Guest blog post
By Matere Kereri
I first met my friend Kenneth Matiba in 1958. I had just arrived in Makerere but he was completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, History and Economics, the same course I studied. He had stayed behind to study a diploma in Education for one year. During that year, his then girlfriend — who would later be his wife Edith — was also about to complete her BA. Another man who had completed his BA and stayed behind to do a Bachelor of Education was Mr Habel Nyamu. In essence, it was a ploy for the two to wait for their girlfriends to finish their degrees. (Nyamu went on to become an educationist and a commissioner with the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya).
I do remember that Edith was at the top of her class, a very bright student, and she studied with Mr Solomon Karanja who was to become the first African Registrar of the University of Nairobi. At Makerere, Matiba was a very active man. He also had leadership qualities that saw him become the liaison between Kenyan students at Makerere and the government of Kenya. Anything to do with bursaries was handled by Matiba on behalf of the students.
He left in March, 1959, and came back to Kenya where he worked with the Ministry of Education. He continued with his liaison job even at the ministry.
When Independence came, Matiba had performed so well that he was elevated to the position of Permanent Secretary for Commerce and Industry at the age of 31.
Myself, I had returned and was posted to Kisumu as a District Officer for six months before we were called to the Kenya Institute of Administration (today Kenya School of Government) for a senior administrators’ course. In 1962, I was posted to the Ministry of Finance.
Matiba worked as PS for Mwai Kibaki at Commerce and Industry and also at Home Affairs as PS for Daniel arap Moi.
You will recall Kibaki had come to Makerere just when Matiba was leaving and he even taught me at some point. Kibaki was to return to Kenya in 1960 where he became the Executive Officer of Kanu.
The three of us, Kibaki and Matiba and I were inseparable, especially because we were all in government after independence.
We used to meet every weekend for a drink, mostly off River Road. Matiba was a teetotaller but that did not make him shy away from joining us.
In 1968, Matiba left the government and joined Kenya Breweries while I became the Finance Secretary at the Ministry of Finance. We used to joke that he (Matiba) must be special to manage production of beer yet he did not drink. On the other hand, Kibaki had an admirable streak of drinking huge amounts of beer without getting drunk. I am yet to meet another person like him.
By early 1970s, the culture of corruption had permeated the society. People close to Jomo Kenyatta started “owning” him.
There were people who wanted to have shortcuts to wealth and Matiba abhorred this. We also worked hard to help our people. I recall that our friends from Kiambu were opposed to the construction of the road from Kenol-Makutano-Sagana-Karatina. But the three of us, with a Mr Mbugua who was the PS for Roads, convinced Mzee Kenyatta of the importance of that road. That was about 1968.
In 1972, I moved to become the managing director of Development Finance Company of Kenya (DFCK) that was instrumental in attracting industries to Kenya. In 1970s, Mzee’s old age was visible and the Change the Constitution movement started. It was aimed at preventing Vice President Moi from ascending to power.
In 1977, there was a retreat for all senior Kikuyu leaders that was held in Nyahururu. It was a three-day event and Matiba and I were there on the first day. Kibaki came on the last day and his speech had ramifications across Mt Kenya region.
Having been in Uganda where the Baganda, despite being the majority, had been kept away from power by both Milton Obote and Iddi Amin, Kibaki knew all too well the dangers of the Change the Constitution talk.
In his speech he said: “It is true Kikuyu are single biggest community in Kenya; but you do agree they are not the majority. If you insist on having your way, all the other communities will gang up and you will be finished.” He then gave the Uganda example.
All those who attended stormed out of the conference room, leaving Kibaki, Matiba and I seated. There was near pandemonium in Nyahururu town and word reached Nyeri that people had ganged against Kibaki.
Matiba was a principled man who called a spade a spade no matter the situation. In the 1979 General Election, Matiba bought a campaign van for a friend of mine who was contesting the Ndia seat, Ngari Rukenya; he was a generous man, too.
