Maina Wanjigi – ‘Independence decade’ technocrat who spearheaded the Africanisation process

Just before independence, Maina Wanjigi was a lowly assistant agricultural extension officer being pushed around by unschooled but senior colonial officers in Nyeri District. The tables would however soon be turned as Wanjigi became the first Director of Settlement in independent Kenya, responsible for settling thousands of landless citizens.

The one million-acre settlement scheme would create homes for more than one million Kenyans whose land had been grabbed by the colonialists. At that time, there were differing opinions on how to deal with the question of land. Some politicians wanted land owned by the white settlers to be nationalised and given to the landless; others wanted the settlers to be compensated. Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, preferred the latter option but the newly-independent country could not afford the millions of shillings required to pay the settlers.

Eventually, a soft loan of 26 million pounds sterling from the British government and the World Bank was negotiated and acquired for the purpose. As Director of Settlement, Wanjigi oversaw the implementation of the scheme. His main task was to identify the land to be used for settlement and negotiate the buy-out.

“Once the purchase had been concluded and titles transferred, I was then to oversee an orderly transfer of the land to landless Kenyans,” Wanjigi wrote in his book, Maina Wanjigi, Shepherd Boy in Pursuit of Virtue.

Having successfully implemented the scheme, although many of the Mau Mau freedom fighters would continue to complain that they were neither settled nor compensated, Wanjigi was moved to the commercial sector as Chief Executive of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC), a Government agency mandated with integrating Kenyans in the industrialisation and commercial processes. He was appointed to head the corporation spearheading the Africanisation Programme in 1968.

This came at a time when commercial outlets in major Nairobi streets such as River Road and Kirinyaga Road were owned predominantly by Asians, while the whites occupied high-end outlets north of River Road.

“The entire wholesaling and distribution sub-sector was in the hands of Asians as was the distribution of mass-consumed items. Similarly the textile trade, whose hub was and still is Biashara Street (in Nairobi), was monopolised by Asians. Multinationals controlled the manufacturing and import-export sub-sectors,” he said in his book.

Under his watch, the Government set up the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC), a subsidiary of ICDC meant to oversee the Africanisation of distribution of major consumables. This would launch many Africans into the business arena. Also established under ICDC was Kenya Industrial Estates (KIE), with the first estate being set up on Nairobi’s Likoni Road. The aim was to produce common-place items that were otherwise being imported from Asia and draining the country’s scarce foreign exchange.

Born in 1931, Wanjigi was educated at the Kagumo Intermediate School up to 1946, when he went to Alliance High School and then Makerere University in Uganda, where he obtained a Diploma in Agriculture. He later qualified in agricultural economics and attained a master’s degree in economics in the USA.

Before the ‘independence decade’ ended, Wanjigi left ICDC to contest in a by-election in Nairobi’s Kamukunji Constituency. The election had been occasioned by the assassination of Tom Mboya, the eloquent right-wing Minister for Planning, in 1969. Wanjigi had previously ‘tasted’ politics as a prefect at Alliance High School and later as President of the African Students Union in the Bay Area of California in the USA. He won the by-election and entered Parliament in November 1969.

The former MP takes credit for initiating and developing the expansive open-air Gikomba Market in his constituency. He however noted that in the beginning, the traders were constantly harassed by Nairobi City Council officers and the police before they established themselves in the market.

“Gikomba is a success story not just in terms of its sheer volume of business but also as a training ground for many of our businessmen and women now playing their rightful roles in the development of this nation,” he said in the book. Another project that he took pride in was helping to establish the jua kali(informal) business sector in Shauri Moyo.

At the time he joined politics, many children in the low-income Kamukunji Constituency could not access basic schooling. In a speech he made in Parliament in June 1973 advocating for free primary school education for all, he said, “Unless you have a good education to which every child has access and that can be harnessed to (enable them to) reach their full potential, you cannot build a sound population and a sound nation. It is about time somebody got the message that we want free primary education. Let every child in this country be entitled to at least eight years of free primary education.”

