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Kenya Cabinets

Rebel with a cause and the voice of reason, Henry Pius Masinde Muliro

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Henry Pius Masinde Muliro was born in 1922 at Matili village, Bungoma, to Muliro Kisingilie and Makinia after whom he was fondly referred to as Owa Makinia or Khwa Makinia.

He was orphaned at a tender age. The mother died in 1928 when he was only six and the father in 1935 on the threshold of his teenage. The name Owa Makinia referred to his maternal lineage but with a whiff of his orphan status. Because of the poverty that marked his early days, the Catholic Church played a major role in Muliro’s formative years. This explains the names Henry and Pius, given to him by the missionaries.

The underprivileged milieu of Muliro’s early years must have been a blessing in disguise. Catholic missionaries took care of his education at Matili and Misikhu primary schools. He sat the Competitive Entrance Examination at the latter.

The missionary educators in Misikhu identified his keen and abiding interest in education and seconded him as one of the few bright boys to Mwiri Intermediate School in Uganda. In 1944, he came back to Kenya to join St Mary’s School Yala, where he sat the Kenya African Primary Education examination. Muliro proceeded to St Peter’s College Tororo, Uganda, in 1947 and passed both the Cambridge School Certificate Examination and the Makerere Entrance Examination in 1948.

After Tororo, Muliro became a popular figure in his native home, having scaled educational ladders that identified him as one of the few enlightened young men among his Bukusu people. He crisscrossed Bungoma spreading the message of education and mentoring young people, an activity noticed by community leaders, who raised funds for his studies in Cape Town, South Africa. The fees and travel were topped up by the missionary benefactors who had held his hand through primary and secondary education.

Muliro was admitted to the University of Cape Town in 1949 for a bachelor of arts degree in education, English, history and political philosophy. He studied for another degree in education. His educational thirst not satiated, Muliro enrolled for a master’s degree course in political science at the same university. His independence of mind would, however, cost him the award of the master’s degree certificate when he refused to tone down his thesis that launched into the racist political set-up of South Africa.  At this point, he took a keen and active interest in South African politics, becoming a member of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.

Indeed, it was through his participation in ANC politics that he would meet his future wife, Mercia, who survives him to date.

Muliro returned home to Kenya with Mercia in 1954, when he was said to be the fourth most educated African in the colony.  He was posted to Alliance Girls High School, then Siriba Teachers Training College, before hanging his teaching boots to plunge into politics, a career he would follow till his death. In the North Nyanza (Western Province) Legco elections of 1957, Muliro triumphed over six candidates, including the then incumbent, Wycliffe Works Waswa (WWW).

In 1958, Muliro formed the Kenya National Party (KNP) with the support of nine Legco members to agitate for the expansion of political liberties to Africans.

KNP was later dissolved, mainly because Muliro’s proposal that governance rights be handed to Africans in 1968 rather than immediately ran counter of the majority view that independence be declared immediately. Muliro also had a run-in with Mboya’s labour-supported Nairobi People’s Convention Party.

In early 1960, Muliro was among the African leaders who travelled to London to negotiate for a new constitution at the famous Lancaster House Conference, during which the colonial system conceded as yet the most progressive freedoms for Africans and brought independence within sight. Buoyed by these developments, Muliro renamed the KNP  Kenya African People’s Union (Kapu).

Shortly after Kanu’s formation at Kiambu in 1960, Muliro, Ngala and Moi  formed Kadu. Much as Muliro had been the ideologue behind Kadu’s formation, he settled for the lesser position of vice president, with Ngala as the president.

In the multi-party elections of 1961, for  which new constituencies had been created in line with the Lancaster House Constitution, Muliro sailed through unopposed for the new Elgon Nyanza constituency, encompassing present-day Busia, Bungoma and Mt Elgon districts. However, Kanu had elsewhere collected more seats compared with Kadu and the former demanded the immediate release of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to lead the nation. With a stalemate created, Kadu agreed to form a government without Kanu. Muliro was named Deputy Leader of Government Business and Minister for Commerce, Communications, Power and Industry, to the chagrin of Kanu politicians.

