Mathews Charles Onyango Midika – Firebrand MP who championed the cause of cane farmers

Former trade unionist, Mathews Charles Onyango Midika, made a name for himself in politics because of his fiery debating skills and speeches inside and outside of Parliament. Midika, who was the MP for Muhoroni Constituency and a Cabinet Minister during President Daniel arap Moi’s last term of his 24-year tenure, was known for combining his oratory prowess with humour and fearlessness.

Midika has described Moi as a friend and said he will be remembered for his restlessness in Parliament and frequent clashes with the Speaker during debate time in the august House. He was renowned for being unafraid to ask controversial questions and even interrupting proceedings on numerous points of order. This is what made Charles Njonjo, the former Attorney General, label him as one of the ‘Seven Bearded Sisters’ – a group of radical MPs who were branded strong-headed and leftist by the Government. They were former political detainee, Koigi wa Wamwere, James Orengo, Chibule wa Tsuma, Lawrence Sifuna, Abuya Abuya and Chelagat Mutai. They were later joined by Mwashengu wa Mwachofi.

In his constituency, Midika was nicknamed Arum Tidi (Dholuo for raven, a bird that was rare and feared in the locality as it was believed to be a harbinger of evil should it perch on one’s roof). It was popularly said in the area that anyone who dared to joke around with Midika was likely to have the bird perch on their head and get clawed. The MP’s supporters praised him for his ruthless approach towards his critics and believed that anyone who confronted their representative would face a rough time in politics.

Midika was born in Kabar, Muhoroni Constituency, and attended local schools before he was admitted to the prestigious Makerere University in Uganda from where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Education and Social Sciences. From there he held senior managerial posts: Personnel Manager for the East African Power and Lighting Company between 1965 and 1967; British American Tobacco Company, from 1967 to 1970; he finally moved to Chemelil Sugar Company as Personnel and Training Manager from 1970 to 1973.

It was around this time that he was bitten by the bug of politics, causing him to resign from his plum job in the corporate world and plunge into the trade union movement where he was elected Secretary General of the powerful Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation Workers’ Union.

During his first term in Parliament in 1974, Midika focused on advocating for cane farmers’ rights and pushing for the sugar industry to be given the necessary support to help it function fully. This earned him the nickname Bwana Sukari (Mr Sugar). “I moved many motions concerning the sugar industry, most of which succeeded and were implemented by the Government,” the former MP recalled with pride during a press interview.

Other than sugar industry issues, Midika also moved a historic motion to upgrade and change the police force uniforms. At the time, policemen wore shorts; he said they should wear long trousers. The same applied to policewomen, who were given the option of wearing skirts or trousers with sky blue shirts/blouses.

His lowest moment during his time in Parliament came when armed policemen stormed the House in 1976 and arrested Jean-Marie Seroney, who was then the Deputy Speaker, and Butere MP Martin Shikuku over the controversial “KANU is dead” remark. The Kenya African National Union (KANU) was the ruling party at the time and the Deputy Speaker was arrested for allowing the remark to pass and be captured in the Hansard, saying: “You don’t have to substantiate the obvious!”

The police stormed Seroney’s office in total breach of parliamentary rules. It was this violation of parliamentary privilege that drove the ‘Seven Bearded Sisters’ to step up their criticism of the Government.

Arum Tidi was first elected as the MP for Nyando Constituency (that included present-day Muhoroni) in 1974 and retained the seat in the 1979 General Election. In 1983, his political journey was interrupted when he was arrested, tried and jailed for the misappropriation of KES 210,000 belonging to the Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation Workers Union, in his capacity as the Secretary General.

But Midika termed the case a political witch hunt because he was, at that time, close to Opposition leader Jaramogi  Oginga Odinga, who had been branded anti-Government and had been put under house arrest. He was released when the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction but by then, Midika had already spent four years in jail.

As it happened, he had organised a funds drive in aid of all schools in his constituency, which was to be presided over by President Moi, who tasked his Vice President Mwai Kibaki to attend and officiate the event. According to Midika, he had planned the fund raiser for 16 January 1982 and had mobilised constituents to collect money for the big day while he did the same among his colleagues and friends.

However, five days to the event, Moi gave a directive that all funds drives should be suspended until further notice so that parents could instead pay their children’s school fees. He further directed that any money already collected should be deposited into a bank account to earn interest or with the local district commissioner’s office. After the presidential directive, things happened very fast – the MP was arrested and charged with theft of the money, which he claimed he had kept in a safe.

