Charles Wanyoike Rubia was the first African mayor of Nairobi. Over the span of his career as a public servant, he rose to become a Member of Parliament, assistant minister and Cabinet minister before he joined the opposition movement that agitated for multipartism in the 1990s.
Rubia was born in 1923 in Mariaini in Murang’a District (now Murang’a County) and educated at Kahuhia Primary School and Kagumo Intermediate School. His peers at Kagumo included Julius Kiano, the first Kenyan to get a PhD and one of the youngest Cabinet ministers in independent Kenya. President Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Peter Muigai, was another of Rubia’s classmates at Kagumo.
In 1941, he joined Alliance High School alongside one of Kenya’s earliest envoys, Henry Muli, and Nathan Munoko who, years later, became the National Organising Secretary of the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Rubia was also at Alliance with Jean-Marie Seroney, who later became the MP for Tinderet and Deputy Parliamentary Speaker, Robert Matano, Munyua Waiyaki and Njoroge Mungai, who all made it to the first Cabinet under Kenyatta as young men.
He went about his job with enthusiasm, using his knowledge of local councils to try and stop corruption
One of their teachers was Eliud Mathu, who in 1944 would be nominated to the Legislative Council (LegCo) of Kenya as the first African to represent African interests. The other was Joseph Otiende, the first Minister for Education in the Kenyatta administration.
On completing his studies at Alliance, Rubia was employed by the Posts and Telegraphs as a postmaster trainee up to 1946, when he joined a brokerage firm before resigning to join the Nairobi Municipal Council. His political career began in 1955, when he was nominated to the African Ward Council and two years later, the Nairobi Municipal Council. Other African nominees to the council at that time were Musa Amalemba and John M. Kasyoka. Five years later, Rubia was nominated to the LegCo but he left in 1962 to become the first African Mayor of Nairobi, a year before independence.
As Mayor, he was socially and publicly at the same level as a central government Cabinet minister, and in almost all public functions in the city he was second only to the President. Rubia’s term as Mayor ended in 1967 but he continued to be a force to reckon with at City Hall; he is believed to have been behind most of those elected to powerful council committees at that time.
In the January 1968 KANU elections, he beat Waiyaki to become the party branch Chairman. And in the 1969 General Election, he was elected MP for Starehe constituency, beating Peter Kinyanjui. Kenyatta subsequently appointed him Assistant Minister for Education.
Rubia was known as a loyal minister who also believed in free speech. For example, in February 1970, he was quoted in Parliament saying, “It is vital in a house where there is no opposition that members speak freely and fearlessly.” By the early 1970s, he was criticising the Kenyatta regime as the political rivalry between Kiambu and Murang’a districts intensified. Together with vocal Nyandarua MP Josiah Mwangi (‘JM’) Kariuki, Martin Shikuku and Burudi Nabwera, who were also assistant ministers, he often took issue with government policy and actions.
But despite his often expressed opposition to government policies, and this in a one-party state, he managed to get re-elected in 1974, successfully defending his Starehe seat against Kinyanjui and another contestant. However, together with the other ‘renegade’ assistant ministers, he was not re-appointed to government.
In March 1975, Kariuki’s mutilated body was found in Ngong Forest. Rumours that he had been assassinated were rife and during his burial, Rubia claimed that he and Shikuku, among others, were on a ‘hit list’ for their critical stand against the government. He was a member of the committee inquiring into the Nyandarua MP’s death and when the committee tabled a report in June that year, it implicated senior government security chiefs and a Cabinet minister close to the President.
In the 1977 KANU elections, Rubia was defeated by Mungai as the Nairobi branch Chairman. He would most likely have also lost in the 1979 General Election but Charles Njonjo, known to be a bosom buddy of President Daniel arap Moi, saved him. During the 1976 debate to change the Constitution of Kenya, Njonjo had sided with Moi and seemingly stopped the debate in its tracks by using his close association with Kenyatta and the law. Njonjo is credited with almost single-handedly making sure Moi became President after Kenyatta’s death in 1978. During the 1979 elections, he is believed to have ensured that all those who had opposed Moi, including Mungai, were sidelined in the KANU leadership.
Rubia successfully defended his Starehe seat and was appointed Minister for Local Government and Urban Development. He went about his job with enthusiasm, using his knowledge of local councils to try and stop corruption. He even issued a directive that no council official or councillor could own more than one council house.
“I will neither tolerate, encourage nor stand malpractices of any kind by those charged with the responsibility of running local authorities as long as I remain minister,” he said in a newspaper interview in December 1979.
But his authority as a minister would be tested when he clashed with the Mayor for Nairobi, Nathan Kahara, over the latter’s decision to sack some council employees who included Wilson Mugo and Simon Gitonga. The Mayor viewed Rubia’s defence of the two senior officers as an attempt to maintain a stranglehold on council affairs, and their relationship grew strained as a result. Additionally, in June 1980, it would emerge that Rubia had contradicted his own ‘one man, one council house’ policy. As Mayor of Nairobi, he had acquired three City Council houses (two of his children reportedly also had houses). Moi subsequently removed Rubia from the ministry and replaced him with Stanley Oloitiptip, the Kajiado South MP.
