The gallant spirit Moi killed in detention

What you need to know:

  • He stood up to Moi when it was almost treasonable to question the Kanu hegemony. Now frail and ailing, his family talks about the husband and father they lost to Kanu’s ruthless crackdown on dissent

You can’t ask for a better place to contemplate creation’s beauty than to recline on a garden sofa and gaze at the earth, the sky and the sea at Safari Beach Hotel in Kenya’s South Coast.

It is soothing, and it inspires introspection, just allowing the soft breeze to massage your skin as you listen to the music of the palms in the wind. The waves rise and fall, making music of their own, and they come from the distant horizon where the sky touches the sea.

A few metres away from the soft sands of the beach, fishing boats are anchored in the waters of the shallow sea. They sway rhythmically with the wind. People stroll along the beach and there are a few camel taxis, too. But it is not the voices of people that you hear, only the sounds of the natural world. It is restorative and you cannot have enough of it.

The reason is self-evident, therefore, as to why the business empire builder who owns this place, and who has a multiple choice of homes that he could retire to, chose to spend his sunset years here. It is a corner of paradise on earth.

It is a signature to a man’s glowing entrepreneurial brilliance, but it is also, poignantly, a vivid reminder that capitalism, as the oil tycoon Armand Hammer once described it, is a war, and wars have casualties.

There is physical evidence of that war in the form of delayed maintenance. But it is in his and his descendants’ hands again. That war was won.

The empire builder, who resides here is Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba.

When this assignment to write about him on the 23rd anniversary of the Saba Saba uprising came up, I put through a request to his family to give me access. After about a week, Susan Mwamto, his daughter, called me with this answer:

“We have a family consensus. We shall go ahead with the story. But I have to tell you that it will not be possible for you to interview Mzee.”

He couldn’t speak to me but Edith, his wife of 52 years, was going to speak for him.

Later, Susan told me: “After the events of 1990, we lost a father and we never got him back. We lost him through the detention and the stroke. He went in one man and he came out another one. So in many ways, we lost the man we knew. We lost the father that we had. We are glad that we still have him, but it changed the course of our family life forever.

“And because he was a very strong personality, we found that we had to start fending for ourselves and to start to take care as opposed to being taken care of. It has been very challenging, but it has been worthwhile. I think, for all of us, there are no regrets, because he set us such an example. It is good to do what your conscience tells you is right.” 

Matiba’s is both a private family tragedy and a public loss for the Kenyan people. With his incapacitation, he cannot participate in the debates about what Kenya has become as a result of the pivotal role he played to expand democratic space in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

To his credit, he penned his memoirs in 1998 – Aiming High: The Story of my Life. But so much has happened since then, not least the adoption of a new Constitution that has changed the political architecture of the country.

He embodies a fading generation, the one that took over Kenya when the colonial administration left in 1963. Some of his closest friends and political collaborators like John Michuki and Njenga Karume are gone. Others are aged and infirm. All represent an important Kenyan story and historians are scurrying for it before it is too late.

Who really is Kenneth Matiba? He is a super-achiever, who came to grief on the sword of his unbending adherence to personal principles. He not only succeeded in almost everything he attempted, but did it in a big way.

He was a permanent secretary at the age of 31. Although this can doubtless be attributed to being at the right place at the right time with his Makerere education and Kenya getting Independence, he made a big success of the job and President Jomo Kenyatta was reluctant to release him when he decided to get into the corporate world.

He joined Kenya Breweries as a general manager and rose to become the managing director. Under him, the company expanded and he imposed his personal character on it, turning it into a big sponsor of sports because he was himself an avid sportsman and outdoorsman.

He left the corporate scene to join politics and was elected MP for Kiharu in 1979 on his first attempt, ousting the venerable Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, the first Kenyan to obtain a PhD degree. He won every election, save for the infamous Kanu branch elections of 1988 when he was blatantly rigged out. Meanwhile, his businesses and farming enterprises bloomed.

But when he resigned from the Cabinet and Parliament to protest Kanu’s obsessive rigging culture and repression, the Moi regime saw flashing red lights all over him.

