Eliud Timothy Mwamunga was an astute politician in post-independent Kenya, navigating turbulent political waters to serve in the Cabinets of Presidents Kenyatta and Moi. He later co-founded the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) that would play the initial role in catapulting Kibaki to become Kenya’s third President.
A wealthy landowner in a constituency endowed with minerals, cash crops and wildlife, Mwamunga courted the Kenyatta and Moi administrations by not only rising above other political greenhorns in Taita-Taveta and the Coast, but also playing low-profile politics at a time when the careers of abrasive and combative politicians were brutally cut short through detention, sacking from the Cabinet or rigging out of Parliament.
A lawyer, Mwamunga made history not just in Voi constituency, but also in the larger Taita-Taveta by serving as the MP for 20 uninterrupted years. None of those who came before or after him — Basil Mwakiringo, Darius Mbela, Boniface Mganga or Adiel Kachila — managed to serve for even two terms.
Mwamunga was born on July 21, 1935, at Ishamba at the foot of the Taita Hills. He grew up in an area endowed with natural resources — minerals such as rubies, cash crops (sisal) and fruits (mangoes) and wildlife as the Tsavo National Park is nearby. He attended Ishamba Primary School and later joined Shimo-la-Tewa Secondary and Alliance.
He went for higher education at Makerere and then the University of Dar-es-Salaam in to study law. If Makerere was the educational Mecca of Eastern Africa, Dar-es-Salaam was the premier law institution in the region. After graduating in law, Mwamunga taught in various schools in Coast Province at a time when the struggle for independence was at its height. The Mau Mau war was in top gear, the State of Emergency had been declared in 1952 and leaders were forming political parties to agitate for independence.
At the Coast, the kingpin of that political struggle was Ronald Ngala, a major inspiration for the young teacher. Ngala, who was against the marginalisation and exploitation of the Coast people, played a central role in the struggle for independence.
The independence constitutional conferences in London, the 1963 elections pitting Kanu against Kadu, and the dissolution of Kadu in 1964 were some of the exciting political events of the freedom struggle, independence and the birth of the young nation that inspired a young Mwamunga even as he taught at the Coast and later became the Taita-Taveta County Clerk.
As Town Clerk, Mwamunga rubbed shoulders with civic leaders and parliamentarians. He also visited all parts of Taita-Taveta and realised the dire need for basics among his people. It was also during that period that he discerned the role he could play in serving the Taita people.
In 1969, at the age of 34, he contested and won the Taita-Taveta parliamentary seat. In his first term in Parliament, Mwamunga initiated numerous development projects, made useful connections with agriculturalists, wildlife conservationists and mineral prospectors, including wealthy Kenyans and foreigners who could exploit the district’s natural resources.
He also consolidated his political connections at the national level. This strategy bore fruit and, when he was re-elected in 1974, Kenyatta appointed him Minister for Water Development. During his two-years stint in the ministry, Mwamunga initiated projects, including the construction of the country’s first dams, water supply schemes for the urban areas and irrigation schemes that boosted agricultural production.
Since agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, the Water Ministry was regarded as a vehicle through which Kenya would use irrigation to grow enough food for its growing population and for export.
But in 1976, Kenyatta swapped Mwamunga with Gikonyo Kiano of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. In the new ministry, Mwamunga initiated many policies that created a good environment for foreign and local investment in trade and industry.
And, following in the footsteps of Vice-President and Home Affairs Minister Daniel Moi and Kiano (as Minister for Commerce and Industry), Mwamunga accelerated the Africanisation policy in trade and commerce. Europeans and Asians dominated the sector, the latter having set up camp not only in Nairobi but also in other urban areas, to the chagrin of indigenous businessmen.
With President Kenyatta’s blessing, Mwamunga issued quit notices to Asians doing business in the rural areas, effectively confining them to Nairobi and other major towns. This was in line with the mandate of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) to give loans to indigenous people to open up businesses and fill the gap the departing Asian traders left.
In 1976, Kenya hosted the 4th Session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The international conference, the first of its kind on African soil, was opened by President Kenyatta and drew international personalities such as US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos.
In his address as host, Mwamunga urged world nations to resolve trade disputes, especially between rich and poor countries. He called for agreements to guide international financial lending and commodity prices to protect poor countries.
Mwamunga’s first political trouble came in 1977 during a Kanu election. He clashed with party acting secretary-general Robert Matano when the latter appointed Mwamunga to supervise the Mombasa branch elections. In what turned out to be an ugly duel with Matano, Mwamunga defied the order for fresh elections, saying the branch had held polls the previous year.
