Isaiah Mathenge: The last "Governor" of Rift Valley
As the 1998 general election approached a chance came to interview Isaiah Mwai Mathenge on whether he would still run for the Nyeri seat. I went for it. We sat at a corner table by the pool at the Hotel Intercontinental taking snacks as we talked.
As he strode to the table he stretched his hand and with a bit of arrogance said: “Kamwana wimwega” (How are you lad?)
It was not unexpected having heard and read escapades of Mathenge and how he turned Nakuru to be the headquarters of Kenya politics from 1971 when he was transferred to Rift Valley from Coast Province.
At that time Mathenge was to face a radical named Wanyiri Kihoro – who had just returned from exile in London- and there was a lot of speculation that he had fallen out with Mwai Kibaki. The man was worried after word, or rumours, started circulating that Kihoro flew to Kenya in the same flight with then Democratic Party leader Mwai Kibaki.
“Could you be really scared,” I asked him of the Kihoro candidature.
“Not at all. The Nyakinyua really love me. If you come to Nyeri you will hear how they sing of my praises,” he said in Kikuyu. Actually it was not an interview but a chance for Mathenge to gloat and boast of his popularity and how it stretches from location to location within the municipality.
There was something else that mathenge had not explained. His decision to switch base from Mathira to Nyeri town constituency was prompted by prominent businessmen in Nyeri town who he hailed from his Mathira backyard.
In 1983 he had tried to go for the Mathira seat, a year after he left the provincial administration, and came a poor third behind Davidson Kuguru, and Matu Wamae, the former ICDC boss.
Although he had managed to be elected as the Nyeri District Kanu branch chairman shortly after he packed his bags from the Embu provincial headquarters where he served last as PC, Mathenge did not cut the image of a politician. Even as we talked you could see vividly Mathenge the Provincial Commissioner but not Mathenge the politician.
When he lived as an administrator, those who knew him say, he rode like a colossus. When he fell out of glory he was left bare with few friends and died this week dejected and lonely according to some of his remaining friends.
Mathenge made one mistake in his life. He betrayed his closest friends shortly after Kenyatta died in 1978 to save his skin – and job!
One such man was James Erastus Mungai, the former Rift Valley Provincial police boss. The two had worked together, drank together and taken it as their duty to frustrate Daniel arap Moi, as vice president making sure that he felt their presence whether Kenyatta was in nakuru or not.
Moi has never had nice words on the two but he tackled them one by one and used Mathenge first.
November 10 1978: It was three months after Kenyatta had died and Moi had been elected the president just a month back, October 10. Shortly after he was confirmed for a five-year term one man, James Erastus Mungai started running scared after he was told to proceed on leave.
Mathenge, as Mungai was to say later in a letter to Geoffrey Kareithi, the Permanent Secretary in the Office of the president, started calling him on “odd hours of day and night” asking whether he was still alive.
Scared of the calls from Mathenge, who was retained by Moi as rift Valley PC until 1980 Mungai sold his Range Rover and took off to Juba, Sudan (he left his pistol at the immigration desk) in the company of “two Turkana tribesmen” as then Criminal Investigation Department boss, Ignatious Nderi described the men who escorted Mungai to the border.
The escape of Mungai left most of his former friends including Mathenge at a fix. First the Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, had told parliament that there was a plot hatched in Rift valley to liquidate senior politicians including Moi, Kibaki and Njonjo.
If Mungai was up to something like that through the Anti-Stock Theft Unit whose first batch of students passed out a month before Kenyatta died then Mathenge must have been in the picture.
But was Mathenge aware of the plot to kill the top politicians.
Like Peter, Mathenge, a former Nyeri High School student, denied his involvement or knowledge of such a plot but traced the movement of Mungai to Geneva Switzerland hoping that the man would not spill any further beans.
But Mungai was feeling lonely in Switzerland and the winter was starting to bite. That November Mungai wrote a letter from Kareithi and named Mathenge as one of the people who knew the activities and training of the anti-stock theft unit. He was insinuating that if he was to fall from grace to grass because of that group then all those who knew about the training should fall as well.
Even by naming mathenge he was still seeking “forgiveness…the anti stock theft unit meant no ill will to anyone,” he said partly in the letter.
The letter to Kareithi disturbed Mathenge since it wanted to incriminate him with the Ngoroko saga – as it came to be known- at a time when he wanted to extricate himself.