Once in government, Muliro and Kadu campaigned for a majimbo system against Kanu’s, idea of a unitary government. Kadu’s majimboism was meant to safeguard “small communities” from domination by “bigger communities”. Much as Kadu successfully campaigned for a regional governance structure at the second Lancaster House Conference, it fared badly at the national level at the independence elections of March, 1963, against a clearly more popular Kanu. Apart from Muliro and the crème de la crème of Kadu, Kanu had won the majority in the upper and lower houses of Parliament. In this election, constituencies had been split further and now Muliro was Member of Parliament for Kitale East in Trans Nzoia.

His shift from Elgon Nyanza (read Bungoma) was strategic. White Settlers who owned large swathes of land in Trans Nzoia were fleeing, thanks to uncertainties over their properties and livelihoods. By shifting his political base to Trans Nzoia, Muliro was intent on securing these prime and expansive lands for his Luhya people, a fact reflected in the dominant Luhya population in Trans Nzoia, a Rift Valley area otherwise dominated by the Kalenjin community.

Muliro’s ultimate plot was to have Trans Nzoia hived off Rift Valley and given to Western Province. However, the Kenyatta government declined these entreaties, with independent Kenya’s Vice-President incensing the Luhya community by figuratively saying that he had thrown into the deepest end of Lake Victoria the key that had locked Trans Nzoia.

Despite Muliro’s agitation for joining Trans Nzoia to Western Province, including through rallies and demonstrations, these boundaries remained intact. Being a Kadu MP, Muliro did not make it to Kenyatta’s first Kanu Cabinet at the time and had limited wherewithal to change the boundaries.

Once in power, Kanu ensured the death of regionalism through constitutional amendments that established Kenya as a unitary presidential republic. In Parliament, Muliro was the last to cross the floor when Kadu was dissolved in 1964, as Kadu members closed ranks with Kanu. This culminated in Kenya declaring itself a republic in 1964, severing the last vestiges of direct association with Britain.

While Moi and Ngala, his former Kadu allies, were given Cabinet positions, the ministerial flag in Western Province went to J. D. Otiende. Muliro found himself on the backbench having served as a Cabinet Minister for slightly over three years. He was, however, appointed chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board in 1965.

When Kanu elections were called for March, 1966, Muliro declared an interest in the secretary-general’s position held by Mboya. Clearly a lone-ranger against the well oiled Kanu machinery, Muliro lost by a wide margin to Mboya.

At the 1969 General Election, Muliro successfully defended his Kitale East parliamentary seat. He was appointed Minister for Cooperatives and Social Services in 1972 on Ngala’s death in a road accident. Muliro would be appointed once more to the Cabinet after winning the 1974 General Election, this time to the Ministry of Works.

While he had taken a relatively low key political profile during his tenure as Minister for Cooperatives and Housing, an incident of huge political ramifications would jolt him in 1975. This was the assassination of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, the MP for Nyandarua North. JM’s death ignited a fury and consternation not seen since Mboya’s death in 1969.

A parliamentary probe committee led by Bungoma East (Kimilili) MP Elijah Mwangale pointed a finger at senior government officials. When the report was put to the vote on the floor of the House, MPs voted for its adoption against the advice of Njonjo, who had moved that it be merely noted rather than adopted. True to his independence of mind, Muliro voted with the backbench, the only Cabinet Minister to go against the postulate of collective responsibility. Muliro was sacked and a fellow Bukusu MP, Nathan Munoko, was given the Works portfolio.

