Icarus tales: Power and Proximity in Kenya: Part 2

Guest Writer
12 February ,2019
“In a master stroke Mboya had helped forestall the no confidence vote and significantly weakened the KPU and Odinga.”

by Joash Onsando

Read part 1 here.

“Power is like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”

Frank Underwood, House of Cards.

In part one, I spoke about Interior CS Dr. Fred Matiangi’s meteoric rise to power in the Jubilee administration. Today, few would question the “property value” of the man who many now refer to as “Chief Minister”. I picked him, the subject of this article to illustrate the precarious nature of proximity to power in Kenyan politics.

If the history of Kenyan politics has taught us anything then that lesson would be that smart power is exercised indirectly, through trusted aides. Any politician of note will tell you that highly risky political maneuvers are best carried out by an agent. That way the principal can walk away without egg on their face in case things don’t go according to plan.

Our political past is littered with several examples of such agents. Typically, the agent is a highly effective, zealous and fiercely loyal individual. The principal will normally pick them and elevate them over their peers with resultant perks and trappings of power. The agent is normally a means to an end and as such is quickly disposed of as soon as the end is met. The fierce loyalty of the agent is hardly reciprocated by the principal.

The agent must know their place. They must not let newly acquired power get to their head. They must always remember that they serve at the whims of the principal, and therefore must always remain subservient and accountable.

By virtue of their position, the agent normally attracts envy and admiration in equal nature. Because of the high risk nature of the political maneuvers tasked to them, the agent inevitably makes many enemies, some very powerful enemies in the course of carrying out their assigned duties. It is these factors that make the position of agent, a blessing and a curse.

“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it”

Frank Underwood, House of Cards

No politician in history used this agency relationship as cunningly and effectively as former President Daniel Arap Moi. The August 1 1982 coup attempt transformed Moi from a soft spoken, amiable character whom some had described as a passing cloud to a seemingly intolerant political chess master who demanded unquestioning loyalty from the rank and file of KANU – the only party then.

It therefore came to pass that on December 17, 1986, after a series of provincial KANU conferences and a national conference at the Kenya Institute of Administration in Kabete, Moi unveiled the KANU Disciplinary Committee, KDC, chaired by one David Okiki Amayo to purge any dissent and disloyalty from within the party.

The committee’s formal brief was to grill members on discipline issues and punish those found to have flouted the party’s code of conduct or brought it to disrepute.

The KDC would quickly gain notoriety as a platform through which political scores were settled with little or no regard to due process. Its grilling sessions began with those summoned stating their name, occupation and whether they had pledged loyalty to the government, the party, the president and the ‘Nyayo Philosophy’. What would follow thereafter would be a charade of trumped up, comical and sometimes childish charges against respondents who were almost always found guilty. For many the best outcome of appearing before it would be writing an apology letter to the party with the worst case scenario being expulsion from the party. With Kenya being a one party state at the time, said expulsion was a death knell for many political careers.

The Amayo led committee was a law unto itself, paying no regard even to the constitutional protections accorded to sitting members of parliament. In 1987, the then Labour minister, Peter Okondo , himself a victim of the committee described Amayo’s conduct of party affairs as “boisterous, bloated and so bombastic as to make utter nonsense of reality and the truth”. Such was the notoriety of the KDC that a cabinet minister would have no recourse but to lament of its excesses in parliament.

On September 10th 1987, upon returning from a trip to Finland and Romania, President Moi unceremoniously disbanded the KDC at JKIA with a few terse words; “I want to dissolve the KANU Disciplinary Committee and it is hereby stamped out. I want wananchi to live without fear!”

And thus ended David Okiki Amayo’s reign of terror. Whilst he had served his purpose, he had also allowed power to get to his head. He had become too big for his breeches, punched way above his station and effectively become a thorn in Moi’s flesh. His political fortunes would slowly dwindle after that having more enemies that he could count. His loss to Phoebe Asiyo in the Karachuonyo Parliamentary race in 1992 ultimately dispatched him to political oblivion.

“For those of us climbing to the top there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted”

Frank Underwood, House of Cards

If I were to pick a historical figure with whom to draw parallels with CS, then it would be Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya. Like Matiangi, Mboya was intelligent, focused, intense and arrogant to boot. Mboya had a way about him, he got things done by employing charm and his exemplary oratory skills. With little effort he managed to cut himself a niche above his peers at the Lancaster House independence negotiations and thereafter. His unique set of skills did not go unnoticed by founding President Jomo Kenyatta who appointed him in his cabinet, first as Minister for Labour and later on as minister for Economic Planning where he is credited to have authored, alongside others, the Sessional Paper Number Ten which defined the country’s economic policies.