The letter was painfully written and Mathenge, according to some of his friends, sympathised with Mungai but could not show his feelings. The time for everyone for himself and God for us all had come.
Just before he left his Nakuru station for forced leave Mungai had been ordered to scatter the elite anti-stock theft squad to various camps countrywide and later on was ordered to take all of them to the General Service Unit training grounds in Embakasi.
Also some investigations had been started by Njonjo in the Rift valley over misappropriation of shs 85 million by senior government officials.
“As I was instructed to go on leave”, Mungai said in the letter, I have kept away from Nakuru just in case someone (meaning Njonjo or perhaps Moi) thinking that I am interfering with the investigations going on there. I am therefore very far from Nakuru and I just came across someone coming by air to Nairobi ( and I gave him this letter)…. Just before I went on leave, I saw some reports about the alleged Ngorokos who had been stationed in the Rift valley. I was really frightened to read that they had been posted to GSU and others will be detained. I took it that these were the men I had talked to you about in early June or July 1978. Mr Kareithi believe me there was absolutely no plan to harm anybody. As I had told you these men had been trained to deal with the Ngoroko cattle rustling in the Rift valley, Mr Wariithi, our assistant minister saw them in training at Mararal in April 1977 and he talked to them. Mr Koinange the minister saw them in April 1978 or thereabouts and talked to them. They were just dedicated policemen who were trained to deal with one of the menaces in the Rift valley. I kept Mathenge, the provincial commissioner well informed about their training.”
Mathenge got to read about this letter from the press and hit the roof while Koinange and Henry Wariithi, a former MP for Mukurweini and assistant minister, did not make any public comments.
Mungai had one plea to Kareithi: “Could Mr Kanyotu please be asked to re-investigate the allegation…please help as I am really very disturbed…my children are all in school two of them in Secondary in Scotland and I do not want to interrupt their studies…I might lose my job….I have not told my wife where I am as I left my house in a hurry …please, please plead with Mr Njonjo and the president for me….
It is true that Mathenge, as the PC, knew about this elite squad since as Mungai told Kareithi “they were also used for escorting the late President Kenyatta during his many safaris in the remote places of Nakuru Baringo and Kericho.
Could Mathenge have failed to notice them? The full story may never be told and Mathenge goes to the grave having not uttered any more word on the Ngoroko saga and could neither confirm or deny his involment.
On the night Kenyatta died, it had been alleged Mungai had made a major mistake, ordering a road-block on the Nakuru-Nairobi highway to block Moi from leaving town to be sworn in. But it was too late. Mathenge had to let him sink alone.
Asked about this whole episode Mathenge had three words to describe it: It is a “pack of lies”, he said and sealed shut any further questions on that..
Nakuru was the hotbed of Kenya politics and if there was one man Mathenge could not stand was could not stand was Dickson Kihika Kimani, the mercurial leader of the 30,000 member Ngwataniro-Mutukanio Company that had purchased thousands of acres in the expansive Rift Valley from fleeing settlers.
Kihika was in a class of his own and had his loyalty to the Kiambu Mafia led by Mbiyu Koinange. Mathenge came from Nyeri and was counted as an outsider. While Kihika wanted the Nakuru parliamentary seats go to his members Mathenge wanted to thwart that attempt – just to show Kihika that he also had a say.
The battle between the two is best remembered in the election and final downfall of Mark Mwithaga, the Mp for Nakuru Town. Mathenge did not want a situation where Kihika would rise to be the political point man in the district.
The 1974 general elections in Nakuru were bruising and Mathenge was only two years old at the provincial headquarters. In the election, Mwithaga had defeated Mark Kabiro Kimemia, an ally of Kihika Kimani and becoming the only non-member of Ngwataniro to make to parliament.
Mathenge it later emerged during the petition lodged by Kimemia had openly campaigned for Mwithaga in a bid to annoy Kihika and company. The judges, Simpson, Todd, and Kneller, found Mathenge guilty –but not of an election offence! – and said: “we cannot discover why the PC openly declared his preference unless he hoped to continue in harness with Mwithaga and did not care that his public action would vex the petitioner, Amos Kabiro Kimemia.”
But it was the dramatic explanation of how Mathenge was caught campaigning that tickled his detractors. One of the witnesses told the High Court that as Mathenge addressed voters outside the Viwandani Voting station, a policeman arrived and was not aware that it was mathenge adressing the crowd. He is said to have kicked and pushed mathenge to the ditch and the PC tried to fight back. When his bodyguard tried to intervene, the court was told he was also thrown into the ditch with Mathenge.
