When Arthur Kinyanjui Magugu entered politics at the age of 35, he surprised many by ousting former Githunguri MP and vocal freedom fighter Waira wa Kamau. This was in 1969. The son of a Senior Chief and a graduate of La Verne and Stockholm universities, Magugu was appointed as an Assistant Minister for Health in the administration of President Jomo Kenyatta in 1974. He would later serve in the same capacity in the Ministry of Finance.
During the ‘Change the Constitution’ debate of 1976, some leaders from Central Kenya and Ukambani wanted the Constitution changed to disallow Vice President Daniel arap Moi from assuming the presidency automatically if Kenyatta died while in office. Magugu aligned himself with the Moi camp led by Attorney General Charles Njonjo. This guaranteed him favour with Moi when the older statesman died and Moi took over in 1978. Following the 1979 elections in which Magugu beat former diplomat and Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi Josephat Karanja for the Githunguri parliamentary seat, Moi appointed him to head the Ministry of Health.
By the time Magugu took over as Health minister, there was a crisis in the sector following several resignations by doctors and specialist consultants from government service. This followed Moi’s directive in August 1979 that all doctors working for the government must do so on a full-time basis and stop working part-time in private clinics and hospitals.
Moi argued that divided loyalties by doctors between government and private facilities compromised the quality of service they accorded the millions of Kenyans seeking medical attention from public hospitals. He said this gave an unfair advantage to the few who could afford to visit private medical facilities. “I do not want to lead a nation of mercenaries. I cannot allow the doctors to continue dividing their loyalties. They must serve the nation wholeheartedly,” Moi warned the doctors.
Mass resignations by health professionals followed Moi’s statement, resulting in disruption of medical services in public hospitals and teaching of medical students at the University of Nairobi and the Medical Training Centre. Although Magugu put on a brave face by insisting that there was no disruption of medical services, in January 1980 he admitted that 23 doctors and specialists had by then resigned while the government had only been able to recruit eight doctors from India to replace them.
“There is no cause for alarm over these resignations since those who have left are being replaced so as to ensure smooth running of health services,” he asserted in the local media. But in what appeared to be a contradiction, the Minister said the government was considering licensing specialists and consultants working in government hospitals to perform part-time work in non-government medical institutions.
A week later Moi, incensed by the mass resignation of the doctors following his rash directive, confirmed Magugu’s statement saying, “…each individual doctor’s case will be treated on its own merit.” In spite of this, the public continued to suffer as the doctors who remained in government service were inadequate and demoralised.
Magugu worked hard to prove his worth and in mid-January 1980 when he visited the dental unit at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), he described the situation there as terrible. He was angered by the large stocks of expired medicine as a result of superfluous requisition. When he visited the KNH main facility that same month, he promised to form a management Board to oversee the day-to-day running of the institution and to set in motion a major shake-up at the hospital.
Magugu, who made impromptu visits to practically all crucial government medical institutions, was also shocked by the mess at the Central Medical Stores where he found tons of expensive but unnecessary medicine, most of which was already expired. When he visited the Mathare Hospital, the only public mental health care institution in the country, the Minister discovered a similar situation there. He was so enraged that he accused the hospital Administrator of inefficiency and ordered that he be issued with a warning letter. He was particularly angered by the large heaps of unwashed patients’ uniforms due to what he was told was lack of diesel in the laundry; but nobody could explain why the diesel had not been purchased. “Sanitation is very important and it is unfortunate that mental patients should be treated as if they were unwanted,” he told the local dailies.
During the same visit, the Minister announced that the government was planning to open psychiatric wings in the provincial hospitals to avoid congestion at Mathare and lead to more humane treatment of mental patients.
Keeping up his trend of surprise visits to medical institutions, Magugu showed up at Gatundu Hospital one Monday morning in February 1980 and after witnessing the same mess he had seen elsewhere, he directed all government medical institutions to surrender all stocks of expired drugs to the Central Medical Stores by the end of that month. “In future, we don’t expect to find any expired drugs whatsoever in any of our medical institutions,” he announced.
In his clean-up exercise, Magugu ventured further afield in the weeks that followed, reprimanding Medical Officers of Health in Loitokitok, Kiambu and Eldoret among other areas for stocking expired drugs, absenteeism and unclean hospital environments among other unsavoury practices.
Magugu made an indelible mark at the Health ministry when he made it compulsory for manufacturers of tobacco products to print a health warning on cigarette packs. He is also credited with enforcing the landmark ban on smoking in public places.
So indispensable had Magugu made himself to the President that even after Njonjo and most of his allies had fallen from grace following the ‘traitor’ saga, he was one of the very few Kikuyus who retained powerful positions in the Moi government. A hawkish Nyayo loyalist, Magugu at one time even ordered the removal of portraits of the founding President from government offices. Consequently, following the 1983 snap General Election, he was appointed Minister for Finance. Later he would serve as Minister for Transport which was bedevilled by many loopholes allegedly used by top KANU officials close to Moi to siphon public funds. He was also credited with quietly helping Moi cut down to size members of the Kiambu mafia that included former Chairman of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) Njenga Karume and Kenyatta’s powerful Minister of State, Mbiyu Koinange.
