My encounter with Eliud Mathu, a man of many firsts

Eliud Mathu.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Then he became the first Kenyan ambassador, first Kenyan to sit in Parliament, first Kenyan to register a national political party and first controller of State House.
  • For his top performance, Mathu earned full scholarship to then best university in black Africa, Fort Hare in South Africa.

On this day – September 27 – 31 years ago, I began a three-day serialisation in the Kenya Times newspaper about a man of many firsts. His name is Eliud Mathu.

It was a personal achievement because Editor-in-Chief Philip Ochieng gave instructions that I immediately be removed from the list of correspondents and put on the payroll as a “permanent” employee.

Allow a little digression. I have put “permanent” in quotes because I always muse why people would say they are on permanent jobs when life itself isn’t permanent!

Not long ago, there was even a coveted job in this country with title “Permanent Secretary”, yet the head of state would dismiss you on a whim and via a one o’clock radio announcement!

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Mr Ochieng, wasn’t just pleased that my story was so detailed that he ran it for three days, but that I had “discovered” that the old nationalist – he was 87 at the time – was alive, when media had concluded he had “departed to be with the Lord”.

In those days, there was no “Google” and the internet was yet to get to Kenya.

So, when famous people like Mathu went out of the public radar, everybody concluded they had crossed over to the other world! Anyway, Mathu finally passed on in May 1993. And here is his story of many firsts.

 In 1926, the colonial government allowed an alliance of churches to establish a secondary school for Africans in Kikuyu, Kiambu. The school was named “Alliance” in the spirit of the founders.

The first class had 27 boys. In reality though, they were not boys. The youngest, Mathu, was 20 years old, which made him be given admission number 20. Seven of the “boys” were in their 30s.

It reminds one of Bob Collymore’s “boys club” where the youngest was journalist Jeff Koinange in his 50s!

Incidentally, Jeff’s stepfather, Mbiyu Koinange, aged 20-something, was one of the Alliance 27 “boys”.

So old were the “boys” that Alliance headmaster, Rev G.A. Grieve recorded in his diary of their first day in school: “The boys looked very big when they put on the school uniform of khaki shorts and a shirt”.

Mathu turned out to be one of most brilliant in the class.

His class teacher would write in his school leaving certificate: “Mathu was the cleverest boy who had passed through our hands. He couldn’t be kept back. He was the type who decided to learn shorthand and mastered in three months a course which takes a year.”

For his top performance, Mathu earned full scholarship to then best university in black Africa, Fort Hare in South Africa.

Going AWOL

He was first Kenyan to be admitted to the university.

On graduation, Oxford University wanted him for a master’s degree, but Rev Grieve convinced the colonial governor that Mathu comes back to Kenya to be the first African to teach at his old school as way of inspiring other Kenyans.

After a stint in the classroom, Mathu proceeded to Oxford.

On return to Kenya, the colonial government gave Mathu another first.

He was appointed the colony’s ambassador to Ethiopia, the first diplomatic appointment for a Kenyan.

He told me that when in Addis Ababa serving in the court of Emperor Haile Sellasie, Ethiopians nicknamed him the “Black White man” because he was only African in that capacity.

World War II broke out and Mathu was quickly recalled home since Italians had overrun Addis Ababa.

Later, the British – with great contribution of Africans, including my father – chased Benito Musolini’s army from Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, the British got Mathu another job. In 1944, he was nominated the first African to sit in Legislative Council (Legco).

That made Mathu the first Kenyan to have the title: “Honourable Member” (Mheshimiwa).

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At the same time, agitation for the independence of Kenya was taking a bigger militant and more nationalistic angle. Yet the white settlers and government could not allow Africans to form a political party.

Mathu, who the British could trust as an MP, conspired with Africans to register a deceptively educational national organisation called Kenya African Study Union (Kasu), which, in reality, was a political outfit that later became the Kenya African Union (KAU), and finally Kenya African National Union (Kanu).

Just before independence, another first came for Mathu. He landed a job in New York. Today’s sheng generation say kwenda majuu (finding honey abroad) – that is before Donald Trump happened!

Mathu became first Commissioner at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa then based in New York before relocation to Addis Ababa.

Come independence and Jomo Kenyatta offered Eliud Mathu the job of Controller of State House/Private Secretary to the President – another first.

Mathu told me his first instinct was to decline the job and remain in New York.

He accepted the offer when he remembered it is Jomo Kenyatta – then known as Johnstone Kamau – who took him to Alliance on motorbike on the day of admission, March 20, 1926.

Shared history

Early in the morning, Jomo had dropped his younger brother James Muigai to be admitted to Alliance as student Number One.

When controller of State House, only Mathu, Koinange and cabinet minister James Gichuru whose story I will tell next – would casually relate with the head of state, owing to their long shared history.

 At one time Mathu went AWOL (away without official leave), and President Kenyatta allowed him to be “suspended” from official duties for two years.