It is a story that made rounds in Nakuru and that Mathenge denied. “If such a thing would have occurred, policemen who were there would have come to my rescue and I would have retaliated, ” he told the judges.” This group, (meaning the Kihika group but to a large extent the Kiambu Mafia) wants a yes-man as their PC who can dance to their people’s tune.”
Mathenge was not liked by the Kiambu politicians simply because he hailed from Nyeri or for other reasons. Also his daughter, Catherine Wangui – now a film producer with Kaza Moyo Productions - was getting engaged to Ngengi Muigai, the Amherst trained nephew of Kenyatta and who was emerging as a powerful force, not only in the family but in political wheeling and dealing of the 70s.
It is not clear how Mathenge managed to overcome the Kiambu group but the Mwithaga saga had put him on a collision course with some senior mandarins in the Kenyatta government. Interestingly, it was Mwithaga who suffered at their hands just to annoy Mathenge. Fancy this:
As the petition was lodged the Kenya political scene was rocked by the disappearance and subsequent murder of Nyandarua North MP, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (JM).
JM, like Mathenge hailed from Nyeri and was seen as a victim of the rivalry between the Nyeri and Kiambu politicians as they jostled for political space. Interestingly, it was the man who Mathenge had supported, Mark Mwithaga, who became the most vocal voice in parliament that he was elected as vice- chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee that was to probe JM’s death.
A week after the JM report was tabled in parliament and Mwithaga became the only Nakuru MP who voted against an amendment brought in by Njonjo to “note” but not adopt the recommendation, his petition opened at the High Court in which Mathenge featured prominently as the man who rigged Mwithaga in.
The Mwithaga hunters were not through with him. He was also accused of stealing shs 100,000 from Kiambogo company. As he lost the petition – he had decided to represent himself- he was hurled to jail for destroying his ex-wife's property but because the ballots had been printed the by-election went on as Mwithaga was in jail. He won from the “comfort of prison” with 5,348 against Kimemia’s 2,567.
That buoyed Mathenge in private but Mwithaga could not present his election papers after prison authorities denied him the opportunity forcing another by-election.
The burial of JM at his farm in Gilgil saw a galaxy of Nyeri politicians led by Finance minister Mwai Kibaki (the most senior politician who attended) demand an inquiry of one of their own. It is recalled that in the next few months, during a goodwill delegation of Nyeri leaders at Kenyatta’s Gatundu home, the man who masqueraded as Kenyatta’s body-guard, Wanyoike Thungu openly accused “Nyeri people” of showing disrespect to Kenyatta. Kibaki denied the allegation on the spot and they were in private derided that leadership will never pass River Chania!
If JMs murder had divided Nyeri and Kiambu politicians the wedding between Ngengi Muigai and Mathenge’s daughter was hailed as the uniting factor and dubbed “wedding of the Year” by political analysts.
For the first time in many years Kenyatta’s convoy drove to Nyeri and he cordinated the wedding from the start on behalf of his younger brother, James Muigai. The betrothal brought more than 3,000 guests at Mathenge’s Kamwangi village near Karatina town.
The death of Jomo Kenyatta caught Mathenge by surprise. His survival at the provincial administration was not guaranteed given the arrogance he had exhibited before Daniel arap Moi.
Although Moi had no time for Mathenge he also knew that the PC had not time for the Kiambu mafia. The adage, an enemy of my enemies is my friend was put to use. Mathenge was the man to scatter the Kiambu mafia out of Rift Valley and he did it with gusto.
The first to go was Dickson Kihika Kimani’s Ngwataniro Mutukanio company. March 24 1979 Mathenge drove to the annual general meting of the company – he was not a member - .and ordered the meeting to end. That morning Mathenge had been in Nairobi to attend a PC’s meeting that had been called by President Moi. He must have drove fast to catch up with Kihika. At the meeting he directed that the company must submit all its records of accounts and relevant documents to its auditors.
Kihika hit the roof but was warned by Mathenge to heed the directive. The Nakuru of Daniel arap Moi was different and Kihika, tail-between the legs, started falling. The man to twist the knife was Kariuki Chotara after Mathenge had stubbed the man at the back. He had one credit to his name: managing to cripple and dismantle the anti-Moi machine in Nakuru
By the time Mathenge left Rift Valley for Eastern Province in 1980 a lot of changes had taken place in the political arena. It was while he was in Embu that the fall of Charles Njonjo began and as Kibaki’s star started to shine. Njonjo had tried to link Mathenge with the Ngoroko issue but he had survived.