In the 1979 General Election, the first under Moi after the 1978 death of Kenyatta, Muliro lost his parliamentary seat to 33-year-old Kitale Mayor Fred Gumo (Minister for Regional Government in the present coalition government) for the Kitale East seat, breaking his uninterrupted two-decade parliamentary record. Not convinced about this stunning loss, Muliro unsuccessfully lodged a complaint against Gumo’s election, citing numerous irregularities. Muliro decided to lick his wounds out of Parliament and this set the stage for the many hurdles he would endure politically and in business and farming throughout the 1980s.

The 1983 elections were called a year earlier than the scheduled 1984 date, ostensibly as a means of purging the country of politicians dead set against President Moi and as a clean-up of the body politic after the 1982 attempted coup. Again, Muliro lost to Gumo.  This time, though, the petition he filed against Gumo succeeded. In the subsequent by-election in April, 1984, Muliro romped home. Gumo, having read the signs on the wall, withdrew from the race. However, against expectations, President Moi, his former Kadu colleague, did not appoint him to the Cabinet.

Throughout the 1980s, Muliro took a highly individualistic stand on issues as a matter of routine. In 1986 he demonstrated this trait in a highly charged debate over the opposition of churches, under the umbrella of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), to a Kanu proposal to introduce preliminary polls in the general elections by the queuing method. He took on party hawks, Moses Mudavadi and Peter Oloo Aringo, for instance, for their attacks on the head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Manasses Kuria, who had argued that queue voting was “un-Christian, undemocratic and embarrassing”.  Muliro said democracy should not be viewed as a monopoly of politicians.

Muliro had teamed up with Shikuku, also known as “the People’s Watchman”. When Shikuku’s criticism of the system peaked in 1985, his Kakamega Kanu branch declared an intent to expel him from the party. Muliro, himself threatened with the same fate, came to Shikuku’s defence. Political temperatures soared as Muliro was berated in a chorus of condemnations nationally and in his Trans Nzoia backyard. His businesses, including a hotel, a cinema hall, public transport and farming came under intense stress in what observers linked to political adversaries. It would appear that the woes had an impact on his health as he was often hospitalised. Financial institutions, courts and some shareholders in joint businesses caused him sleepless nights. But Muliro did not budge.

Muliro served as the MP for the defunct Kitale East constituency until 1988, when the Constituency was split into two. As the 1988 elections approached, Muliro let it known that the hiving off of Kwanza constituency from Kitale East and the creation of Cherengany was a gerrymandering act calculated to deny him his traditional support by playing the Luhya-Kalenjin card. In the elections, however, he beat his rival with a thin margin and became the MP for the new Cherangany constituency. Hardly had he settled than an election court nullified his win. In the ensuing by-election, all Kalenjin politicians in the area stepped down for Kipruto arap Kirwa, tilting the political field against Muliro.

Banks filed bankruptcy suits; the provincial administration openly campaigned for his opponent, President Moi let it be known that he supported Kirwa. Auctioneers targeted Muliro’s businesses and farms. Political heavyweights in Trans Nzoia and nationally openly took to the campaign trail against him. Muliro then realised he was no equal to the forces pitted against him and threw in the towel before the election date. The Government, however, proceeded to hold the elections and Kirwa was announced the winner. A similar fate met Muliro’s political student, Michael Wamalwa Kijana, in the neighbouring Saboti constituency.

Such was the hue and cry resulting from the 1988 elections that various politicians across the country started defying the Kanu power machine. Muliro joined these forces after a one-year hiatus from active politics. This eventually led to the agitation for multi-partyism through the new Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford). Muliro was the vice-chairman and, when it broke up, he declared that he would battle it out with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba for the presidency on the party’s ticket. In the divisions that beset the new party after its conversion from a pressure group, Muliro was the voice of reason, calling for comprehensive constitutional reforms rather than rushing for elections.

It was in a bid to further his presidential ambitions that he travelled to the UK in July 1992. However, he collapsed and died at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on the morning of August 14, 1992, on his return. Thus ended one of Kenya’s most illustrious political careers.

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