But that did not stop them meeting as old buddies – to have bite of mutura ...and a chaser.

Postscript: It is sad that determination on succession cause on the estate of Eliud Mathu (that is the legalese way of saying sharing of wealth) has been pending in courts 27 years after he died.

Maybe – it is just a suggestion – His Lordship the Honourable Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court David Maraga – Mr Uhuru Kenyatta seems to forget there is another president in the country – will have the matter of Kenya Number One – Eliud Mathu – determined, before His Lordship vacates office in January next year.

For some, CJ is brave, others think he is a rabble-rouser


Globally, Chief Justice David Maraga is regarded a brave judge for making decisions that have rattled the other two arms of government.

At home, some consider him a rabble-rouser and a man of many firsts for his rulings that have dismayed politicians.

Justice Maraga’s latest decision to advise President Uhuru Kenyatta to dissolve the National Assembly and Senate for failing to enact the gender parity rule came almost three years since he and his team annulled the presidential election. He was the first chief justice on the continent to annul the victory of a sitting president.

The 69-year-old is known for advocating constitutionalism and standing by his decisions, however unpopular.

The rulings have, in several instances, drawn criticism and led to public spats.

Unlike his predecessors who enjoyed a warm relationship with the Executive, Justice Maraga’s ties with the presidency have been strained since 2017.

While nullifying Mr Kenyatta’s win, Justice Maraga awed many when he said:  “The greatness of any nation lies in its fidelity to the Constitution, adherence to the rule of law and above all respect to God”.

Despite pressure and attempted removal from office through a petition filed at the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) by Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu, Mr Maraga defended the actions of the Supreme Court.

In defence of the historic judgment, the CJ told journalists that the judges were ready to pay the ultimate price to protect the Constitution and the rule of law.

The alumnus of the University of Nairobi and Maranda High School said the Judiciary would not bow to pressure and attacks from the political class because of the ruling that sparked demonstrations from supporters of President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.

The CJ once stood before cameras with a Bible, swearing he had never taken a bribe.

While being vetted for the job in 2016, Mr Maraga was confronted with claims of taking bribes. He beat nine other competitors made up of judges, legal practitioners and academics.

During the same interview, Mr said being a Seventh Day Adventist, he cannot work on a Sabbath.

It came to pass during hearing of the 2017 presidential election petition when the first session was pushed to Saturday night, when the Sabbath had ended, to accommodate him.

In 1985 as a 34-year-old, Mr Maraga was appointed a judge of the Nakuru Agricultural Society of Kenya fair, a position he held until 1990.

After a private practice of 40 years, Mr Maraga joined the Judiciary in 2003 when he was appointed a High Court judge.

He joined the Court of Appeal in 2012, becoming the head of the Judiciary four years later.

Though he is yet to speak publicly of  his latest decision, the CJ in his letter appeared to remind Mr Kenyatta that “it is my constitutional duty to advise the President of the republic”.

He is also the first top judge to recommend the dissolution of the Legislature.

During a visit to Kakamega county last weekend, the Chief Justice told judges and magistrates not to be scared when they do the right thing.

“When courts remain neutral and stand firm, citizens respect the institution,” Mr Maraga said.

Academics and law experts described Mr Maraga’s 10-page letter as a legal earthquake. Top lawyers clashed and offered different interpretations of the word “shall” in the Constitution.

For more than a year, Mr Maraga is yet to cede his ground on the appointment of the 41 judges, whose swearing-in the President.

Due to his firm stand on the impasse, the Chief Justice and Attorney-General Kihara Kariuki exchanged words, with the latter defending the President’s delay.

In February last year, Mr Maraga and President Kenyatta’s relation appeared to be thawing when they toured Kisii county in the company of other leaders.

Unfortunately, Mr Maraga came under fire for being part of the President’s entourage, leading to speculation that he could be eyeing a political seat upon retirement.

Apart from receiving the Head of State, the CJ’s decision to join him on several stopovers where the President and his deputy addressed the residents, left tongues wagging.

Many rulings by judges and magistrates have put Mr Maraga on the receiving end.

He has been attacked on Facebook and other social media by politicians and their supporters.

Some people have gone to the extent of printing banners with defamatory words against Mr Maraga.

Following the attacks, Justice Maraga told an anti-corruption conference at Bomas of Kenya, Nairobi, that he was particularly angry at bloggers running campaigns against him, judges and the Judiciary in general.

When President Kenyatta took to the podium, he the Chief Justice to get used to the attacks.

When working as a resident judge in Nakuru between May 2009 and August 2010, Mr Maraga made visits to Nakuru and Naivasha prisons to know what prisoners and remandees were going through.

In 2010, he intervened to stop a potentially explosive hunger strike by prisoners and remandees.

They were protesting the manner in which they were being handled by magistrates and judges.

Among the precedent-setting rulings Mr Maraga made in his long legal career was the nullification of the 2013 election of Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula on grounds of bribery.