Curtain falls on man smitten with John F Kennedy magic

Former MP Kimani wa Nyoike. He was among the pioneer founders of the now defunct Kenya Union of Civil Servants. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • On his return to Kenya at the dawn of independence, he was torn between getting a job in the civil service, dabbling in politics and trying his hand in business.
  • After the 2002 polls, he finally made a decision to quit politics. His parting word on politics was that it is a game of smoke and mirrors.

On the day I went to interview politician Kimani wa Nyoike at his home in Athi River, I found him reading a huge volume titled A Thousand Days.

The book is a recording of events in the exactly 1,000 days John F Kennedy was the President of the United States.

“You must have been an admirer of JFK,” I said to the politician as I settled into a seat in his study room.

“Of course yes, and a big one at that,” he replied and told me he couldn’t tell how many times he had reread the book.

“I was a student in the US when events recorded in the book happened,” he said. “Any time I open a chapter in it I feel like I am watching a live movie.”

***

Politician Nyoike, who died at the age of 85 on Wednesday last week, had two reasons to have fond memories of JFK: one personal, the other collectively shared by many in his generation here and abroad.

In the personal space, he was a beneficiary of the Kennedy Airlifts, a project in the late 1950s and early 60s when hundreds of Kenyans were granted scholarships to pursue higher education in the US.

Nyoike was in the first batch of the beneficiaries, who included the father of a former US President, Barack Obama Senior, and the late Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai.

Kimani studied Economics at the Lincoln University, proceeding to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Previously, he had been to Alliance High School (student No. 1362 in the class of 1953), then to Makerere University College. Those days he was known as James Kimani.

On returning home, Nyoike worked in the civil service, before plunging into trade union politics. Later he was elected MP and served as assistant minister.

The second reason Nyoike had fond memories of JFK - and which is shared by many who had come of age in the days the latter was a resident at the White House - is the magnetic hold and inspirational force he wrought on the world.

To this day, JFK is remembered not much for what he did, but for the vision he had of the world he wanted to live in.

It is JFK who uttered the often quoted words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!”

KENNEDY SCHOLARSHIP

JFK phenomena best comes out in the story of how the airlifts came about, which is best told in the memoirs of the Kenyan in the driver’s seat of the project, the late Cabinet minister Tom Mboya. (Back in the day, they called him TJ, the initials to his long name, Thomas Joseph).

Mboya memoirs say of his first meeting with JFK: “I first met Mr Kennedy – he was then Senator Kennedy – in the West Coast near San Francisco. This was at a conference on international affairs …. I think we found a lot of interest in each other almost immediately.

I had written a pamphlet titled: ‘The Kenyan Question: And African Answer’, which I gave to him and in which he was very interested. We discussed a lot about the African situation and found that we were in a lot of agreement about the whole area of American foreign policy. I was impressed with him as a person … and with the sincerity that gave him popular appeal to the masses.”

Of their second meeting and which yielded the Kennedy Airlifts, Mboya recorded: “I mentioned to him (JFK) what I was doing and he expressed interest in it. At his home in Hynnis Port, we discussed the programme and the difficulties we had and asked whether the Kennedy Foundation could in any way assist us …. He promised he would get Mr Shriver, who was in-charge of the foundation, to look at our problem.”

On the day I interviewed him, Nyoike vividly recalled JFK’s inauguration speech, which he watched on television as a student in the US in January 1961.

He recalled crowds couldn’t hold onto their seats as JFK spoke. “When he spoke, he had a fire that made people jump from their seats to ululate and dance to rhythm of his brilliantly chosen and powerfully spoken words.”

MEMORABLE QUOTES

Some of the popular and oft-quoted lines from the JFK inauguration speech include: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation….”

And “the hopes of all mankind rest upon us — not simply upon those of us in this chamber, but the spirit that moves every man and nation who share our hopes for the future … Civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof …. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate….”

Back to Nyoike story, on his return to Kenya at the dawn of independence, he was torn between getting a job in the civil service, dabbling in politics and trying his hand in business.

Unable to make a decision on his own, he sought advice from his uncle, Eliud Mathu, who was the first comptroller of State House in President Jomo Kenyatta’s government.

