After a bright teaching career, Eliud Ngala Mwendwa was appointed to Kenyatta’s first Cabinet, served in several ministries and was the architect of some landmark achievements. As Minister for Labour, he was instrumental in the conception of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) and the National Youth Service (NYS).
The son of a paramount chief, Mwendwa bestrode the politics of Kitui District like a colossus. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He naturally turned the Mwendwa family into one of the wealthiest dynasties in Kenya. Thus the family of colonial Senior Chief Mwendwa Kitavi produced independent Kenya’s first African Chief Justice, Kitili, and three Cabinet Ministers in the Kenyatta and Moi governments — Ngala himself, his brother Kyale and Kitili’s widow, Nyiva.
Mwendwa was born in 1923 in a polygamous family at Kalia in Matinyani, Kitui. He looked after his father’s livestock, but for fun rather than duty. His father not only had enough herdsmen to tend his stock but also farm hands and armed askaris to guard and run errands for him.
Ngala joined Matinyani Primary School of the Africa Inland Church in 1935. He sat the Common Entrance Examination after three years to move to Kitui School. “It was at Kitui school that I saw white men for the first time,” says the octogenarian. “After completing my studies, I joined Alliance Boys in 1943.”
He then proceeded to Kagumo Teachers Training College. Mwendwa’s maiden trip to Nairobi was eventful because the passengers used a vehicle belonging to the county council. “The road from Kitui through Machakos was non-existent and we went to Nairobi via Thika, where we spent the night and then took a train to Nairobi and to Kagumo,” he says.
He graduated from Kagumo in 1946 and was employed as a teacher at his former school, Kitui, in 1947. In 1951, he was transferred to Matinyani DEB School, where he taught until 1957. As a teacher, he excelled as a sportsmaster and encouraged learners to take part in various disciplines.
Teaching was a noble profession. A teacher was not just a father to children in the village but also a community leader. It is no wonder that most Kenyans who went for higher education at Makerere College or abroad and later became prominent politicians or administrators were teachers either in local primary or in secondary schools.
In 1957, Mwendwa opened a shop. But in 1958 he left the business to his elder brother, Mang’uye, and took up a job as a tutor at Mutune Teachers Training College, now St Angela’s Girls Secondary School.
“I have never written an application for formal employment,” says Mwendwa, pointing out that unemployment for the educated was unheard of in those days. But the political heat in the country was rising with the colonial authorities having imposed emergency rules as the Mau Mau war intensified. Mwendwa was not at the forefront in the independence struggle. Indeed, he has faint memories of the freedom struggle, but says many chiefs were repressive and arrested people arbitrarily and on flimsy grounds.
In one incident, when he was a teacher at Kitui School, he recalls police invading the institution and attempting to arrest him on suspicion that he sympathised with freedom fighters. Mwendwa says the headmaster defended him and warned the police that to arrest Mwendwa would lead to a strike. They kept off.
Ngala plunged into politics in the early 1960s as the country prepared to throw off the yoke of colonial rule.
In 1961, Ngala was elected the MP for Kitui Central, defeating former members Nzau Muimi and Fred Mbiti Mati, who was later to become Kenya’s first African Speaker of the National Assembly. Ngala’s quest to become the supreme political leader of Ukambani led to epic battles with self-declared King of the Akamba, Paul Joseph Ngei, who also served in the Cabinet after seven years of incarceration by the colonial authorities with Kenyatta’s Kapenguria Six.
Ngala was a beneficiary of the protracted war of words between Kenyatta and Ngei, who, soon after independence, broke away from his friend and prison-mate to found the opposition Akamba People’s Party (APP). When Mati defected to the APP, Kenyatta replaced him in the Cabinet with Ngala as Minister for Labour.
The rivalry with Ngei dominated his political career, going back to the formation of the APP. Ngala denies claims that when he flew with colleagues in a plane that had mechanical problems and was asked to pray, he appealed to God to spare their lives but kill “one offending soul”. Ngei was said to be the one Ngala had referred to.
It is claimed that the plane landed safely, and Ngei engaged him in a scuffle. But Mwendwa says: “That was untrue because I never at any instance travelled with Ngei in a flight.” However, he concedes that he had differences with his Ukambani colleague because Ngei viewed him as a hindrance to his political stardom.
As a loyal supporter of Kanu and Kenyatta, Ngala would later serve in the ministries of Health, and Power and Communications. But political trouble cropped up in the early 1970s. The adage that blood is thicker than water gained political notoriety in 1971, when Ngala, a Cabinet Minister, declined to support a censure Motion against his half-brother, Kitili, who, with other leaders, mainly from Ukambani, were accused of attempting to overthrow the Government together with elements in the military, led by the Chief of the Defence Forces, General Joseph Ndolo, also a Kamba.