He was incorruptible, full of integrity and abhorred nepotism. One had to earn their place, according to their abilities, as far as Matiba was concerned.
Unlike a few in the Kenyatta government, Matiba was pro-Africanisation of Kenya businesses. He had ensured that Africans had acquired the current Biashara Street buildings and shops, unfortunately they resold them to Indians.
Come 1982, I left my job and decided to join politics. Kibaki had the docket of Finance removed from him and he was given Home Affairs docket. I recall the three of us having a drink and I joked with Matiba about what would happen if Kibaki was to be given the VP job.
“Listen here John, I would not want to be VP as long as Kibaki is able to do the job. I am sure you have said that because I was in State House earlier today. But you know, fire can provide warmth or burn you depending on the distance you are from it”.
Come the 1983 campaigns, the District Commissioner for Kirinyaga banned my campaign rallies 24 days to the election and I had to do night campaigns. In Mbiri, Matiba was also being frustrated, so was Kibaki in Othaya.
Eventually we all won against the odds. Despite the frustrations at the campaigns, Moi invited Matiba and I to his Kabarak home where we spent the day telling stories.
At some point, Moi said he needed to go and check his farm and we left at around 3pm. On arrival home, I found a crowd had come to congratulate me; as I drove home. Moi had appointed me to be an assistant minister. However, it was my disappointment not to find Charles Njonjo in bunge in 1983 after he was kicked out over the traitor issue. For many years, Njonjo had accused Matiba and I of being Kibaki’s men, something he didn’t like.
Moi soon changed and he started seeing enemies in everyone. As the years progressed, Moi became more repressive.
He had friends and enemies in every district. In Kirinyaga, his man, James Njiru, was my political opponent who I had defeated in 1983 despite him having orchestrated that I do not campaign. Njiru “won” the farce that was the 1988 mlolongo elections.
In Kiharu, Matiba prevailed against strong opposition from Moi’s ally, Joseph Kamotho, who was from the neighbouring Kangema, and the provincial administration. Kibaki also won in Othaya but was dropped as vice president.
Kibaki was under pressure to resign after he was dropped from the vice president’s position but he insisted he could serve Kenyans from any position.
Up to 1991, though he was loyal to Moi and Jomo before him, Head of Special Branch James Kanyotu helped us in ensuring our businesses were not brought down by Moi’s men. This changed after Kanyotu was dropped by Moi… and Matiba was arrested and detained in July, 1990.
When Matiba was released from detention in May 1991, he was taken to London for medical care.
By then Ford was in full force. We were all in Ford and it was clear Moi was on his way out.
When Matiba left hospital and was recuperating in a house in London, I was tasked by the Gema wing of Ford to travel to London and report back on his condition. The trip was financed by George Nyanja. I stayed in a hotel, but would visit Matiba every day at his house for close to two weeks.
When I came back, I told members that he was in good condition even to lead the country.
Around the same time, Matiba had sent word that he would not need to stand for President if his old friend, Kibaki, abandoned DP and came back to Ford.
A flurry of meetings were held but Kibaki did not yield. As Matiba came back, he also said he would not be Jaramogi’s Vice President as many had hoped. There emerged the Ford Agip House headed by Jaramogi and Ford Muthithi House headed by Matiba. Our efforts with Titus Mbathi and others to bring Ford Agip, Ford Muthithi and DP under one roof in Kenya National Congress as an umbrella body ended in disarray when Moi ordered Attorney General Amos Wako to register all of them as parties. That is how I contested the Ndia seat under Kenya National Congress and lost marginally.
As we bid farewell to Matiba, I recall a steadfast man who always led from the front. I believe the 1992 elections, where he campaigned vigorously, had an adverse effect on him as by the time he returned to Kenya he was in good health.
May my friend Ken Rest in Peace.
Matere Kereri is a former State House Comptroller.
This article first appeared on Sunday Nation newspaper, nation.co.ke .