Laban Maingi Kitele was one of the founder members of the New Akamba Union (NAU). Through it he rose up the political ranks to become one of President Daniel arap Moi’s most trusted lieutenants in the Cabinet and the National Organising Secretary of the ruling party, Kenya African National Union (KANU).
Kitele first served as Assistant Minister for Works and Housing in Moi’s government, and was later appointed Cabinet Minister in the Office of the President in the Internal Security docket. He also served as Minister for Supplies and Marketing.
Born in 1931 in Mbee Village, Kathiani, on the northern slopes of the Iveti Hills complex some 21 kilometres from Machakos Town, Kitele completed his primary and secondary school education at Kwa Mating’i School while working on his family’s shamba (farm) and looking after his father’s cattle.
After school, he joined the Kenya Co-operative Creameries as a salesman at its Industrial Area headquarters in Nairobi, rising to the position of sales and marketing manager. He later joined Sadolin Paints where he worked in the same capacity for two years before resigning to work as a contracted distributor for the same company while dabbling in politics and the affairs of NAU as its Nairobi branch chairman.
Kitele and fellow politician Mulu Mutisya were the top two NAU officials. They made decisions on behalf of the Kamba community in Nairobi from their base at Makadara Estate in the city’s Eastlands area. Many community leaders were nurtured from this base and would later become Nairobi City councillors and Nairobi KANU Branch officials and businessmen.
Kitele, however, delegated the NAU chairmanship in Nairobi to Mutisya in order to concentrate on the paint distributorship contract countrywide. This later proved to be a major miscalculation.
By 1974, having been deeply involved in NAU and the Machakos branch of KANU, Kitele felt confident enough to take on the MP for Iveti North, Aaron Mutung’a, during that year’s General Election. However, he lost.
Between 1974 and 1979 Kitele worked hard to develop a good relationship with the influential NAU and KANU leadership while seeking voter support from all corners of the constituency. The effort bore fruit and enabled him to defeat Mutung’a in the 1979 General Election. He was appointed Assistant Minister for Works and Housing.
Kitele consolidated his support among voters and worked so closely with the district party leadership that when Moi called the snap 1983 General Election, occasioned by the attempted coup of August 1982, he beat all his rivals, among them Mutung’a, Musembi Kyalo and Kavuti Ndeti. This time he was appointed Cabinet Minister in the Office of the President in charge of Internal Security.
When Moi started launching populist activities across the country, Kitele hosted the large presidential party in Vyulya on the steep slopes of Kiima Kimwe. The team constructed gabions on the badly eroded slopes in a widely publicised exercise that involved every single Member of Parliament.
It was regarded as the first and only sitting of the National Assembly outside the precincts of the House. It also went down in history as one of Moi’s biggest publicity events at the time, as the whole exercise was covered by local and international news networks.
The activity gave Kitele, the host, an aura of invincibility. His influence in Machakos grew by leaps and bounds, along with that of party branch chairman Mutisya, who had been elected to the position after Moi proscribed NAU and other tribal groupings, including the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) and the Luo Union.
Kitele was also influential in the country’s security agencies as Moi moved to consolidate power after the coup attempt the previous year.
During the power consolidation exercise, soldiers from the Kenya Air Force implicated in the coup attempt were court-martialled and handed long prison sentences; some students and activists were also jailed along with military officers. Several lecturers and politicians were detained without trial. Special Branch officers from Kitele’s ministry spread fear among the population as they eavesdropped on private conversations, especially in public entertainment places. They raided newsrooms and other offices, made arrests, carted away documents and confiscated equipment.
At this time the provincial administration, from provincial commissioners right down to village chiefs, was strengthened and given more powers “as the ears and eyes of the president”.
As the infamous 1988 mlolongo (queue) method of elections approached, Kitele had lost some of his influence in Government and faced stiff competition for the seat. He was also replaced as the KANU National Organising Secretary by Kalonzo Musyoka. Despite this, Kitele won again.
According to political pundits, however, he only managed to win back his seat courtesy of constituency boundary delimitation by the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) — later renamed the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) — which significantly altered the voting patterns of the constituency when it created Kathiani from the old Iveti North and the neighbouring Iveti South (now Machakos Town) constituencies.
“In the run-up to the 1988 elections, Kitele sensed defeat by Musembi Kyalo,” explained Wilson Masila Muema, the nominated councillor (1983–1988) and KANU branch secretary, alias Muthungulule (nominated).
Muema said Kyalo had already gained considerable support from across the constituency since he had contested the seat several times and was poised to defeat Kitele had the boundaries not been changed before the polls.
“Kitele was in power, so in order to avoid defeat, he did some political arithmetic and decided to influence the boundary review process by ensuring the areas in which he had support were included in the new Kathiani Constituency. These areas where he enjoyed traditional support were Ithaeni, Kathiani, Athi River, Embakasi, Koma and Kyumbi. The populous Mutituni area where his opponent, Kyalo, had 100 per cent support was ceded to Machakos Town where Kyalo transferred his interest and went ahead to win during the 1988 elections,” explained Muema.
The election result ensured Kitele won in Kathiani while his nemesis, Kyalo, who had resigned as Permanent Secretary for Health, moved to the more cosmopolitan urban constituency of Machakos Town.
Kitele was re-appointed to the Cabinet but moved to the relatively new and low profile Ministry of Supplies and Marketing. The ministry was set up to ensure adequate supplies of farm inputs, boost the capacity of the National Cereals and Produce Board, maintain grain strategic reserves, and ensure flawless marketing and export of the country’s agricultural produce, among other things.
However, his political relationship with Mutisya ran into problems. This political shift coincided with the announcement by General (rtd) Jackson Kimeu Mulinge in 1991 that he would contest the Kathiani parliamentary seat in the 1992 General Election.
In 1992 Mulinge, who was credited with initiating and completing several key development projects in the area, easily beat Kitele. The five-star general was highly respected and hugely popular because he had transformed the sleepy Kathiani market centre on the northern foothills of Iveti Hills into a modern, thriving town.
After his defeat, Kitele retired from politics and concentrated on farming and his hospitality business, which included his flagship Garden Hotel located in the heart of Machakos Town.
He also became a director at the Kenya Red Cross Society in charge of disaster management, where he served until his death on 22 August 2015 at the age of 84 years.
Kitele was credited with empowering numerous entrepreneurs not just in Kathiani but also in Machakos County.
“Through fundraising efforts, some involving President Moi, Kitele built many schools, churches and health centres, and enabled many youths to find gainful employment,” said Muema, a trustee of Kitele’s estate.