At 90, Nathan Waliaula Munoko is amazingly physically fit and clear-minded. Much as memory fails him on some details of his political life, he narrates many defining personal and national moments with interesting anecdotes.
Munoko is agile and alert. For instance, he drives himself around Nairobi and attends to personal and official functions.
At the height of his career in the latter half of the 1970s, Munoko doubled up as the Minister for Works and organising secretary of the only political party, Kanu. Indeed, Munoko served longest in that position — 18 years. He was elected unopposed in the famous Little General Election of 1967 and retired in 1984.
Munoko was born on May 20, 1922, at Kolani, Sirisia, Bungoma District, in a polygamous family, the first born of his mother. His mother was fairly young when his father died in 1926 and she remarried. He says: “My life would have been bleak were it not that my father had given firm instructions to my elder brothers that I should not leave our home and that they take care of me.”
He praises his brothers for guardianship and care during his formative years. Fortunately for Munoko, his brothers valued education in those early years. As a child, he lived in the Quaker (Friends Church) communal setting, where he received religious and secular education at Chwele B School between 1932 and 1934.
In 1935 he was admitted to the Government African School, Kakamega, as student number 122. Munoko held the record in the inter-school half-mile marathon, beating boys from Kapsabet and Kabianga schools who had dominated the event. He also played rugby. From Kakamega, he went to the Maseno Church Missionary School in 1939, where he took his Junior Secondary School Certificate exam in 1940.
Munoko joined Alliance High School in 1941 as student number 628. He was a house prefect and member of the famous Baluhya Musical Club. He was also in the football team and played hockey and volleyball. His classmates included Robert Matano and Charles Rubia, who later became politicians in their own rights.
Munoko passed the ‘O’ Level Cambridge Overseas School Certificate exams in 1942 and proceeded to Makerere in 1943 for a diploma course in veterinary science. But, in 1946, the Veterinary School was moved from Entebbe to Kabete, Kenya. He was, therefore, one of the first graduates of the school on the Kabete campus, in 1947.
In 1944 Munoko bagged the Governor of Uganda Award for the best student “all round”. He was in the university’s First 11 soccer team and his playmates included Edward Mutesa, later the Kabaka of Buganda. Munoko was also a sharp shooter and a member of the Makerere College Cadet Corps with the rank of corporal.
After Makerere, Munoko was employed as a veterinary officer and posted to Maseno in 1948 to take charge of Central Nyanza District. He was later transferred to Mombasa as the Port Veterinary Officer. He inspected the local slaughterhouses and was in charge of hygiene of the meat supplied in Mombasa.
From Mombasa, he was transferred to Mariakani in 1950 in charge of Kilifi, Kwale, Taita-Taveta and Malindi. His roles included overseeing the milk pasteurising plant and the development of the 1,200-acre veterinary station. Next, he was moved to Kakamega as an extension officer in charge of the south and north Nzoia divisions. In 1956, he moved to Local Government as the secretary of the Elgon Nyanza African District Council (ADC), which was carved out of North Nyanza District. The council became the first to have an African president — Pascal Nabwana — with Canon Jeremiah Awori as vice-president. Munoko was the secretary and chief executive officer of the council. As CEO, he was a member of the district development committee and chairman of the water development sub-committee between 1956 and 1979. Between 1957 and 1963, he was a member of the Elgon Nyanza Liquor Licensing Court.
The three did so well that the Queen of England awarded Nabwana the Order of British Empire (OBE), an award which made him superior to the white District Commissioner. The council honoured Munoko with the elders’ robes (ekutusi) in recognition of his service to the community.
In 1959, while still at the council, Munoko was appointed to the Lake Victoria North Catchment Water Board, the first African in such a position. He eventually became the chairman and served the board until 1975. In 1980, he was the founding chairman of the Lake Basin Development Authority and served it until 1983.
Between 1960 and 1962, he and Carey Francis, his former headmaster and mathematics teacher at Alliance High School, represented Kenya in the Makerere College Council. In 1960, he became a member of the Child Welfare Society and treasurer of the Bungoma branch of the nation’s management committee.