When most politicians from central Kenya abandoned KANU to join the budding opposition once the country returned to a multiparty system, Magugu remained in KANU. Even in 2002 when the only high-profile central Kenya politician in KANU was Uhuru Kenyatta, Magugu stayed in the party and contested his seat on the party’s ticket. But by the time Magugu was being appointed to head the Finance ministry, he appeared to have lost steam and his performance was somewhat lacklustre. He rarely attended parliamentary sessions and at one point in April 1983, Members of Parliament raised a queries about his prolonged absence. In fact the Makueni MP Kasanga Mulwa asked the Speaker of the National Assembly to declare Magugu’s Githunguri seat vacant following what he claimed was the Minister’s absence from the house for more than eight consecutive sessions without the permission of the Speaker. “If he had permission, then what on earth is the excuse?” Mulwa posed.
Apparently, Magugu had delegated his parliamentary duties to his assistant Achiya Echakara, who during the debate on the Minister’s absence defended his boss saying that despite his absence from the house, Magugu spent “…a lot of time on efforts to find solutions to the country’s financial problems”.
Magugu was unfortunate in that he took over the Finance docket at a time when the country was in deep economic recession. He had to battle with an economy that was fast sliding into the doldrums owing to scarce supply of foreign exchange. This was caused mostly by unfavourable and illegal outflows of cash.
1983 was the year of the ‘traitor’ drama implicating Njonjo when politicians, including Moi, claimed that treason was brewing within the administration, with the goal of overthrowing his government. For the first time in the history of independent Kenya the Finance Minister postponed the reading of the Budget by a week.
Many former colleagues of Njonjo were purged that year following the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry into Njonjo’s conduct. So when Magugu was pressed for an explanation on the Budget delay, he used the political uncertainty as an excuse, telling journalists at his Treasury Building office that the delay was “…a small matter as every Minister was facing a big battle for political survival”.
In the 1979 and 1983 General Elections, Magugu unseated Karanja from the Githunguri parliamentary seat. Karanja would not see the inside of the parliamentary chamber until he shifted his political base to Mathare constituency in Nairobi during a by-election in 1986 following the self-exile of area MP Andrew Kimani Ngumba.
During campaigns for the 1983 elections, Karanja and his supporters claimed that Magugu had been involved in companies that had collected millions of shillings from the people of Githunguri with the purpose of buying land for them, but that the money was not properly accounted for. In return, Magugu accused Karanja of a plot to have him assassinated.
It was also in 1983 that Magugu’s car was involved in a head-on collision with another vehicle on Kiambu Road. The accident was fatal for the occupants of the other car, but Magugu emerged unscathed. When the media enquired about his narrow escape he retorted, “I was driving a safe car. Had it not been for this, I would be dead.” The Minister was driving a Mercedes Benz.
Soon after his election as MP for Mathare, in what appeared to be a strategic move to gradually edge out Kikuyus from proximity to the presidency, Karanja was elevated to the office of Vice President, replacing Mwai Kibaki. Karanja was a greenhorn in politics and many saw his appointment as a stop-gap measure as Moi consolidated himself and gathered the courage to finally remove the Kikuyu from the number two slot.
In a scheme similar to that which felled Njonjo, Moi returned from an overseas trip to declare that there was no position for an Acting President in Kenya, triggering public speculation regarding a politician who was out to undermine him. He was obliquely referring to Karanja. Having taken the cue from Moi that Karanja was no longer in favour with the Head of State, Moi’s sycophantic followers accused the VP of high-handedness and of ordering them to kneel before him if they wanted his goodwill. They initially avoided naming him directly, instead referring indirectly to a ‘kneel before me’ politician.
A Motion of no confidence against the VP was brought to Parliament and during that debate, Magugu hit at his village-mate, telling Parliament that there was no place for ‘kneel before me’ politicians in Kenya. He claimed that Karanja had been overheard boasting that he was Acting President while Moi was away. Karanja would eventually resign to avoid the humiliation of a no-confidence vote.
Magugu’s tenure as MP for Githunguri ran from 1979 to 1992 when he was eased out of active politics during the multiparty elections. He would, however, be re-elected on a KANU ticket in 2002 as MP for Githunguri. He rode on a KANU wave that swept across Kiambu when Uhuru Kenyatta, as Deputy Prime Minister, ran for the presidency on that party’s ticket.
By that time, however, Magugu’s health was deteriorating and after the swearing-in ceremony he was unable to attend any other session of Parliament. He is on record as being the only MP who served the entire term on sick leave. As MP for Githunguri between 1979 and 1992, Magugu spearheaded several development projects including the building and rehabilitation of roads and schools. His 2002 to 2007 term fell short of his previous development record, mainly because he was ailing.
He died in September 2012 after being house-bound for years.