If, after moving heaven and earth, Kenya’s finest eventually establish that McDonald Mariga is indeed younger than his younger brother, it won’t hurt him politically.
In fact, it could boost his stock. This is one enterprise where the more the baggage, the greater the appeal.
But I wouldn’t advise Mariga to count on this in his attempt to win the Kibra parliamentary seat in the November by-election. Although nothing can surprise when it comes to Kenya’s elections, I expect him to muddy the waters but not to win.
He neither has what it takes to win freely, nor does he deserve to. It is inconceivable that a man who has spent all his post-football career asking the youth to try their luck in betting should inherit the work of one of the ablest and most beloved parliamentarians in Kenya’s history.
Mariga is seeking to add his name to a short list of people who have played for Harambee Stars and gone on to become members of parliament. By my count, this list features only three people – Charles Mukora, Joab Omino and Chris Obure. I hope the people of Kibra, for their own sake and that of Mariga, don’t make the mistake of adding him to this number.
If they reject him, they will have saved him, for there will then exist a chance that he will go back to what he knows best: football. Hopefully, he will eschew promoting betting, which has brought only grief to many Kenyan families and immerse himself in a harder but nobler endeavour, like running a youth academy. As for the people of Kibra, the work of Ken Okoth, which speaks for itself, is just too precious to be gambled with. He was one of a kind.
Mariga is a world removed from the three gentlemen who took on the coveted title “Honourable” after taking off the Harambee Stars shirt. Those people got themselves to parliament. In fact, while it is true that many people with dreams – and hallucinations – of leadership greatly exaggerate themselves when they say they are answering the call of the people, sometimes it is actually true.
HUGELY RESPECTED MEN
All three of the men named above had the gravitas to attract such calls. They were not landing as if by parachute in the midst of the people they eventually represented. They emerged from them to become who they were. The last problem you could possibly imagine with them was one relating to an identity card – its date or place of issue. In their case, it was nothing but matters of “development”, as Kenyans like to call them.
Charles Mukora played as centre half for Harambee Stars in the mid-50s. An unusually gifted sportsman, he switched to athletics and did the long jump and decathlon before becoming a coach. JM Kariuki, one of Kenya’s martyred politicians, had praise for Mukora in his book “Mau Mau Detainee” as both a sportsman and a man.
It wouldn’t surprise that Mukora would nurture the careers of some Kenya’s world beating athletes as coach before rising to the helm of the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association – precursor to Athletics Kenya – and membership of the International Olympic Committee.
During his long career, Mukora stayed in touch with his roots. The high altitude athletics training camp that he established was in his home area and his people appreciated that. Once he expressed interest in politics and bearing the banner of the locally correct political party, it was only a matter of course before he became MP for Laikipia East after the 1992 General Election.
His fate following a bribery scandal surrounding the awarding of the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City had the tragic weight of a colossus’ collapse. People make mistakes and these mistakes can wreck a lifetime’s work. It was Mukora’s fate to have his career end the way it did but there was never any doubt that his was a life of service.
Joab Omino was a 1970s Harambee Stars striker who, like all other well-educated players, had a short stint because there was a more sustainable and lucrative career to pursue. He was an ambitious man who seemed unable not to say exactly what was on his mind, whatever the consequences.
In the run-up to the Kenya Football Federation elections of November 1985 when he was battling Clement Gachanja for the top office, Omino became so hard to get for us sports journalists that I became intrigued. Gachanja was all over us with his manifesto but Omino was nowhere; we just heard that he was meeting delegates from Western, delegates from Nairobi, delegates from North Rift, delegates from Coast, delegates from Lower Eastern and more and more delegates from every corner of the country. He met them mostly at night at undisclosed locations.
BLUNT IN HIS APPROACH
I tracked him to a social event. Why was he not talking to us, I wanted to know. He was very nice but his bluntness was vintage Omino. “Journalists have no votes,” he told me. “Delegates do. I have no time to waste with people who have no votes.” I left with a severely wounded ego, seeing as it is that I came from a professional community that believed no public figure could do without the media. He won the election.
Omino is the man who announced for anybody who cared to listen that “coaches come by the dozen” when he was told that the popular Reinhardt Fabisch had resigned as Harambee Stars coach. He made me think: these things you say are true, but do you have to say them? He became Member of Parliament for Kisumu Town West and served as Deputy Speaker in the National Assembly.
Chris Obure is currently serving in the Senate, representing Kisii County. He played as a winger for Limuru’s Bata Bullets, Gor Mahia and, like Omino, very briefly for Harambee Stars before Kenneth Matiba tapped his lawyerly skills as company secretary for Kenya Breweries. But he was still to serve as secretary of the Kenya Football League.
The common thread among all these footballers turned Members of Parliament is that they had a solid background of service in the sport they were involved in before venturing into national politics. In fact, Mukora used to urge fellow sportsmen to run for parliament to prosecute their agenda from that seat of power. All these were their own men. None needed to be held by one hand while the finger of the free one pointed them in the direction they should go. Whatever their shortcomings, they were leaders in their own right.
Mariga does not play in their league. He also does not play in the league of his contemporaries – Nwankwo Kanu of Nigeria, Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, Didier Drogba of Cote D’Ivoire, Sadio Mane of Senegal and much, much less, George Weah of Liberia. These are people whose social conscience was felt almost from the day they earned their first penny.
Imagine comparing people who built hospitals, started thriving youth academies and funded their national teams with somebody whose only known public activity is encouraging people to engage is gambling. Vice and virtue do not become one and the same thing just because they all played football.
I watched Mariga tell journalists that he wanted to give back to the community, at once dealing further punishment on a phrase that has been abused to exhaustion. How about he starts by rehabilitating the Landi Mawe ground where he kicked his first ball that set him on course to win a European Champions League gold medal? The playing surface is bare earth, not even one blade of grass. He doesn’t need to be an MP to mobilise funds to do that.
Mariga has done well for himself. Lavington and the pristine beaches of Malindi are a world away from Landi Mawe, the desperately poor neighbourhood of his upbringing where large families squeeze themselves into a single room today. But people make mistakes and I think Mariga has just made one big one. He has strayed into territory that has lords of all they behold. Vicious lords. There could still be time to get out and change course but he probably is now too invested in this enterprise to see the glaring warning signs.
I had an acquaintance who had a booming professional and business career before hubris overtook him and he ran for parliament in a by-election like Mariga is doing. He lost and next I heard about him when the dust had settled was that he was topping up motor vehicles in American gas stations.
Some, of course, succeed and politics has greatly improved their financial and social stock. But compared to the numbers that try their luck, these are a mere handful. Many are those who trade promising careers to become pitiful cheerleaders of their lords.
Sometimes you come by the street a man clutching a worn envelope darting across a busy road, his shirt armpits soaked in sweat, looking preoccupied.
And when you look closer at the familiar face, you realise he is the one who once upon a time flexed bulging political muscles in the media.
It’s a gamble. And Mariga has evidently decided that he knows more than most about gambling. I wish him well but I am not tranquil about his prospects. I watched him speak into reporters’ microphones the other day. He spoke in Sheng, obviously keen to send the message that his grassroots connections remain intact.
But I want to believe that he has also heard of people called Wahenga to whom much wisdom is ascribed. If they were to describe the folly of his venture into politics, they wouldn’t need all this sacred acreage of space available to me. Instead, they would use just six words: Kuingia ni harusi, kutoka ni matanga. To get in is a wedding, to get out is a funeral.