Rubia: Founding father in dissent’ nobly secured democracy

Wednesday March 18 2020

Certainly, Charles Wanyoike Rubia, who died on December 23, 2019 at 96, is one of the makers of modern Kenya, ‘a founding fathers in dissent’ who has helped secure Kenya’s democracy at great cost.


By its very nature, dissent – defined as non-agreement or opposition to prevailing ideas, policies or entities as opposed to reticent agreement, consensus or consent – is both lauded and loathed: lauded when it is in the glorious, unthreatening past, but loathed by those whose power or position it threatens.

Rubia is an icon of Africa’s noble dissidents of the late 20th century, the double-heroes and heroines of the “First Liberation” against colonial autocracy and the “Second Liberation” against post-colonial tyranny.

Born in 1923 in Maria-ini, Location 5 in Murang’a County, then an impoverished ‘native reserve’ and source of forced labour for white settler enterprises, young Rubia encountered colonial injustice and repression in a personal and palpable way.

His spirit of dissent was forged on the anvil of the repressive culture in settler farms, where his father, Kenneth Rubia Mbuthia, worked as a colonial labourer and where young Charles spent his formative years. Kenneth embraced education to empower his son, embedded in the idea of ‘education for liberation’ promoted by African liberators such as Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela as a response to the dehumanising impacts of colonial oppression on both individual and society.


He enrolled Charles in Kahuhia Primary School in Murang’a, Kagumo Intermediate School in Nyeri and to Alliance High School in Kiambu in 1941. Rubia also furthered his education by taking practical professional training in Kenya and abroad.

In the sagely words of Abraham Lincoln, the “philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next”. In post-colonial Kenya, three different forms of dissent profoundly defined Rubia’s political career and legacy.

First is the idea of dutiful dissent that involves working for change in a reformist fashion within existing systems and power structures, which shaped Rubia’s political career in the 1960s and early 1970s. As a reformer of existing systems and power structures, Rubia was nominated to the African Ward Council in 1955, to the Nairobi Municipal Council in 1957, and to the Legislative Council (LegCo) in 1960. In 1962, he replaced Harold Travis, the last European mayor of Nairobi, becoming the first African Mayor of the enchanted “City in the Sun”.

As his time as mayor ended in 1967, Rubia joined national politics to further his reform agenda, becoming chairman of the Nairobi Kanu Branch in 1968, Member of Parliament for Starehe Constituency in 1969 and Assistant Minister for Education (1969-1974).


After 1969, a second form of dissent shaped Rubia’s legacy: the disruptive dissent of Socrates, Martin Luther and Mandela that seeks to challenge the existing systems, authoritarian culture and drivers of poverty and unsustainable development.

What pricked Rubia’s conscience and propelled his ideological shift from the dutiful to disruptive dissent was a series of events that shrank democratic space and pushed the young nation down the slippery path of authoritarianism. These included the government’s ban on the opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU), effectively turning the country into a de facto one-party state.

“It is vital in a House where there is no opposition that members speak freely and fearlessly,” Rubia told Parliament in February 1970.

Despite taking issue with government policies and actions, Rubia was re-elected in 1974, but dropped from the government together with other ‘renegade’ Assistant Ministers such as JM Kariuki (Agriculture). After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Rubia joined the Cabinet of Daniel Arap Moi as Minister for Local Government. He returned to dutiful dissent as a reformer, launching a spirited fight against corruption in local councils and issued a directive that no council official or councillor could own more than one council house. “I will neither tolerate, encourage nor stand malpractices of any kind by those charged with the responsibility of running local authorities as long as I remain minister,” he declared in December 1979.


However, despite his Cabinet position, Rubia spoke openly against the high-handedness of the one-party state that followed the introduction of the infamous section 2A into the amended constitution that turned Kenya into a de jure single-party state in 1982. Rubia recaptured his parliamentary seat in the September 26, 1983 snap election, but soon lost his Cabinet position as Minister for Works, Housing and Physical Planning. Rubia lost his parliamentary seat in the infamous 1988 Mlolongo elections (queue voting), and was expelled from Kanu in March 1989. After 1989, as the ‘third wave of democracy’ washed over Africa, Rubia stridently shifted to the third form of dissent, the revolutionary or dangerous dissent, which openly defies the status quo by pursuing a radical vision, leading to long-term and far-reaching change. In July 1990, together with former Minister Kenneth Matiba, he called for a referendum on the country’s political future, and for a mass rally at Nairobi’s Kamukunji grounds on July 7, 1990.

Dissent is costly. Rubia was arrested and detained on July 4, 1990, and only released nine months later in very poor health and with his family and business in ruins. The 2008 post-election violence pushed Rubia back to dutiful dissent to deepen a culture of unity, peace and democracy. He co-founded and chaired the Council of Eminent Persons as a peacemaking vehicle.


Like many dissenters who emerge victorious in history, Rubia is one of the most feted and decorated Kenyans. He was awarded several honorary degrees, the highest state commendations, and two roads named after him.

Vilified as dissenters are, Rubia’s name is indelibly engraved and immortalised in the hearts of those his noble dissent touched. Adieu Mzee Rubia.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and Currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.