The terse one o’clock announcement by the Presidential Press Unit of the sacking of Robert Stanley Matano as Minister for Information and Broadcasting in 1985 hit the Kanu secretary-general like a thunderbolt.
Matano, who was en route from his Mazeras home in Coast Province by train, disembarked in Nairobi and called his office, seeking a vehicle to transport his personal effects from the Government house he occupied.
He had served both Kenyatta and Moi in various Cabinet portfolios — Culture, Social Services and Housing, Cooperative Development and Information and Broadcasting. When he was sacked, he quietly marked time until he lost his parliamentary seat in 1988 and retired to a life of farming at his rural home.
Matano was born in Mazeras, Kaloleni, in 1925 and tended his father’s livestock and helped in the farm. He started school at Mazeras Intermediate, and then joined the Church Missionary Society School in Kaloleni. He passed well and was admitted to Kaaga Secondary School, Meru, and later Alliance in 1936. He was a hardworking and disciplined student. Then in 1946, he joined Makerere College for a diploma course in education, graduating in 1948. In 1949, he started his teaching career at Ribe Boys Junior Secondary School and later Alliance. He was promoted to District Education Officer (DEO) in Mombasa and Kwale.
In politics, Matano was drawn to the side advocating a majimbo system as opposed to Kanu’s unitary preference. Matano joined politics in the 1960s at the prodding of Ronald Ngala.
He was in the Lancaster delegation of 1960, 1961 and 1962. Kanu won the 1963 elections and formed the independence government and Kadu went into the opposition. But in 1964, the party was dissolved and the members, including Matano, who had been elected the MP for Kinango, crossed the floor and joined the ruling party.
As MP and minister, Matano’s sense of high integrity, made other party members regard him as politically naïve. But his political star started rising when he was thrust into Kanu with Mboya as the secretary-general. After Mboya’s assassination in 1969, President Kenyatta appointed Matano acting Kanu secretary-general. But the party was not as active as it had been. After the 1966 Limuru Conference from which Odinga stormed out in a huff to found the KPU, Kanu never held sub-branch, branch or national elections until 1979. As a political strategy, Kenyatta and his advisers felt that party elections would divide the country and dredge the widening divisions between forces within the ruling party. So moribund was the party that organising secretary John Keen wrote to Kenyatta to complain that Kanu delegates had not met since 1962, a year before independence.
The secretariat had not met since 1964. The party had a 20,000 British pounds debt. Phones at the headquarters had been disconnected for failure to pay. Staff had not been paid for seven months.
In short, Keen pointed out that since the party did not meet or hold elections, it had no powers and had been subordinated to the Government. Kenyatta never forgave Keen for this. Vocal Butere MP Martin Shikuku told Parliament the same thing in 1975: “Kanu is dead,” said he. But when an MP asked him to substantiate the allegation, Speaker pro tem Jean-Marie Seroney, a government critic, said there was no reason to substantiate “the obvious”. Shortly after that, Shikuku and Seroney were arrested in the precincts of Parliament and hurled into preventive detention.
This was the state of the ruling party that Matano presided over as acting secretary-general between 1966 and 1979, when he was confirmed to the position a year after Kenyatta’s death. As one of Kanu’s top officials, Matano had a rough time, particularly during parliamentary elections, when candidates complained of being “barred” or not “cleared” to contest constituencies or ward seats for one reason or another.
The most memorable was his violent confrontation with Kanu national treasurer Justus ole Tipis over the clearance of former KPU members, including Odinga, to vie for political seats in 1979. Matano and Tipis engaged in physical combat at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, the Kanu headquarters. Tipis, a temperamental politician, hit Matano on the head with a club.
After losing his parliamentary seat, Matano said he would never retire from politics, arguing that once a politician always one, and instead chose to be “available for consultation”.
Matano was the political mentor of many Coast politicians, including later Cabinet Ministers Shariff Nassir and Noah Katana Ngala, son of Kadu founder Ronald Ngala. Matano was also among the founder members of Shirikisho Party of Kenya, whose leader is the present Matuga MP and Cabinet Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere.
Although Matano had retired from politics, he attended the party’s delegates meeting in Mombasa and assured members that he would be available for political consultation whenever needed.
Matano represented Kinango for 27 years — from 1961 to 1988 — when a political newcomer, Ali Bidu, beat him in the infamous queue-voting system Moi had introduced. The polls were condemned nationally and internationally as a sham. Matano is credited with having played a leading role in the quest for multi-party politics.
Having presided over Kanu when it was the only political party, he knew too well how it was used to finish the political careers of many leaders. To him, political pluralism would not be just restoration of people’s rights of speech and association, but also political accommodation and tolerance
Matano did not cut a niche for himself as a local or national leader. There is no project that can be associated with him. One thing though that the minister will be remembered for is the formation of Shirikisho Party. But it is yet to make any political impact nationally or regionally. Politicians such as Cabinet ministers Shariff Nassir, Darius Mbela and Karisa Maitha, who joined politics decades after him, left a mark at the Coast and nationally. Local leaders and politicians do not remember whether Matano had any social, economic or political agenda for the Coast.
Many are of the opinion that, although he held powerful positions in Government, he did not use his powers to influence social or economic development in his Kinango constituency or amass wealth for himself. Kinango, which is arid and semi-arid and is high on the poverty scale, does not have any significant project that can be associated with Matano.
Former Cabinet Minister Suleiman Shakombo describes Matano as a down-to-earth politician, who eschewed corruption and other vices. “Matano was a clean man,” says Shakombo, who became a Cabinet Minister between 2005 and 2007.
A civil servant who worked with Matano in Nairobi points out that he did not use his influence to get his children and kin employment in Government. When he died in absolute poverty, those who eulogised him blamed the Government for having neglected him. Former Cabinet Minister Katana Ngala described him as a great team player, who shunned controversy. Former Bahari MP Joe Khamisi describes Matano as a laidback leader who preferred to work behind the scenes. Shirikisho secretary-general Yussuf Abubakar says the former minister encouraged local MPs to support the party.
But Matano’s critics accuse him of failing to fight for the landless and protect them against unfair distribution of national resources in the region. There are claims that Matano did not comment on the collapse of industries at the Coast — the Ramisi Sugar Company and the Kilifi Cashewnut Factory — which had offered a lifeline for thousands in Kwale and Kilifi.
But Khamisi counters the criticism, saying that after he was sacked, Matano accepted his fate and settled at his farm in Kinango. He could not even afford to transport his household goods to Mazeras when he was forced to vacate the Government house in Nairobi.
Matano left behind two widows, Ruth and Susan, 16 children and 20 grandchildren. In his sunset years, he retired to his Ndugu ni Mkono village home in Mazeras and died in a Mombasa hospital after a short illness in 2008. He was 83.