Kamwithi Munyi – A flamboyant servant of the people

Kamwithi Munyi was not a man who could be easily ignored. A Cabinet Minister with a penchant for eccentric behaviour, one could not help but notice him during public gatherings presided over by the Head of State, Daniel arap Moi. Appointed Minister for Cooperatives and Development following his nomination to Parliament after the 1992 General Election, Munyi attracted media cameras thanks to his heavy build and unique, well-designed and multi-coloured suits that distinguished him from his Cabinet colleagues – not to mention his famous habit of nodding at every statement the President made.

Wearing a perpetual broad smile, Munyi would nod incessantly during the entire period that Moi was on the podium as he diligently jotted down notes in his diary, thus becoming the focal point for multitudes of TV viewers.

His unusual behaviour notwithstanding, Munyi was a well-grounded politician who made history in the 1988 elections by receiving the highest number of votes for any Member of Parliament. He had garnered 29,696 votes in the parliamentary elections against his sole rival’s 13,016. In 1969 Munyi had been elected unopposed to represent Embu East Constituency and proceeded to retain the seat in the two successive elections, but narrowly lost to Silvester Mate in 1983. The loss was attributed to a plot hatched by his political rivals allegedly led by senior Cabinet Minister Jeremiah Mwaniki Nyagah, to curtail the rising popularity of the legislator who enjoyed massive support across Embu District. Nyagah was MP for Embu South Constituency (later renamed Gachoka).

In the first years of Moi’s presidency, Munyi was able to influence a number of development projects in his constituency through the Government development programme spearheaded by the District Development Committees (DDC) introduced by the Moi administration soon after he assumed power. The role of these committees was to allow people at the grassroots to select what projects they wanted the Government to fund. Previously, such projects were decided on at ministry headquarters in Nairobi. According to the new administration, it was important for people to determine priority projects.

Community leaders would therefore meet at the village or sub-location level to deliberate over the project that would best serve the people or develop an area, with the provincial administration being responsible for mobilising the leaders. Members of the DDC also included elected leaders and Government representatives. The DDC would then convene meetings, chaired by the district commissioners, to establish which project would be funded first.

Since MPs were among the leaders who attended the DDC meetings at the district headquarters, Munyi, who was very much in touch with the people, made a name for himself throughout Embu District. During the DDC meetings he would routinely accuse Nyagah of being out of touch with the grassroots.

One of the projects the MP personally initiated was the construction of Irira Bridge in Mbeere North. The bridge, which connects Evurori and Nthawa divisions, greatly benefitted the people of Embu. Before its construction, people from Nthawa and neighbouring Kitui District had a difficult time accessing Ishiara Market, a huge bazaar for grains and livestock. The bridge was likewise a panacea to the population in Evurori who had a hard time accessing Siakago Trading Centre, which housed the divisional headquarters where they went to seek Government services. Both Evurori and Nthawa divisions were part of Embu East Constituency, which Munyi represented, before the 1986 boundary review.

Another project the MP had lobbied for through the DDC was development of the Katumani maize variety for the dry lands of Mbeere area, piloted by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) – now renamed Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation. As an assistant minister, he had also used his influence to secure employment for several high school and university graduates in his constituency. They were employed as clerical officers in various Government ministries while others joined the provincial administration as district officers.

Munyi’s development record further served to fan his rivalry with Nyagah. To understand it, one needs to know that there are two ethnic groups that inhabit Embu: the Aembu and the Mbeere whose language is almost similar but with distinct cultures. Historically, the Mbeeres, or Ambeere as they are locally known, have been treated as inferiors by the Aembu who are endowed with rich agricultural land on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Mbeere land, neighbouring present-day Machakos and Kitui counties, is semi-arid and the people rely mainly on pastoralism since not many crops can thrive in the harsh climate.

Nyagah, from the Mbeere community, was seen as the most senior politician in Embu District, having first been elected to the Legislative Council in 1958. The former Gachoka MP served as a Cabinet Minister for 26 years under both President Jomo Kenyatta and President Moi until he retired in 1992.

Munyi commanded the equal allegiance of both his Embu people and a section of Mbeere. As a representative of the greater Embu East Constituency – before a section of it was carved out to form what is today known as Mbeere North Constituency (formerly Siakago) – Munyi had endeared himself to the Mbeere through his personable nature; he was perceived as a man of the people.

To silence Munyi, Nyagah, a senior Cabinet Minister in Kenyatta’s government at the time, had in 1976 managed to edge him out from the leadership of the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. The Embu East MP had held the party branch chairmanship since 1962 but following his removal, Nyagah controlled the politics of Embu. When Munyi lost his Embu East parliamentary seat in 1983, his supporters were very angry with Nyagah, who they believed had sponsored candidates in the MP’s strongholds to weaken his chances. Come 1988, voters in the new Runyenjes Constituency, created subsequent to the 1986 boundary review, had to make a point by overwhelmingly voting for Munyi.

Born on 1 September 1937, Munyi is remembered as one of the nationalists involved in the struggle for Kenya’s independence in the 1950s. The young man was a student at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he had enrolled for a degree in political science and diplomacy. One of his roles was to propagate the ideals of Kenya’s freedom struggle. He worked closely with veteran journalist and former Managing Editor of The Standard and Kenya Times, Henry Gathigira, who was described by the Daily Nation of 6 February 2015 as the Kenya African Union (KAU) propaganda chief in Cairo.