He informed Matano that officials had been elected and registered. They were John Mambo (chairman), Abdullah Mwaruwa (vice-chairman), Maurice Mboja (secretary) and Mohamed Jahazi (organising secretary). Mwamunga also wrote to the officials and advised them not to hold elections. But the registrar denied that any officials had been registered. Fresh branch elections were held, and all the officials were voted out and new ones elected. The new chairman was Shariff Nassir, who was to become the most powerful politician at the Coast during President Moi’s rule.
This was to haunt Mwamunga in later years when he and Nassir locked horns over supremacy at the Coast at a time when the latter became Moi’s pointman in the region. The election loss by the team that he supported did not deter Mwamunga from recapturing his seat — renamed Voi — in the 1979 General Election, the first after the death of Kenyatta in 1978. Mwamunga even did better than in previous elections, polling 8,363 votes against his only rival, Kwaya Mwatibo’s 2,699.
This was a strong mandate and those who had opposed him in the past reportedly changed sides and threw their lot behind the minister. One such candidate was Augustine Mwagogo Ngume, who pulled out of the race midway.
Though he had an uneasy relationship with Moi due to his links with ministers and businessmen close to Kenyatta, Mwamunga was reappointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. However, he was caught up in the 1983 ‘traitor issue’ involving Njonjo, alleged to have plotted to overthrow the Moi government.
In what was to become Moi’s style of dealing with politicians perceived to be against him, Njonjo was subjected to public humiliation as the “traitor in Moi’s Cabinet being groomed to take over the presidency illegally”. Politicians took advantage of the traitor debate in and out of Parliament to settle scores with Njonjo. It was time for Moi to purge his government of perceived enemies. Some MPs accused Mwamunga of being sympathetic to Njonjo. Although Mwamunga and a few others survived the political lynching and the 1983 snap election called basically to get rid of Njonjo sympathisers, the association cast a cloud over Mwamunga’s political future.
Mwamunga experienced the full force of the ruling party. It gave him sleepless moments until the end of his political career. For one, National Organising Secretary and Minister for Supplies and Marketing Laban Kitele publicly rebuked him over the whereabouts of Sh1 million given to his Voi constituency. Although he defended himself spiritedly against the accusations of mismanaging the funds, the message, coming from a Moi point man, was out that the minister was no longer in the President’s favour. He continued to face many difficulties. The Kanu Taita-Taveta branch tried to hound him out of office.
He was in protracted running battles and petty squabbles initiated at Kanu headquarters and Nassir’s Mombasa branch. The battles and squabbles were spearheaded by a new crop of leaders, led by Darius Mbela, the man who would later oust Mwamunga from the Voi seat and become the Minister for Lands. It was, therefore, not a surprise when Mwamunga was sacked as Minister for Information and Broadcasting in January, 1988, in the run-up to that year’s infamous queue-voting elections. Many MPs perceived to be anti-Moi were voted out.
The queue-voting system elicited national and international condemnation and helped build the groundswell of opposition politics. Mwamunga was a victim of the electoral system soon after his sacking from the Cabinet. And, as the national purge continued, he lost the chairmanship of the Taita-Taveta Kanu branch. And the party machinery was not through with him. Mwamunga was accused of all manner of misdeeds and suspended as a member of the branch.
Mwamunga’s sacking from the Cabinet and subsequent troubles from Kanu might not have been a result just of the traitor issue, but his perceived gravitation towards Kibaki. In the run-up to the 1988 General Election, he was alleged to be among candidates whom Kibaki had sponsored for the poll. This was after Kibaki, who had been blocked from presiding over fundraisers outside Nyeri, accepted Mwamunga’s invitation to raise funds in Voi.
It was no surprise that Mwamunga joined Kibaki in January, 1992, to launch an opposition party, the Democratic Party, after the Constitution was changed in 1991 to make Kenya multi-party. Kibaki had resigned from Kanu and as Minister for Health on Christmas Day, 1991. Mwamunga was named DP Coast representative. He played an active role in popularising the DP in the region ahead of the first multi-party elections in 1992. But division in the newly formed opposition parties made it difficult for them to win the elections.
Mwamunga himself failed to recapture his Voi seat, which went to Kanu’s Mbela, who was also appointed to the Cabinet. Subsequently, Mwamunga retired from politics and retreated to his Ishamba home, where he concentrates on business and farming.
Ill health has, however, dogged the politician, whose illustrious 20-year political career benefitted his constituents and helped shape Kenya’s social, political and economic future.