Oloitiptip sided with Kahara in the turf wars against Rubia and the Mayor was eventually able to remove Mugo and Gitonga from office. Oloitiptip also succeeded in watering down Rubia’s influence in the council. Following the February 1982 Cabinet reshuffle, Oloitiptip was removed from government and replaced by Moses Mudavadi. Rubia was appointed Minister for Works and Housing.
However, as Moi consolidated his authority following the failed coup of 1 August 1982, he dropped those who had previously been close to him. In March 1983, Mudavadi dissolved the City Council and replaced it with a government-appointed Commission, throwing out the Mayor, councillors and senior staff. As the purge continued, Rubia and Oloitiptip were dropped from the Cabinet after the September 1983 General Election, allegedly for their alliance with Njonjo, who was now seen as a traitor. Up until the attempted coup, Njonjo had been one of Moi’s closest associates. Rubia was one of very few MPs who defended Njonjo in Parliament against the ‘traitor’ accusations.
In September 1986, Rubia was again among a handful of MPs who defended clergymen when they were condemned by politicians for criticising the mlolongo (queue) system of voting. Moi and other senior KANU officials had expressed a desire to replace the secret ballot system with mlolongo in nominating candidates for national elections.
Rubia argued that those criticising the clergy were violating the Constitution, which upheld freedom of speech as a right. In December of that year, he was the lone MP to vote against the Constitutional Amendment Bill, which sought to abolish the office of the Chief Secretary and remove security of tenure for the Attorney General, and that of the Controller and Auditor General. He later defended the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) following attacks by politicians for opposing the bill.
In January 1987, he was picked up by plainclothes policemen for questioning on his utterances, but was released without charge. Not surprisingly, when the mlolongo system was used during party nominations for the 1988 General Election, Rubia was defeated by Kiruhi Kimondo, a man he had defeated hands down in previous contests. According to election officials counting the voters in the queues, Kimondo had more than 70 per cent of the votes which, according to KANU rules, automatically made him the new Starehe MP.
Rubia protested that Kimondo’s votes had been inflated by more than 2,000 before retreating to focus on his businesses and directorships in several parastatal organisations. However, in March 1989, he was summoned by the Starehe KANU sub-branch following accusations of inciting pupils and parents of a city school to march to State House. He defied the summons and the case was referred to the Nairobi KANU branch, which recommended to the party’s National Executive Committee that he be expelled.
Rubia was expelled from KANU in June, and by the end of 1989, more than 30 top party officials had also been expelled. Among them was Kenneth Matiba, then the MP for Mbiri Constituency (later renamed Kiharu).
On 3 May 1990, Rubia and Matiba called a press conference to urge for the return of a multiparty democracy. At the same time Smith Hempstone, the outspoken US ambassador to Kenya, made similar calls. He said the US favoured countries that nourished democratic institutions, defended human rights and practised multiparty politics.
Hempstone was ferociously attacked by KANU loyalists, including Kalonzo Musyoka, the National Organising Secretary, who told him not to dictate what type of government Kenya should adopt. At the same time, the President warned that he would deal ruthlessly with anyone trying to undermine his government.
On 3 May 1990, Rubia and Matiba called a press conference to urge for the return of a multiparty democracy
Elijah Mwangale and William Ntimama, both Cabinet ministers, publicly called for the detention of Rubia and Matiba. In Parliament, Burudi Nabwera, then the MP for Lugari Constituency and a Minister of State in the Office of the President, said the government would take stern action against the two “for rocking the boat of peace in the country”.
So when Matiba, Rubia, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and his son, Raila Odinga, met in early June 1990 to organise a public rally set for July in Nairobi’s Kamukunji constituency to advocate for multipartism, they were marked men. On 4 July, Rubia, Matiba and Raila were picked up by police and detained. That notwithstanding, the rally went on and, although violently dispersed by police, it marked the beginning of the public push for the opening of a greater political space.
The government thereafter relaxed its stand on the queue voting system and Parliament repealed Section 2A of the Constitution of Kenya, paving the way for the registration of other political parties.
On being detained without trial, Rubia would later tell the Daily Nation, “The situation in prison was very bad. Ken Matiba and I were in isolated detention. We were separately held in solitary confinement. You stayed in a block alone.
For example, in Kamiti (Maximum Security Prison), I stayed in three blocks and in a block of, say, 16 cubicles, I was the only prisoner there. And I was guarded by as many as eight very strong boys.”
Rubia was released from detention in April 1991, while Matiba and Raila were released two months later. After taking time off to recuperate, Rubia broke his silence in October 1991 to urge the government to allow peaceful political change “…in this 11th hour. The alternative is disaster and disaster has been stalking the land for some time now. Let Kenyans have pluralism and free elections now,” he told the Daily Nation.
He would later join the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), which had been established in 1991 by other pro-reform leaders while he and others were in detention. When FORD split into two in 1992, Rubia joined the FORD-Asili faction led by Matiba.
But on 7 October of the same year, he and others broke away and formed the Kenya National Congress (KNC) party through which he vied for the Starehe seat in the December 1992 General Election. He lost to FORD-Asili’s Kimondo by more than 10,000 votes. With that defeat, Rubia retired from active politics.
In August 2018, the Murang’a University of Technology awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.