Mathu advised him to keep off politics, which he equated with a ride in the devil’s minibus. “If you want to go to politics,” he told Nyoike, “first make sure to have a comprehensive, not a third-party, insurance. Secondly, be ready to walk among serpents but careful to avoid their bite unless you have anti-venom in hand!”

His uncle should have known, as he had been the first African in Kenya to become an MP.

Eliud Mathu was nominated the first African representative to the Legislative Council (LegCo), the name of Parliament in colonial Kenya, in 1944.

***

Youthful Nyoike heeded his uncle's advice and joined the civil service. But with the political bug nagging him, he struck a balance by dabbling in trade union politics.

He was among the pioneer founders of the now defunct Kenya Union of Civil Servants, of which he was elected secretary-general.

In its day, it was the largest and most influential trade union in the country. The Francis Atwolis of this world could not hold a candle to him.

****

It was during that time that civil servants were allowed to own businesses through what is (in)famously called the Ndegwa Commission.

Duncan Ndegwa, then governor of the Central Bank, chaired the commission that made the recommendation.

As lead spokesman of the civil servants, Nyoike fully supported the decision to allow them to own businesses.

I asked him whether that was not akin to sanctioning official corruption, which bleeds Kenya to this day. First, he explained the rationale behind the move.

He told me that at the time, the government had embarked on massive “Africanisation” of the economy but met a huge challenge in that a majority of indigenous Kenyans had no money to go into business.

The only locals with disposable income at the time, he recalled, were the civil servants who at least had a payslip, unlike the “peasants”, who toiled on the soil and lived – no, survived – on the Lords’ prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread...”

But the civil servant could, on the strength of the payroll number, access some credit to get started in business.

MULTIPLIER EFFECT

The rationale was that, in the fullness of time, the civil servants who got into business would create a critical mass to lay a foundation for a private sector which would create employment for the masses who had no payslips, and who, once they got one, would also get into business and build on a multiplier effect.

For illustration, Nyoike gave the example of his former classmate at Alliance High School, a Kirinyaga boy called Philip Mutuku Ndegwa.

Like Nyoike, Philip went for higher studies in the US on a Kennedy scholarship. At independence, he was appointed permanent secretary and served in the Ministry of Economic Planning under Tom Mboya. Later, he became governor of the Central Bank.

When civil servants were allowed to go into business, Philip Ndegwa seized the opportunity as if it were a lifesaver and went on to build one of the largest privately owned business empires in the country today.

So where did corruption creep in, I asked Nyoike. As an economist – trained at MIT, no less! – he traced the origin of massive corruption to the late 1980s and onwards when riches were mistaken for wealth.

“That is the time we got a strange breed of briefcase billionaires, who believed stashing hard currency in pockets, office drawers, and under the mattress was the measure of wealth,” he explained, adding that it is how we ended up with men – and women – with mountains of money in secret foreign bank accounts, but no tangible investments that create employment, growth and stability at home.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Eventually, Nyoike forgot the advice from his uncle and joined politics in 1979. He was elected MP for the then Nyandarua South constituency.

It is then that he learnt that politics isn’t much different from what his uncle had told him — a ride in the devil’s minibus.

I interviewed him after the 2002 elections, when he finally made a decision to quit politics for good. His parting word on politics was that it is a game of smoke and mirrors.

One of the more dramatic incidents he remembered during the interview was the day President Daniel arap Moi invited him for a cup of tea at State House, not long after he was elected MP and was still secretary-general of the Kenya Union of Civil Servants.

Moi told him that he had information that the leadership of the giant trade union was conspiring to sabotage his government and had called him to find out the truth.

Nyoike assured the President nothing like that was on the cards. Satisfied with the answer, the President walked his guest to the door as he said:

“You know I was going to ban your organisation but now I won’t do that. You are a good man.”

He also gave him a telephone number and asked him to call any time he had something he considered worth the President’s attention.

Three days later, the announcement came that the government had banned the Kenya Union of Civil Servants! When Nyoike called the telephone line the President had given him, it rang temporarily out of order – and remained so forever.

Fare thee well, Mheshimiwa Kimani wa Nyoike.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.