Mboya’s first rather overt show of loyalty to Kenyatta, came in response to a report written, ‘Who Rules Kenya’, written by Nigerian journalist Zeeky Rukari. Rukari wrote: “Kenyatta is today one of the biggest land owners. He possesses 6000 acres of choice land”. This statement angered the Kenyatta administration and Mboya, leveraging on his international connections, volunteered to reach out to the Nigerian government, ostensibly to avoid similar embarrassment in the future.

After independence, Kenyatta and Odinga, his Vice President, clashed on many issues, key among them being land and the East- West divide, an ideological rift. This was a far cry from a few years back when Odinga had declared Kenyatta his “next God” whilst demanding for his release before independence! Tables had now turned and Kenyatta needed to neutralize Odinga. He knew Mboya was just the man for the job.

In a genius move, Mboya – then KANU’s Secretary – proposed amending the party’s constitution splitting Odinga’s party vice chair position to eight positions, one from each of the provinces. The rhetoric accompanying the changes was that KANU needed a more inclusive, national face and not seem like a Luo-Kikuyu affair. After long drawn political intrigue expertly managed by the young Secretary General, Odinga’s fate was sealed on March 9th 1966 at the Limuru KANU conference. The eight Vice Chairmen were elected with Odinga, who was absent, missing from the lineup.

Odinga then resigned as Vice President and formed his own party, the Kenya Peoples Union. Not one to take things lying down he planned a motion of no confidence in President Kenyatta in parliament. This was after a slow yet deliberate defection of MPs to the opposition benches in parliament. To forestall the vote, Kenyatta once again turned to his fixer in chief, Mboya. AG Charles Njonjo had crafted a legislation requiring any defecting MP to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.

The house was called from recess and Mboya was tasked with ensuring that the legislation passed. From the dispatch box, Mboya managed to defend the legislation with such charisma and charm that it passed. The defections from KANU stopped as quietly as they had begun. Faced with the prospect of having to spend resources in fresh campaigns, many MPs simply stay put. In a master stroke Mboya had helped forestall the no confidence vote and significantly weakened the KPU and Odinga.

Unfortunately however, with Odinga out of KANU, Mboya was now more vulnerable to the political intrigue within the party. For being such an effective fixer and by extension a frontrunner in the Kenyatta succession race, he had managed to paint a bright red target on his back, so to speak. Mboya would fall to an assassin’s bullet outside Chhanni’s pharmacy, along the then Government Road (now Moi Avenue) on 5th July 1969.

Whilst it is unlikely that Jomo Kenyatta sanctioned Mboya’s death, it would be foolhardy to assume that he did everything in his power to protect his dear fixer.

The cases of Amayo and Mboya illustrate that proximity to power is a cup containing sweet yet perilous wine.

Granted the consequences of drinking from it could mean a step up to higher political office, an exception to the rule (at least according to history), but are more likely to result in political oblivion or worse!

This is the cup that Dr. Fred Matiangi holds today. He has no choice but to continue sipping on the wine, once you hold the cup, it is difficult to let go. If indeed President Uhuru has elected to neutralize his deputy, William Ruto, as his father elected to neutralize Odinga, and if indeed Uhuru has chosen him as his ‘Mboya’, then the peril increases several fold.

For Matiangi, this cup is a high risk, low return affair. He must develop eyes at the back of his ears, he must build bridges in the most unlikely quarters across the political landscape. He must understand that because perception matters, sometimes more than reality, DP Ruto’s friends are now his foes, and his foes are now his enemies. He must always be stoic even in the most challenging times. More importantly it would be helpful to derive lessons from the late Nicholas Biwott. He should never come too close to the fire as to get burnt, at the same time; he must not go too far from it as to freeze.

In conclusion, if nothing else, those close to power, the agents, must realize one thing, that the power derives from elsewhere. It is akin to the wings Daedalus crafted for himself and his son Icarus. They are wings made from feathers and wax. As they navigate the political scene, from such a precarious position, they must remember not to fly too high, lest the sun melts their wax, nor too low, lest their wings get weighed down by the spray of the water. Ultimately, it seems they are doomed to strive relentlessly until either happens.

Joash is a Kenyan thinker and budding policy analyst, with a passion for public sector governance and democracy. Find more of his work on medium.

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