The regime had almost effortlessly neutralised many a political foe, but this was doubtless the big one. It had to do something dramatic — which it did with a detention order. And thus began the beginning of the end for one of Kenya’s most redoubtable public figures.

Mr Gibson Kamau Kuria, lawyer for Raila Odinga during the heady days of 1990, teamed up with Mr Paul Muite to forge a partnership between Mr Odinga and Mr Matiba, Mr Muite’s client. It is the two lawyers who drafted the statement read by Matiba and his collaborator, Charles Rubia, calling for a referendum to determine Kenya’s political future in 1990.

Kuria reminisces: “Matiba was a kind of reluctant reformer… he did not have issues with the system until the excesses of mlolongo in 1988. Up until then, he was part of the authoritarian government. The important thing about him, however, is that he had a sense of decency. He got converted to the cause of pluralism. Kenya had reached a stage where it was contravening Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has a right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” Mlolongo was a negation of all that.

“The mlolongo experience turned him into a participant in the pro-democracy movement. Considering how monolithic Kanu was, one can say that he was courageous in coming out to fight the system. The second thing is that he was a very wealthy man and he was putting at risk all the wealth he had accumulated.

“A few politicians like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, George Anyona and Koigi wa Wamwere had been fighting the system. But his entry changed the equation. It represented a new chapter for Kenya. It indicated that there was something very wrong with the system if people like him, who had been in government and who were comfortable, could turn against it. Things had to be very bad, people concluded, if somebody like him could leave and join the Opposition.”

One of the stalwarts of Kenya’s second freedom struggle, Kamoji Wachira, was a lecturer at Kenyatta University before joining the ranks of detainees and exiles of the Kanu regime. As Matiba’s student at Kangaru High School, he offers an illuminating insight into the young, fresh-from-college future business mogul-cum-farmer-cum -politician.

“Towards the end of the Emergency in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kenya ran strictly on a colour-bar basis. All secondary schools ,which had European teachers, separated the staff by race (different toilets, housing, and other privileges). African staff were not allowed in the whites-only club house down the road, Mr Wachira says.

“This was the atmosphere in which Kenneth Matiba joined the staff of Kangaru High School, Embu, around 1961. I believe he had arrived straight from Makerere University. He found a good complement of older African graduate teachers already on the staff.

“His older predecessors included Mr John Gitau (chemistry and physics master); Mr Joe Kariuki (literature and music); Mr Habel Nyamu (geography and history) and Mr Grant Kamenju (English); to name but a few well known examples.

“Being younger, he was assigned to teach junior classes. That notwithstanding, pupils noticed that this was a teacher of a different stripe in several respects. One, he was athletic to a fanatical degree and apparently competent in multiple sports. He wore shorts most of the time while the older ones preferred the more formal wear. He did not drink and made it clear to older pupils his distaste of such. He was a stickler for order and structure and his week on duty was much feared.”

The most astonishing opinion about Mr Matiba may well be by Mr Matiba himself.

“In all my life, I have been naïve in a lot of things. I have always trusted people. I have never suspected or believed that people could actually twist truths deliberately to suit their convenience. I have also been innocent enough to trust that when I do something, everybody will agree with me, be happy and give me full support,” he writes in the preface to his autobiography.

“Some people see this as arrogance. In fact it arises from a desire implanted in me by my father and during my school days, to be a master in whatever I do. It is a desire not primarily to succeed but to merit success. In supposing that others were more concerned in getting a job done well rather than with who did it, I must have misjudged those who accused me wrongly and had me incarcerated with criminals condemned to death.”

The thought of Mr Matiba as naïve must stop one to think: how can that be? That super- achiever? But when you come to think about it, maybe there is some truth in that cutting self-appraisal. And, you wonder, how come he didn’t read Mr Moi’s regime better even after all those years of close personal friendship? 

Like his sister Susan, Raymond Matiba misses the dad who had not gone to detention. He describes him as “a great businessman, a brilliant strategist.” But that is all now behind.

(Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group reporter, writes for The Content House. @ContenthouseKE)