Taaitta Toweett – The odd man of Kenya’s politics

As Minister for Housing and Social Services, Dr Toweett hands over a cheque for Kshs22 million to the vice-chairman of the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association (KAAA), Dr Sam Ongeri, in aid of the association in Nairobi. Looking on is the KAAA Secretary, Senior Superintendant Isaiah Kiplagat. The cheque had been presented to the Minister by Coca Cola Africa.

Dr Taaitta Kipyegon arap Toweett was born in 1925. He started school at Litein Primary and later joined Kabianga Mission School. In the 1948 Kenya African Preliminary Examination, he emerged the top pupil in the country. He joined Alliance High School, from where he later went to Makerere College.

He then enrolled for a correspondence course with a South African university and obtained a BA degree in philosophy. He later studied for a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Nairobi and a doctorate in linguistics at the same institution.

Toweett joined politics in 1958 when he was elected to the Legislative Council to represent Kericho. When Kadu was formed in 1960, he became its chief adviser and prophesied the death of Kanu in four months. He was among prominent Kenyan political leaders who participated in the writing of the first Constitution at Lancaster as a member of the Kadu delegation.

In 1963, he resigned and joined Kanu without the consent of his party. He also resigned as MP for Sotik to defend the seat on a Kanu ticket. But he lost to Alexander Bii. When he quit Kadu, he cited political disillusionment and was philosophical about it: “I have ceased to distinguish between what is right from what is not as a result of my metaphysical studies. I find it very difficult to take sides in political matters and to abide by one-sided political decisions despite new and changing realities of life.”

When Kenyatta became Prime Minister, Toweett gave conditions for his support — he would only work with him if those close to the Kanu leader did not stab Toweett in the back. And when Kadu was dissolved in 1964 to join Kanu, Toweett refused to cross the floor of the House and was the only one who took the principled option of seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate. He lost the by-election and was in political oblivion until 1969 when he recaptured the seat.

After the election, President Kenyatta appointed him Education Minister. He was re-elected in 1974. But he lost in 1979 and did not return to Parliament until 1992 when Kanu nominated him. He was also appointed chairman of the Kenya Seed Company. Toweett and Jean Marie Seroney, the MP for Tinderet in Nandi, were opposed to the settlement of other communities in the Rift Valley, which the Kalenjin regarded as their ancestral land. The two held public rallies in the province, culminating in the 1969 Nandi Hills Declaration in which they vowed to resist such resettlements.

He only accepted the settlement of immigrants in the Rift Valley after Moi supported it. His resentment of the mostly Kikuyu settlement ended after Kibaki and other central Kenya politicians supported Moi to become the second President. At one time, Toweett described Kenyatta as a President who kept silent when in bad company and spoke only when in good company. Toweett’s political woes began in the early 1970s when a group of politicians tried to change the Constitution to bar Vice-President Moi from ascending to the presidency should Kenyatta die. He was said to have been sympathetic to the group. This heightened tension between him and Moi, who eventually became President upon Kenyatta’s death on August 22, 1978.

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