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April 20, 2018

Matiba’s journey from corporate titan to political icon

Kenneth Matiba with President Daniel Moi during a Safari Rally in Nairobi / STAR ARCHIVES
Kenneth Matiba with President Daniel Moi during a Safari Rally in Nairobi / STAR ARCHIVES

Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba impacted my life in more ways than one. When I was growing up, I was one of the beneficiaries of a student bus ride introduced by Matiba and his team when he was the top honcho at Kenya Breweries Limited.

This is how it used to work. The buses would leave Ruaraka to the city estates, picking staff as well as their children. They would drop the children in their schools and come back for them in the evening.

This was one of the many welfare initiatives that made KBL employees some of the most pampered in the country. An avid sportsman, Matiba ensured all manner of sports were available to KBL employees.

Most of those engaging in sports were professionals in all but name. If ajua caught your fancy, then all you needed to do was report to work in the morning, don your company issue tracksuit, then spend the whole day playing.

Then there was the boxing team managed by Marsden Madoka and coached by Charles Anjimbi. This was a terror gang that spread fear and despondency to many parts of the country. This is where my later friend Robert ‘Aruba’ Wangila reigned supreme, beating opponents like rented donkeys.

In the football field, KBL FC (later Tusker) had in its ranks people like Dino Kitavi, Elly Adero and perhaps the roughest man ever to take to a Kenyan football pitch, the late Mulupi Makuto.

Everybody loved Matiba at KBL. Years later, I would receive a phone call from a long-time friend, Mwenda Njoka (now the spokesperson at Interior Ministry). The good man was offering me a job at the Matiba-owned The People weekly.

The paper had established itself as a must-read among the political class as well as the hoi polloi. Its starting was a Matibaesque masterpiece. You see, the man had a hard-hitting statement that none of the then established newspapers would carry. 

Matiba had a royal outrage at this snub, which led him to assemble a team that launched the weekly that launched the paper. To his credit, Matiba gave the editors a free hand on the day-to-day running of the newspaper. We used this to the full advantage, where nobody was spared. We were also helped by the fact that unlike their political counterparts, the Matiba family was never in any scandal.

 

VENTURE INTO POLITICS

The Matiba that would vie for President in 1992 and become a staunch oppositionist was very different from the one that was a corporate titan. This was thanks to the stint he served in detention that left him almost a vegetable after he suffered a stroke.

Opinion is divided on what really happened to Matiba while in detention. There is the school of thought that claims the Special Branch people, having known that Matiba had a morbid fear of snakes, would bring a huge python into the man’s cell, scaring the living daylights out of the man. This apparently contributed to the man’s deteriorated mental health.    

Another school of thought holds it that there was a particular government-friendly doctor who was tasked with injecting Matiba with poison, which messed up with his mental faculties. For his gallant contribution to the country and the field of medicine, the doctor was later rewarded with the directorship of Kenyatta National Hospital. He has since died.

Matiba held many firsts. He became one of three permanent secretaries before Independence at only 28; was the first black chief executive officer of East African Breweries Ltd; was the first African to head Kenya Football Federation; and was the first minister to break taboo and resign on principle during the Moi regime.

In the 1979 elections, shortly after Jomo Kenyatta’s death, Matiba took on and fell a giant in then-Mbiri constituency in Murang’a — Gikonyo Kiano, a Cabinet minister who was one of the blue-eyed boys in Jomo’s regime.

Years later, I would speak to the long-serving provincial administrator Philemon Mwaisaka, and he told me that period preceding the elections was one of the toughest for him. You see, Mwaisaka had just left the university and got his first job as a DO in the very area where the battle between Matiba and Kiano was playing out.

The main issue was the Mbiri Water Project, and the two gentlemen would each grab the water pipes and take them to their homes with the ultimate aim of being seen as the benefactor.

An exasperated Mwaisaka had to call President Jomo Kenyatta, seeking guidance. Kenyatta retorted: “You are my representative there and that water project belongs to the government. Take full action.”

 

NO-NONSENSE MINISTER

It looks like Matiba had a lasting effect on those he got in touch with. Rachel Keino says: “As a young, budding journalist, a few months into my posting to Kisumu KNA Bureau, I had a chance to cover Matiba touring Kisumu district as Minister for Health (Kipsanai as PS).

“At Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (Russia) Hospital, the then Nyanza PC (the late Amos Bore), PMO, Kisumu MOH (James Ongwae), and others did a thorough job of cleaning and paving the way for him. What chaos when the dignitary dismissed all protocol and decided to lead the ‘tour’! Bwana waziri, this way, an official would tell him. He would look at the officer in the face, then turn in the opposite direction, discovering the filth in the wards, morgue and kitchens (at some point, a cook nearly fainted when the minister asked to taste the food).”

On her part, Monique Muthwii says: “I remember one day when working for The People, Matiba came to the office and went round as usual, saying hello to everyone. When he reached my desk, there was a broken chair next to me and he went like, ‘I have been reliably informed that you are the one who broke this seat’

“So I went on to defend myself because newsroom desks were rotational then, only senior editors had permanent desks. But Matiba insisted that I needed to own up or tell him who broke the chair. You can imagine the shiver that was going down my body. I could hardly sit and was mumbling stuff I can’t even remember.

“So when he saw the fear in my eyes, he broke into a loud laughter.  Those who know him will tell you he has a hearty one. It was so infectious, I found myself bursting into laughter and holding back tears.”

 

LIBERATION WOES

However, not all see the man in a positive light. Ayoki Onyango claims the man took his family through financial ruin.

“Matiba sacked my father Jacob Ayoki, when my dad was a senior manager with the Kenya Breweries, on false claims that my dad was a member of KPU. KPU was an opposition party formed by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in 1966 after falling out with Jomo Kenyatta. Matiba was KBL executive chairman. We subsequently suffered as a family due to the sacking. And as the official spokesman of the Ayoki family, we have forgiven Matiba and let his soul rest in peace.”

Then there are those who accuse Matiba of the stillbirth of the country’s second liberation. According to those holding this opinion, had Matiba supported the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in 1992, the opposition would have sent Moi and his Kanu henchmen packing. It would have worked out better for Matiba, in that Jaramogi died only two years later, meaning Matiba would have ascended to the presidency.”

All said and done, all these nice and not so nice opinions about Matiba go to prove that he was a mere mortal like all of us — capable of doing good and evil at the same time.

My condolences to the Matiba clan I interacted with at The People: Ivy, Susan and Raymond. May the Lord grant your family His peace that surpasses human understanding.

STAR COMMUNITY POLICY AND PARTICIPATION GUIDLINES