Other Kenyan students who had arrived in the Egyptian capital with Munyi included James Ochwata and Okore Seda. The three, jointly with Gathigira, operated from KAU offices made available to Kenyan nationalists by the renowned pan-Africanist President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser supported several other nationalist movements across the continent.

In his book Not Yet Uhuru, Kenya’s first Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, also a leading nationalist leader, mentioned Munyi and his two student colleagues. He stated that they played a vital role in helping students travel outside Kenya to take up scholarships abroad, which was not easy due to the restriction on movement that the British colonial administration had imposed.

“It is in Cairo (the Cairo office Munyi and others operated) that we made our first contact with liberation figures in other parts of the continent, among them Felix Moumie of the Cameroon, Kenneth Kaunda, Chipembere, Simon Kapepwe, Joshua Nkomo and the Rev Sithole,” Odinga wrote.

On returning to Kenya in 1962, Munyi did not seek employment but decided instead to enter politics. He became an active member of KANU, which had been formed two years earlier, and was elected Chairman of the Embu branch – a position he held until 1976.

Before contesting the Embu East parliamentary seat in 1969, Munyi had represented Embu District in the Senate, having been elected during the independence elections in 1963. The Senate was to be abolished in 1966 and merged with the Lower House. Munyi was certainly a career politician. He had been involved in the building of KANU right from its formative years in 1960 until 1976 when he lost the party branch chairmanship to Nyagah.

Munyi’s political influence in Embu did not end with this loss; he was still a vastly experienced political operator. But come the 1992 elections, his mastery of the political game was put to the test. He was among the few politicians from Mount Kenya region who had decided to stick with the independence party, which had lost significant ground in the region. The people of Mount Kenya opposed the Moi administration, accusing the President of ruining the country’s economy and marginalising communities from this region, especially regarding employment in Government.

The Democratic Party (DP) chaired by Mwai Kibaki, who Moi had dropped as his Vice President and relegated to a mere Cabinet Minister, was the preferred party for most of the electorate in Embu and the other two districts of Mount Kenya region. Kibaki, who was also in the presidential race, had the support of the people from the entire region.

It came as a shock to KANU when the party lost all three parliamentary seats in Embu District. Even Nyagah, one of Moi’s trusted ministers, did not campaign for his old party despite having served as its district chairman. He had decided to retire from elective politics after having represented Gachoka Constituency since independence. One of his sons, Norman Nyaga, went on to win the seat on a DP ticket. Munyi’s period in office in Embu politics also appeared to have hit a deadlock after he failed to capture the KANU ticket to defend his Runyenjes seat, which was eventually won by his political rival, Peter Njeru Ndwiga of DP.

Moi, who emerged winner in the presidential election, had to consolidate the country, which was left sharply divided along ethnic lines. He also had to counter-balance his government by appointing ministers from regions that supported the Opposition. He did this by reaching out to politicians from the Opposition strongholds who had demonstrated their loyalty to him and the ruling party. In other words, the Head of State had to extend an olive branch to the population of voters who had rejected him in the polls.

This is what led to a dramatic change of fortunes for leaders like Munyi who had proved to be a KANU hardliner. Throughout his stint as a people’s representative, he had demonstrated his unwavering loyalty not only to the ruling party but also to the government of the day. Another factor that favoured Munyi was the need for regional balance in the Cabinet. KANU had lost to the Opposition in the populous regions of Mount Kenya and Nyanza. There was need to have influential ministers from these areas to act as Government emissaries. Additionally, with Nyagah having bowed out of active politics, Munyi was the next influential KANU leader in Embu. Moi therefore appointed him to the Cabinet.

In his 24 years at the country’s helm, Moi had one attribute that many came to acknowledge only after his exit from power; he never failed to show gratitude to leaders who worked tirelessly for the people they represented and those who demonstrated patriotism. These two traits characterised Munyi’s political career. He is one man who spent most of his time working for the electorate. The MP set aside particular days to meet with his constituents and would meet them in his rural home in Kyeni, where people would queue to present their problems to him. Following his death in 2006, people described him as a down-to-earth person who never ignored anyone seeking his assistance.

During his last days in active politics he became a KANU hardliner. In 1994 he warned ‘outsiders’ living in Embu District, especially members of the Kikuyu community, against underrating the locals. The Minister was insisting that those supporting the Opposition and showing open hatred for KANU and Moi were mainly Kikuyus residing in the district. He said the Embu people had been underrated for far too long by the Kikuyus and that it was time for this to stop.

Other KANU leaders in the district supported him, but his statement angered religious leaders. The Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK), critical of the Moi regime, responded by issuing a statement signed by Bishop Moses Njue who was in charge of the local dioceses, saying it was wrong for the Minister to put a wedge between the people of Embu and the Kikuyu.

“Mr Munyi as a Cabinet Minister should be preaching peace, love and unity but not the opposite as he’s doing,” Njue told the Sunday Nation on 10 July 1994.

Munyi led a flashy lifestyle. Besides his well-designed suits, he also wore two expensive wrist watches at the same time. People understood this to mean that he did not trust either of the watches to be correct, so he needed two of them lest he miss a presidential event. Those who knew him don’t agree with this assertion, saying the flamboyant MP was simply a big spender and an extravagant person.

Little was known about Munyi’s family life.

Share this post

Comment on post

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *