Burundi Nabwera – The all-powerful KANU secretary general

Burudi Nabwera was perhaps one of the most highly educated politicians among those schooled in prestigious British institutions during colonial times. Because of this, he understood both Western capitalism and Eastern socialism, which came in useful after independence. He was appointed ambassador to the United States by President Jomo Kenyatta after independence.

Under Moi, Nabwera rose from KANU Secretary General, at the time regarded as the de facto number three post in the power hierarchy under the single party rule, to the pinnacle position of Minister of State in the Office of the President. In deploying Nabwera in the two powerful positions at different times, Moi was in essence taking advantage of his vast political and diplomatic experience.

Born in 1927, Nabwera was educated at Maseno School, Makerere University and the London School of Economics. At Maseno he met the highly political Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was to become Kenya’s first Vice-President. Others who studied at Maseno were Masinde Muliro and Wycliffe Wasia Awori, who later became Kenya’s first Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Legislative Council (Legco) while agitating for independence. During his time at Makerere, Nabwera met contemporary scholars Bethwel Ogot and Thomas Odhiambo, Josephat Karanja, and Ugandan poet Henry Muwanga Barlow, who wrote the famous poem ‘Building the Nation’. Barlow later became President Milton Obote’s first Head of Public Service. Emilio Mwai Kibaki joined Makerere later. According to Nabwera’s book, How it Happened, these people not only inspired him but also shaped his future career.

Earlier when he was a minister in the office of the president, he was even more influential than the then KANU Secretary General

Moi recognised Nabwera’s potential from the glimpses Kenyatta had already seen.

Nabwera was defeated in his bid for the Lurambi North Constituency by Joshua Angatia during the first post-Kenyatta General Election in 1979. During the Kenyatta era, Nabwera had been an influential politician as an assistant minister in Foreign Affairs and was now out in the cold, so to speak.

Moi wanted older politicians to team up with his friend Moses Mudavadi to contain radical politics from the likes of Martin Shikuku (Butere), Lawrence Sifuna (Bungoma South) and his own Cabinet Minister Elijah Mwangale whom he did not trust.

After Charles Njonjo’s fall from grace following the inquiry prompted by the ‘traitor’ issue, Moi set about reorganising KANU. The president brought in a new team of strong-willed politicians, among them David Okiki Amayo as Chairman and Nabwera as the third Secretary General of the party.

KANU developed its dictatorial character during this time. Overzealous with party power, Nabwera developed the confidence of a leopard, making every party policy pronouncement and threatening wayward KANU members with disciplinary action or expulsion. Hitherto unknown to many Kenyans, Nabwera gained fame overnight around 1986 even before he became a minister two years later.

He sparked fury in KANU when he went on national television channel Voice of Kenya to utter a taboo. He told Kenyans during a popular press conference programme that the ruling party was going to pardon what became known as “Njonjo men” who had been expelled from the party. At that time, it was a taboo – indeed an abomination – for any KANU official to contemplate pardoning politicians who had been expelled for their links with Njonjo who had been expelled from the party and compelled to surrender his life membership certificate.

Moi had accused Njonjo of conspiring with a foreign power to topple the government. The President appointed a Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Cecil Miller which eventually absolved Njonjo, but not before several politicians said to have been linked to him were also disgraced.

Nabwera exuded confidence and the media took the matter seriously, giving the story a lot of prominence. But in Moi’s State House and among a cabal of KANU stalwarts who loathed the idea of Njonjo returning, all was not well. The party stalwarts accused Nabwera of being a Njonjo sympathiser. He was soon replaced as Secretary General by Moses Mudavadi.

Nabwera posed several rhetorical questions in his book, such as: Why did KANU, which had ruled for nearly half a century, not read the signs of the times to know it was losing power? Why can’t KANU regain its lost glory? Why can’t political parties instil discipline in members like he did while at KANU?

Earlier, when he was a minister in the Office of the President, Nabwera was even more influential than the KANU Secretary General. In this position he was close to power, becoming one of the most sought after ministers in Moi’s regime. Power brokers, business people and job seekers would troop to his office in Harambee House to implore him “to take your word” to State House. His undoing was that he was unable to differentiate between the government and party domains.

His automatic victory in Lugari Constituency through the 70 per cent party rule in the 1988 mlolongo (queue voting) General Election clouded his judgement, making him feel the party was synonymous with government. He spent his energy as minister defending his boss Moi and KANU to the detriment of his constituents. Little known Apili Wawire, who vied on a Ford-ASILI ticket, beat him in the 1992 elections.

Before he left Parliament, Nabwera had been transferred to the Ministry of Information where he also carried his party whip. There, he set about reforming institutions operating in the domain of information dissemination to make them KANU compliant ahead of 1992 multiparty elections. He even removed Kenya Broadcasting Corporation chief James Kangwana via a gazette notice along with his Board, replacing them with people he believed to be KANU-friendly.

With the same zeal and zest, he attacked the World Bank for imposing unrealistic aid conditions on Kenya. He cited its demand for reduction in the universities’ admissions as impracticable.

Nabwera, who married Tabitha in 1958, will be remembered for his diplomatic and political career spanning the two post-independence regimes of Kenyatta and Moi.

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