But it was not until 2003, during President Mwai Kibaki’s regime, that public primary school education became free for all. President Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s fourth Head of State, would make day secondary school education free in 2018.

Wanjigi’s star was rising and when President Jomo Kenyatta began his second term in office in 1970, he appointed the Kamukunji MP Assistant Minister for Agriculture under Bruce Mackenzie, who was the Minister. In 1976, there was a clamour to change the Constitution of Kenya. The agitation was believed to be aimed at denying Vice President Daniel arap Moi automatic ascension to the presidency in the event that Kenyatta should die in office. Wanjigi was among a group of politicians that stood with Moi; so when Moi succeeded Kenyatta in 1978, he was one of the few ministers who remained in the new President’s good books.

In the 1979 General Election – the first under Moi – Wanjigi lost his seat to Nicholas Gor, who was the former chairman of the Luo Union in Nairobi. He blamed himself for the loss.

“I was over-confident and regarded my lead unassailable, but came to realise a little too late that the tide was turning, more so in view of my close relationship with Moi,” he wrote.

By this time, the ruling KANU party, which had been declared dead by two politicians – Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney – only a few years before, was excessively powerful and uncompromising. Wanjigi was part of that KANU machine and when freedom fighter Achieng Oneko, previously of the Kenya Peoples’ Union (KPU), wanted to contest the Kamukunji seat against Wanjigi, he was denied the party nomination. In frustration, Oneko threw his weight behind Gor.

“Everybody knew I was close to the President and that I would get re-elected, and I also assumed nobody could defeat Maina Wanjigi. So I did not campaign… I lost by 54 votes,” Wanjigi would tell the press many years later. His election petition was thrown out of court.

Almost immediately, in December 1979, Moi appointed him Chairman of Kenya Airways, where he helped to turn around the fortunes of the national airline – it was under Wanjigi’s watch that the airline was able to offload 26 per cent of its equity to the Royal Dutch Airline (KLM). This was meant to provide funds to finance operations as well as give the airline direct access to modern management tools in the industry and credibility in aircraft financing. By the time Wanjigi left the airline three years later, it had purchased two Airbus 300 aeroplanes.

In March 1982, he was appointed Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Unemployment with a mandate to formulate viable and practical proposals for job creation. The committee submitted its report with 254 recommendations in May 1983.

“(Unfortunately) the proposed National Development Corporation, which would have been responsible for harmonising and overseeing all industrial and commercial enterprises that the Government has substantial interest in, never took off,” Wanjigi wrote in his book.

On 1 August 1982, rebel soldiers from the Kenya Air Force attempted to overthrow Moi’s government. In the ensuing chaos that Nairobi witnessed, Wanjigi had his Bata Shoes distributor shop on River Road looted, but escaped the subsequent purge when Moi restructured his Cabinet in an effort to solidify his authority. Those who lost out in the aftermath of the foiled coup included Moi’s former bosom friends, Charles Njonjo and Godfrey Gitahi (G.G.) Kariuki.

Following a snap election in 1983, Wanjigi reclaimed his Kamukunji seat and was subsequently appointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Tourism and Wildlife. It was during his time in the ministry that the dream to have Kenya receive one million tourists by 1988 was unveiled. This would however not happen until 2010 – 22 years after Wanjigi’s projected date.

He attributed the delay in achieving the goal to his removal from the ministry after only a short stay. “My suspicions (about the removal) are that my invitation to Buckingham Palace, where I met and held discussions with the Duke of Edinburgh, then the President of the World Wildlife Fund, may have fanned the paranoia that I was being groomed for some bigger role in Kenya,” he said.

Wanjigi was moved to the Ministry of Public Works and Housing where he found demoralised staff in a poorly-funded ministry. “The National Housing Corporation had just been established, had no funds, and the grandiose schemes of upgrading slums were more talk than walk,” he wrote, also recording the introduction and registration of the Sectional Titles Act as one of his legacies at the ministry.

