ministers came, mayhem and slaughter returned to Kenya’s roads.
But it is really what Michuki told us about the independence generation of African leaders that we should perhaps take away from his life.
From Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Milton Obote in Uganda, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, to Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, they were nation builders, but lousy multiparty politicians.
All of them imposed one party rule. Yet, they have generally been judged kindly by history because they gave something back.
Coming to power as the colonialists left, they built a record number of schools, hospitals, opened up the economy to indigenous Africans, and extended scholarships to thousands, even millions.
Why did they succeed more than the politicians who came after them? Because they had something to prove. Having battled with colonialism, which was partly based on the notion that the colonised were somehow inferior, they were under pressure to prove the opposite.
They took power in societies that were in triple transition — from traditional to modern, from colonial to independent, from nations with small populations to those witnessing booms from the advances of modern medicine and the benefits of vaccination.
They had to move from the comfort and familiarity of their ethnic groups to deal with new national groups whose hearts throbbed to a different beat.
Some like Nyerere and Obote managed to transition into being “tribeless” and nationalist. Others like Michuki did not do as well. They were the majority.
In common, though, they were all patriots — which is why Michuki used to be so irritated by what he considered heckling from Western ambassadors.
If Michuki were a 45-year-old politician, he would be more politically correct. But he might also have been a hopeless Transport minister, too weak to take on the matatu crowd.