By this time only him and Eliud Mahihu had remained as PC who had served Kenyatta. Moi had a soft spot for Mahihu, after all it was him who made sure that the Kiambu mafia did not scuttle the smooth transition after Kenyatta died as the Coast PC mahihu watched.
Mathenge had also served at the Coast province but left at a time when senior Kenyatta administrators were accused of engaging in illegal cloves trade from Zanzibar. In 1972 Lamu West Mp Abu Somo was actually jailed for one and a half years for alleging that Mathenge was among the people involved in the racket.
Back to Embu packed bags in 1982 and returned to Nyeri where he had purchased a coffee farm and named it SereMwai estate. It was here that he spent his time and tried to build a political career that failed.
To succeed in politics Mathenge had two battle his own brother-in-law Waruru Kanja or coattail to Mwai Kibaki and his friend David Munene kairu.
At first Mathenge decided to go for Mathira seat but after he failed during the Njonjo-scare polls of 1983 he retreated to Nyeri town to face the brother-in-law.
By this time, 1988, Kibaki was cornered and was on his way out. With Kanja identified as anti-Kibaki his chances in the mlolongo were high as he got favours from Nyeri DC Keholo Muhalule.
Mathenge was no push over and he emerged as a fighter. He not only refused to conduct joint campaigns with Kanja as ordered by the DC but did not campaign at all. In the end he polled 10.314 against Kanja’s 10,741. Mathenge never forgave the regime and from then on it was a bitter battle between him and Moi supporters.
As Kibaki was dropped as VP to a mere minister for health, Kanja was also made a minister for information and broadcasting.
August 1986 he was accused of putting to his won use shs 30,00 given to him by Royal insurance to compensate two of his workers who had died at the farm. It was an embarrassing moment for Mathenge who was ordered by Nyeri resident magistrate Omondi Tunya to give the family the money. But it was the Kanu affair that was to haunt him
Mathenge and Munene Kairu were still the Kanu leaders in nyeri and one of the early plots was how to remove them because they kept on blocking recommendations from the sub-branches!
The two made a mark in Nyeri on behalf of Kibaki. When Bishop David Gitari delivered a sermon in Nyeri attacking the establishment over the queue voting it was Mathenge who raised a storm by describing it as “theologically and intellectually stimulating” while the DC, Keholo Muhalule described it as “seditious and subversive’ challenging Mathenge to resign from kanu is he supported the sermon.
But Mathenge did not budge. Instead he summoned Ngumbu Njururi to explain why he was attcaking the kanu chairman- Mathenge! Forcing him to apologise.
From June 1988, when Mathenge dismissed councillors who had petitioned his removal as takataka the former PC was a marked man. Moi drove to Nyeri where he chided Mathenge as a “colonial overseer’ and rubbished another former Rift Valley engineer, Kim Gatende as people who had returned to Nyeri to divide the people.
As Moi spoke Mathenge refused to stand –after his name was mentioned. It was the worst insult and both him and Gatende were kicked out of Kanu.
Gatende did not actually come from Nyeri but was born in Muranga but followed Mathenge to settle in Nyeri after they left Nakuru base.
Nyeri politicians, Ngumbu Njururi and Kanja made sure that the two were locked out of Kanu and they sent recommendations to Burundi Nabwera, then Kanu secretary general, who quickly put them before the National governing council. Out of Kanu and into the cold Mathenge was tormented.
“If I have been responsible for any political squabble in Nyeri, the Nyeri people will tell me, and if there is any evidence of any underhand dealings I am sorry to God for He is the only one who knows each persons conduct and intentions”, he said.
Come multi-party politics Mathenge was one of the first to join Democratic Party and seek leadership positions in Nyeri. Smoothly he became the Mp for Nyeri Town riding on the DP wave. But for only one term. When we met at the Hotel Intercontinental Wanyiri Kihoro was already in town to wrestle the seat from Mathenge.
He did it and Kibaki did not try to salvage him either. Dejected Mathenge decided to battle his old friend and in the last general election he switched to Kanu to support Uhuru Kenyatta against Kibaki.
It was the last that Mathenge was heard in public and retreated into his Seremwai Farm as diabetes complications started to ruin him slowly minus the crowd that for years thronged his homes in Nakuru and Mombasa.