In another Cabinet reshuffle, Moi moved Wanjigi to the Ministry of Cooperative Development. Working closely with Permanent Secretary Andrew Ligale, and Commissioner for Cooperatives Erastus Mureithi, he led the ministry in establishing savings and credit cooperative societies across all sectors and countrywide within two years.

“Such giant organisations as the Afya Cooperative, Ukulima Cooperative and Kenya Bankers Association grew out of this initiative,” he said. It was also during his tenure that Cooperative Bank was launched.

Wanjigi was then transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture, where he had cut his teeth as a young professional in the 1960s. But he was shocked by the state he found it in.

“Most of the institutions we had so painstakingly established had been run down. Research stations had been parceled out to politically connected individuals and the entire programme of the Agricultural Development Corporation was no more as all the farms had been grabbed,” his book claimed.

The Minister also found that the once-vibrant Kenya Farmers Union had been run into the ground. The Kenya Cooperative Creameries and the sugar factories were also no more; even the policies meant to ensure the country’s food security had been abandoned, including the Guaranteed Minimum Return that provided farmers with subsidised finances.

In May 1990, while the Minister was on a tour of duty in Europe, Nairobi City Council bulldozers descended on the expansive Muoroto slums in his constituency and demolished everything in sight, scattering its 2,000 residents. Some believed the exercise had the tacit approval of the Government. Wanjigi wrote about the incident in his memoirs: “The derelict mud structures had been squeezed into smithereens, the engine roars from the bulldozers drowning the squeals and cries for help from children and adults alike. Twelve Kenyans, whose singular crime was to try and eke a living in a rather difficult environment, were crushed to death.”

An enraged Wanjigi told journalists at the time that the Muoroto demolition reminded him of Operation Anvil during the colonial era. He issued a press statement condemning the raid as cruel and inhumane, and described those who had featured in it as stooges and neo-colonialists. When he tried to see the President about the matter, he was turned away by the Internal Security Permanent Secretary, Hezekiah Oyugi.

“I walked away knowing that I would never forgive or forget Moi for the atrocities that had been committed on the people of Muoroto,” he said. But neither did Moi forgive him for his spirited defence of the Muoroto dwellers. One week after the demolition, a 1 p.m. radio news bulletin reported Wanjigi’s dismissal from the Cabinet. He learnt of his sacking as it was announced on the radio. He was also expelled from the ruling party, KANU.

During the clamour for multi-party politics in 1990, Wanjigi, now an enemy of the Moi regime, was arrested, interrogated and held at the Langata Police Station for three days before being taken to court. No charges were preferred against him. When Section 2A of the constitution was repealed, Wanjigi entered the unfamiliar arena of Opposition politics and joined Kenneth Matiba’s FORD-Asili faction of the original Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party. He and others in the Opposition tried to bring together Matiba’s and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s FORD factions in order to defeat KANU in the 1992 General Election.

When this failed, he and others took over the Kenya National Congress (KNC) party in the hope that it would hold the middle ground that ostensibly sensible politicians from both factions would turn to and eventually turn the tables on KANU. But the politicians from both sides of the FORD divide stood their ground and KNC was thrown out of the political contest. Wanjigi vied for the Kamukunji seat on a KNC party ticket and lost disastrously, coming fourth. The seat was won by FORD Asili’s George Nthenge.

In 1997, Wanjigi moved to his home base of Mathioya Constituency in Nyeri District to vie on a FORD-Asili ticket. The incumbent was KANU Secretary General Joseph Kamotho. Both were badly defeated by the hitherto unknown FORD-People candidate, Francis Githiari. Wanjigi bowed out of politics and focused on his business empire under the umbrella of Kwacha Group of Companies. He was also the chairman of the SOS Children’s Home programme in Kenya for 25 years.

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