In the 1988 General Election, Midika bounced back when Muhoroni Constituency was hived off from the larger Nyando Constituency and he became its first MP. But he would lose his seat in the first multi-party elections in 1992 to newcomer, Justus Aloo Ogeka, who had vied for the seat via the FORD-Kenya party.

Midika had also made a name fighting for cane farmers in the Nyanza Sugar Belt. A large-scale farmer himself, he frequently stormed the Miwani, Muhoroni and Chemelil sugar factories to protest against delayed payments to farmers. In 1980, he introduced a bill in Parliament that sought to have nucleus sugar estates owned by sugar millers handed over to farmers.

Before the sugar factories were set up, the original residents were asked to leave and make way for the large-scale nucleus sugar estates. Some residents were relocated while others opted for compensation. The MP had argued that the land being used for the nucleus estates originally belonged to local farmers and should be handed back to them. Giving such land to factories, he said, would only promote land grabbing. That controversial bill was defeated but Midika soldiered on, lobbying in and out of Parliament.

The MP was appointed Assistant Minister for Labour before being made a Minister at a turbulent time in Kenya’s history, following the mysterious killing of Kisumu Town MP and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Robert John Ouko, in February 1990. To ensure that the Cabinet slot remained in Luoland, President Moi moved Ndolo Ayah, the Kisumu Rural MP, from the Ministry of Water Development to Foreign Affairs. He then appointed Midika Minister for Regional Development.

It was here that he exhibited himself as a protector of his people’s rights by declaring war on fish processing firms whose owners, he said, were exploiting local fishermen. He frequently made the headlines for randomly laying ambushes on the road to nab middlemen who bought stock from fish operators in Lake Victoria at throwaway prices and transported it to cities and towns where they sold the fish for large profits.

At these road blocks he would order lorry crews to come out of the vehicles and take them to task. In one incident, the Minister ordered a lorry crew transporting Nile Perch to drive back to Wich Lum Beach in Bondo, where they had purchased it. He followed them in his official car as they drove back to the fish landing beach where, on seeing him, the fishermen celebrated in song and dance. This one-man campaign was an instant hit and made the MP a local hero while earning him respect from his boss, the President.

As a public servant, he used every opportunity to raise his concerns with Moi, especially during the several trips the President made to the lake region.

“As a Cabinet Minister I never raised such issues with the President in public, but rather in private out of respect and protocol. One of the issues I raised was the creation of Yala Swamp under the Lake Basin Development Authority,” the former Minister said during the interview. The purpose for building the swamp was to develop the region through the introduction of rice and fish cage farming while also addressing the perennial flooding problems in Siaya and Busia districts (now known as counties).

His other achievement as Minister for Regional Development, where he worked for four years, was the creation of Uaso Nyiro North and South Development Authority to cater for the needs of residents of Narok, Kajiado, Baringo and Elgeyo districts.

Midika recalled that once Moi appointed anyone, he expected them to deliver services to the public, and there were no two ways about it.

“You were appointed by the President and you served at his pleasure. What I know about Moi is that he was a workaholic. He woke up at 5am every day and started work at 6am. My working relationship with him was cordial, although he was too fast for some of my colleagues.”

All Cabinet meetings were held from 9am to noon followed by a sumptuous lunch. The former Minister was never worried about being dropped in the frequent Cabinet reshuffles because he had confidence in his performance and Moi’s support.

“Moi was a very kind man if you knew him; he wanted work to be done speedily and well. He also promoted sobriety in his management style. He listened to people’s problems,” was how he described the President.

Those who worked with Midika remembered him as a thorn in the flesh of his Cabinet colleagues as he often raised questions touching on their ministries without notice. Midika told of a heated Cabinet meeting where the President had to step in and order him to relax and go easy on his colleagues. Still, Midika believed that Moi liked him because of his boldness when it came to raising controversial matters that others were wary of exposing for fear of victimisation.

“President Moi had a soft spot for me. He was a man with a lot of foresight. He liked sharp and tough debaters. And he liked brave people. I think he identified me when I was still a back bencher,” said the 83-year-old former Minister.

After calling it a day as a politician, Midika retreated from Nairobi to his rural home in Muhoroni, where he is a large-scale cane farmer and businessman. He still keenly follows political events in the country through the media and is still widely consulted by younger politicians in the region. He also remains involved in sugar industry matters.

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