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February 20, 2019

G-Spot: Memories of reporting on Kenneth Matiba in the early 1990s​​

Former MP Kenneth Matiba among hundreds of passengers waiting at JKIA following the cancellation of more than 20 flights by the national carrier on October 2, 2016 /COURTESY
Former MP Kenneth Matiba among hundreds of passengers waiting at JKIA following the cancellation of more than 20 flights by the national carrier on October 2, 2016 /COURTESY

Last weekend’s passing on of the Honorable Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba at age 85 had the effect of transporting me back to my early years as a reporter and  political commentator on the staff of the now-defunct Sunday Times.

Because it was the party-owned newspaper, our political stories and commentaries were more often than not skewed in the party’s favour. In practice, this meant that we highlighted any problems in the opposition and played down issues in Kanu, while our rival newspapers often did the exact opposite.

As such, readers were often sceptical of our political stories, and it was even tougher to get them to believe us when we had an exclusive story, even though eventually we would be borne out by the facts. It all happened in 1991 after Matiba had been released from detention without trial and then travelled to the UK for treatment of a particularly debilitating stroke he had suffered while detained by the government.

While Matiba was in London, he gave an interview to the now-defunct early morning BBC Network Africa radio programme about the possibility of his standing as a presidential candidate to oppose President Moi. I was at home getting dressed for work when the interview was first played and managed to jot down notes of Matiba’s response.

What Matiba had told the interviewer was earth-shaking in the Kenyan political context of the time, where the country was preparing for its first multi-party election since the little general election of 1966. Matiba had said he thought he was too sick to undertake a political campaign of that sort and as such would not run against Moi. My editors made the story our page one lead for the next day and then the proverbial smelly stuff hit the fan. The denials from Matiba supporters and Ford members came in thick and fast, with accusations that the story was a pure fabrication by the Kenya Times and suddenly, along with the newspaper, I was public enemy number one.

You must understand that this was just before the rise of the global internet, and so to prove my story, I had to contact the programme and get them to courier me a recording of the interview so that we could write out a full transcript. The BBC went one better; they sent a recording and a transcript with an accompanying note, which we then published to shut up the doubting Thomases.

To his credit, Matiba himself never denied the story, but his supporters, especially those from Central Province, who included some of my relatives, friends and even journalistic colleagues, including at the Times, accused me of “Kikuyu bashing” because, for the tribal chauvinists among them, Matiba was not just an opposition figure, but the great white Kikuyu hope that would restore the tribe to power after 14 years of being in the cold.

In the end, Matiba who would coin the campaign phrase, “Let the people decide”. He allowed the people to decide for him and changed his mind about running, and the rest, as they say, is history. Some say had the poll not been rigged, Matiba might have been Kenya’s third president. That would have been interesting.

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