Between 1961 and 1963, Munoko was the secretary of the Nyanza Leaders Council and ADCs, composed of South Nyanza, Kisii, Central Nyanza, Kipsigis, Kisumu, Londiani and Elgon Nyanza. The council met the Colonial Secretary in Kisumu to discuss the Constitution and the majimbo system was recommended. He had taken over as secretary from James Nyamweya.
With this experience in public service, Munoko plunged into politics. In the 1963 elections, he was elected the senator for Bungoma on a Kanu ticket. In 1965, he was re-elected for a further two-year term. Munoko also represented Bungoma in the Regional Assembly in Kakamega. After majimboism was abolished in 1965, a new constituency — Bungoma Central — was created and Munoko became its first MP.
In 1967, the Senate and the House of Representatives were merged and Munoko became the MP for Bungoma Central. Between 1964 and 1975, Munoko was an Assistant Minister in various ministries, his longest stint being in the Ministry of Local Government.
In 1970, Munoko played a major role in the delineation of the boundaries of several local authorities, chairing various Local Government commissions. In the North Rift, he dissolved the Sirikwa County Council and created five new ones — Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Nzoia, Nandi and West Pokot.
In Central Rift, the new county councils were Nakuru, Baringo, Laikipia, Samburu and Kipsigis. He divided Central Nyanza into two — Kisumu and Siaya county councils. Munoko was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Public Works in 1975 to replace Masinde Muliro, who had been sacked after voting against the Government in the J.M. Kariuki assassination controversy.
In the 1970s, Munoko’s name became synonymous with party headquarters. His party post was one of the most powerful. On many occasions, he spelt out party policy, especially on national elections and party clearance of candidates. His position was so prominent that some observers ranked him third in the party hierarchy, behind the president and the secretary-general. At the time, the intrigues over the Kenyatta succession were at their height. Party national elections were to be held in 1977. Munoko declared that he would defend the organising secretary’s position.
His challengers were John Keen (Kajiado North MP), Kihika Kimani (Nakuru North MP) and Maurice Mboja (Kilifi South MP). Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki was to contest the Kanu chairmanship against Defence Minister James Gichuru, while the incumbents for presidency (Kenyatta) and vice-presidency (Moi) of the party were unopposed.
On the morning of April 2, 1977, the eve of the elections, the Voice of Kenya (now KBC) radio announced the agenda of the delegates’ conference. At 9am, it repeated the bulletin. But at 10am came a terse announcement: “Due to unavoidable circumstances, the elections to be held tomorrow at the KICC have been postponed until further notice.”
The statement, released by acting secretary-general Robert Matano, caught delegates by surprise as they settled down in Nairobi. Some had even arrived at the Kenyatta University College, where accommodation had been arranged.
The elections were to be held nearly a year later on October 6, 1978, after Kenyatta had died in August. Munoko was elected organising secretary. But his national profile came at a price — it worked against him at the constituency. In the 1979 general elections — the first during Moi’s tenure — he lost the Bungoma Central seat to Peter Kisuya, emerging third in the election after the victor and lawyer George Kapten. Kisuya was a former primary school teacher, Knut chairman in Bungoma District and chairman of the Chwele Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society.
Munoko, however, continued as Kanu organising secretary up to 1985. In Kanu, he was life member number 12. Between 1984 and 1987, he was the Kanu executive officer and the organising secretary. When he left the latter position in 1985, he continued as the executive officer for two years. Munoko’s attempt to recapture the Bungoma Central seat in 1983 failed. Kisuya beat him a second time. But Munoko remained the Kanu national organising secretary.
His contribution to education is immense. Between 1956 and 1963, he was a member of the Elgon Nyanza District Education Board. Thanks to his veterinary background, he represented Western Province on the Egerton University Council from 1965 to 1968. In 1972, he was a founder-member of the board of governors of the Western College of Arts and Technology, now Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.
Between 1957 and 1979, he was the chairman of the boards of governors at Friend’s Kamusinga and Lugulu Girls schools in Bungoma District. He was also a member of 35 harambee secondary schools in Bungoma Central.
In matters culture, he has been a leading light in his home district. He was feted as a Bukusu elder in 1993, in accordance with customary law. And, in 1998, he became a member of the Luhya Council of Elders.