Yatta MP Gideon Mutiso was detained, while Ndolo and Kitili were forced to resign. The two were neither charged in court nor courtmartialled. Close Kenyatta advisers interpreted Mwendwa’s defiance in Parliament as tacit support for the coup attempt. This was the beginning of the end of his political career. On a lighter note, Ngala recalls fighting with an MP from Nakuru after an altercation over Kitili. “The MP taunted me about Kitili’s alleged disloyalty to the Government and he refused to listen to my pleas to him to stop,” he says.
In 1974, Ngala met his political match, a young lawyer, Daniel Mutinda, who wrested the seat from him. But Ngala argues that he was marked for ousting, allegedly because he was a sympathiser of Mboya, who was later gunned down in Nairobi. Ngala claims the Mutinda family refused to back him even after he had convinced Njonjo to bail out Mutinda’s brother, John, the Chief Warden in the Department of Game, in a case.
“I asked John Mutinda why he would not support me after I had helped discontinue the case. But he replied that I had once said blood is thicker than water,” Ngala recalls.
The former minister accuses his political foes of cooking up the claim that he had contributed to the folding up of Mutune Teachers’ Training College, with the funds directed to Shanzu TTC in Coast Province. He alleges it was Ngei’s plot to cause discontent among the electorate. He said Education Minister Taaitta Toweett was responsible for downgrading the TTC to a secondary school.
“How could I support the downgrading of the institution I had pioneered as a tutor?” asks Mwendwa.
But many attribute his loss of the parliamentary seat to a remark about his affluence — “the poverty line is behind me by seven corners,” he is claimed to have said. But Ngala denies boasting about his wealth and dismisses these as rumours by his political opponents. His son Henry Billy Ngala, a nominated councillor in the Kitui Municipal Council, blames a former politician for spreading the rumours during election campaigns.
Henry claims that the politician stripped naked during a campaign meeting allegedly to authenticate claims that Ngala had made the remark. “Stripping was akin to taking an oath over my father’s alleged bragging and people believed it. The politician had vowed to end the Mwendwa family hegemony in Kitui politics.”
Isaac Nyamai, a marital relative of Ngala, says the minister was a good leader and that claims that he boasted of his wealth were untrue. But he points out: “He may have carried himself in a pompous manner and given his enemies a chance to make all manner of claims.”
In the 1980s, Ngala was appointed chairman of the Nairobi City Commission after President Moi disbanded the City Council in 1983 due to mismanagement. But, as was common during Moi’s rule, Mwendwa was sacked through a KBC radio news bulletin after a spat with the President during his visit of Kitui. Ngala had said the home of his deceased brother, Kitili, should not be visited unless the Mwendwa family was involved. “I was informed of the sacking by a sister-in-law and decided not to go for the handing over of documents or the vehicle assigned to me,” he says.
It was during Mwendwa’s tenure as Labour Minister that the National Youth Service was set up. It has trained tens of thousands of young people in driving, construction, tailoring and vehicle repair, among other skills. He was also one of the architects of the multi-billion shilling National Social Security Fund (NSSF) that was intended to provide social security for retiring workers. He says: “The NSSF was my brainchild. I invited an expatriate to draft the scheme.”
Another achievement by the minister was the setting up of the Industrial Court to arbitrate disputes between workers and employers. Ngala says: “These are special cases, and ordinary courts would not effectively handle them, especially where the Government is a party.”
He was the first minister in the Kenyatta Cabinet to start the Africanisation drive soon after independence. The new Government felt that, if Kenya was to succeed, local businessmen were needed. Ghana and Nigeria had made headway in that direction, but Kenya was dragging its feet.
To accelerate Africanisation, Kenyatta refused to issue work permits to non-Africans for businesses Kenyans could do. He decreed that certain rural businesses be left to Kenyans and, as a result, Asian businesses moved to Nairobi. Kenyatta also put pressure on big foreign-run companies to step up management training programmes for Kenyan employees. This was where Ngala came in. As Labour Minister, he warned white and Asian businessmen that unless they trained more Africans to fill in management positions, they “would be seriously embarassed and might even be forced out of business in the not-too-distant-future”.
In recent years, Mwendwa influenced political events in his Kitui backyard. In the 2005 referendum on a draft constitution, he told public meetings that the “bad aspects” of the proposed law had spoiled the entire document. To drive the point home, he displayed a clear bottle full of water and then added ink. The water turned blue to corroborate his case.
According to the veteran politician, the Coalition Government formed after the contentious 2007 General Election that led to post-election violence, was untenable because deep-seated suspicions linger between the two partners. And his view is this: “The President should be the representative of all voters. The Prime Minister should be from the party with the majority MPs.”
The former politician has taken up commercial farming, especially in agro-forestry and fruits. Ngala has large tracts of land at Maliku, Inyuu and Mbusyani in Kitui and a parcel at Githurai, near Nairobi. He spends his time at home, but occasionally visits Kitui town and his farms. He and his first wife, Agnes, had eight children. She died in 1960 and he married Priscilla Kavutha, who has six children. Ngala Mwendwa has scores of grand and great-grand -children.