BOOK REVIEW

Mudavadi's autobiography brings out bold, unflappable individual

He writes compellingly about rigged elections and warns of the danger ahead if we continue on that path.

In Summary

• Musalia Mudavadi is still active in politics. By writing this book, he is offering himself for close public scrutiny.

• In Soaring Above the Storms of Passion, he comes out as that bold and brave person you thought you knew, not until you read his autobiography.

Musalia Mudavadi after the launch of his book
Musalia Mudavadi after the launch of his book
Image: Ezekiel Aming'a

A few years ago, the award-winning Kenyan novelist Stanley Gazemba wrote a beautiful novel which he simply called Callused Hands.

It’s a depiction of what post-independence Kenya has become, where the hoi polloi are exploited by their leaders. When the book came out, some individuals were fast to pick on such minor errors such as typos and started shouting in town that it was not good at all.

But having read the novel as a columnist with The Star, I disabused and debunked the rumour in my column, Literary Postcard. Gazemba’s novel is a compelling story of the resilience of the human spirit, and begs the question, for how long can a people be misused and abused? Indeed, Callused Hands has a strong resemblance to Alex la Guma’s Time of the Butcherbird.

 

Such was the conversation that greeted me a few days ago when I arrived from South Africa: Talk, inherently intent on misinforming the public about the arrival of a good book, by any standard, in the genre of autobiographies. Musalia Mudavadi recently published his autobiography, Soaring Above the Storms of Passion. This book is one of the best in this genre.

Mudavadi is still active in politics. By writing this book, he is offering himself for close public scrutiny. Indeed, in Soaring Above the Storms of Passion, he comes out as that bold and brave person you thought you knew, not until you read his autobiography.

His deportment is that of a firm but diligent person. Mudavadi is unflappable, even in the face of our chaliced politics. He is cool and collected. He is the gentle intellectual-politician who effortlessly dispels myths about him. He comes across as a knowledgeable person who understands things; he knows what is ailing Kenya, and seems to carry the antidote to fix the malaise. Indeed, he warns us about the betrayal and deception among the characters that populate the political space. But this book is not just about Mudavadi and his political journey: It is, in the perceptive words of Pheroze Nowrojee, a Kenyan journey, as told through the experiences of an individual.

Mudavadi's father Moses Budamba Mudavadi lost his father in the goldmines in Kakamega. He was literally buried alive when the boy was barely nine years old. So it was through sheer perseverance and persistence that the boy was able to be educated.

After Maseno School, the stripling lad joined the British Army because he could not take up his place at Alliance High School. This is just one revelatory incident in the book. Did you know Mudavadi’s father was a military officer, and that by the time he was leaving the British Army, he was a Sergeant Major?

Had the senior Mudavadi pursued a career in the military, his trajectory, and indeed, his country’s, could have been different. He left the military and joined the Ministry of Education, where he rose to the position of inspector of schools, thus the seismic meeting with Daniel Moi, then a school teacher.

Andrew Morton, the British royal biographer had long written in his book, Moi: The Making of an African Statesman, about Moses Mudavadi’s crucial role in the very first step that catapulted an otherwise rural school teacher, with little ambition if any, into a national figure by seconding his name to the Legico.

 

Yet Mudavadi in Soaring Above the Storms of Passion offers more insights into that historical encounter that would forever alter Kenya’s political landscape. When the senior Mudavadi joined politics, President Moi made him a minister in a reversal of roles — Moi was now Mudavadi’s boss!

It was after the departure of Mudavadi senior that Musalia was pressured to enter into politics, at a time he preparing to further his education in Economics in America. He had applied and been offered scholarships from three universities.

As an A-level student at Nairobi School, someone connived to deny Mudavadi an opportunity to study Economics. When he discussed this with his father, the patriarch simply said: “You take what you have been given.”

He writes that he discovered he was “a victim of a mischievous game.” His slot had been given to an undeserving boy from a different school. Mudavadi took the bull by the horns and reclaimed his place in the Economics class, hence the economist that would be appointed into the Cabinet barely one month after being elected MP.

He was first appointed Minister of Supplies and Marketing and thereafter “thrown into the deep end” when he was appointed Minister of Finance. Kenya’s economy was then in the doldrums.

Mudavadi ascribes the problem to three things: First was the funding of the just-ended 1992 General Election with its hemorrhaging effect due to bad monetary policies; second was the freezing of donor funding and third was the Goldenberg Scandal.

The economy, Mudavadi writes, was “pulsating with excessive liquidity.” Inflation was high and foreign exchange was fast drying up, with money enough to cover only two weeks! This was the deep end.

To tackle the problem, he was going to step on powerful toes, and upset entrenched vested interests in government, especially, in the Treasury, where the architects of the scandal sat in a coven.

He was brave, and the changes he brought dramatic.

The scandal was a fraudulent scheme where billions of shillings were paid to Goldenberg company owned by Kamlesh Pattni for exporting nothing.

“Rather than lead to foreign exchange inflows, Goldenberg had only led to capital flight,” Mudavadi writes. It seems to me that President Moi saw the extent of the problem and to solve it, he needed an “outsider reformist,” as Mudavadi would be described in government hierarchy in 1993.

He took over from Prof George Saitoti as Finance Minister, and Micar Cheserem replaced Eric Kotut as Central Bank governor. These two gentlemen would drive the reform agenda in the economy.

Mudavadi was at the centre of liberalising the economy and is credited for stopping the Goldenberg Scandal, amidst strong opposition from within and outside government. This is as demonstrated in the Hansard chapters in the book, where he stopped further payment of money to Goldenberg, and in the excerpts from the Bosire Commission, which lays bare the originators of the scandal, its implementers, and beneficiaries.

He then negotiated with the Bretton-Woods Institutions to restore donor funding to Kenya. Where the information is scattered in government documents and newspaper reports, Mudavadi gives form to these matters with his firsthand insights as a major player.

Indeed, he felt slighted when President Moi nominated Uhuru Kenyatta to succeed him. He momentarily quit Kanu alongside other senior politicians who also felt that Moi had slapped them in the face.

Mudavadi agonized over the decision and only returned, because of the “amity” between his late father and President Moi. And he would pay for that by losing his parliamentary seat.

Shortly after, Kanu nominated him to Parliament, but he declined the offer, a shimmering public demonstration that Mudavadi is not your ordinary politician: He is a principled leader, soaring above the storms of passion.  

Mudavadi’s autobiography is rich with anecdotes. He is at once a boy, rollicking in school. There are the travails in university where he is arrested alongside the likes of David Murathe in the wake of the attempted coup in 1982.

He writes delightfully about his coming of age and that antediluvian practice of the circumciser of yore in a leopard skin and Columbus monkey headgear. But he is not sentimental about the disappearance of this breed. He allows you to peer into the political arena and eavesdrop on politicians. He affords you glimpses into statecraft, the working of government, individual politicians in their element, and at times, in their most desperate and vulnerable moments.  He avoids praising people; when there’s a convergence of ideas, you walk along with him, and when he disagrees, he does it with dignity and respect. He does not write from a position of bitterness. He eschews insulting his adversaries.

He writes compellingly about rigged elections and warns of the danger ahead if we continue on that path. The swearing-in fiasco and the handshake, only take the last pages of the book. 

Soaring Above the Storms of Passion is a compendium of Kenya’s political landscape. Structurally, the book is solid, and one must admire the publishing editor, Barrack Muluka; he is cut above his peers.

Khainga O’Okwemba is the presenter and producer of The Books Café on KBC English Service Radio