Davidson Ngibuini Kuguru – Boosting lives at the grassroots level

Not one to be seduced by the flashiness of city life, Davidson Ngibuini Kuguru preferred to commute from his rural home in Nyeri District daily – a journey of about two hours, one way – to attend to his official duties in Nairobi. As one of the leaders involved in initiating several development projects in post-independent Kenya, his close connection with the grassroots saw President Daniel arap Moi pick him as one of his point men in Nyeri. He was appointed as a Cabinet minister and by the time he died in 1997, he was the Deputy National Treasurer of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party.

Kuguru was among a few people who had contact with his local community at different levels, having been a long-time health worker for the British colonialists. As early as the 1930s, he was among the few Africans in Kenya who had managed to get an education. In his autobiography, Trailblazer: Breaking Through in Kenya, Peter Kuguru, one of the sons of the farmer-cum-politician, wrote that his father, who was born around 1914, had joined school at the age of 16. He attended Tumu Tumu Church of Scotland Mission School, one of the first learning institutions established by what is today known as the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). After completing his basic education, he was admitted to Tumu Tumu Mission Hospital, owned by the same church, to undergo a two-year medical training course. He graduated as a hospital dresser.

He was recommended for further training at King George Hospital (present-day Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi) and qualified as a Hospital Assistant in 1934. The colonial government deployed him to work at the Nyeri General Hospital, the biggest hospital in Central Province at the time. He also worked at Karatina Hospital, which served a smaller population. Very few local people had trained in healthcare, so Kuguru’s was a household name. To address the community’s health needs on a bigger scale, he started his own private clinics in different parts of Nyeri.

During the struggle for independence, he defied all odds to get injured Mau Mau freedom fighters admitted in hospital. The Mau Mau movement had been proscribed by the colonial authorities, who did not expect their employees to participate in any of its activities. When confronted to explain why he was breaking the law, Kuguru would deny having any knowledge that the patients he had admitted in the hospital were allied with the Mau Mau. He also treated Mau Mau fighters in his private clinics and was eventually arrested and detained by the government he worked for.

Several nationalist leaders – among them Moi – recognised Kuguru’s role in the freedom struggle. When he was released, he abandoned the medical profession and became a general contractor before going back to farming, which he engaged in even as a health worker.

In Kuguru’s first stint as a Member of Parliament, President Jomo Kenyatta had appointed him as an Assistant Minister for Works. After a day’s work in a government office or in Parliament, he would be driven to his rural home. He was a busy man, liaising with individual coffee and dairy farmers to find out what they needed to boost their farming activities. He also personally supervised operations on his three farms in Kiamaina, Itoga and Muruguru.

At the beginning of every school term, in his capacity as Chairman of the local coffee society, he was charged with the duty of preparing cheques for students whose school fees were paid from coffee earnings. Most children in Mathira only managed to get a secondary school education in the 1970s and 1980s through coffee farming. And whenever disputes arose among the farmers, it was Kuguru who was expected to address such matters. He continued to play this role even after Moi appointed him Minister for Home Affairs in 1990.

Moi appointed Kuguru as a Cabinet minister when he was in his late 70s, seemingly for his commitment to defending KANU, the ruling party, in Nyeri. Kuguru had recaptured the Mathira parliamentary seat from Eliud Matu Wamae, who had ousted him in 1983. Wamae, a close confidant of Vice President and Othaya MP Mwai Kibaki, had been elected on the promise of bringing change. His attempt to oust Kuguru in 1979 did not bear fruit, but by 1983, there was a clamour for change in most parts of Central Province, as people began to express their disillusionment with the government.

Their argument was that the region was under-developed because members of the Kikuyu community were being denied access to State jobs. They also lamented that their economy was being crippled by the undermining of key sectors such as coffee, tea and dairy, which the region had relied on for years.

Kuguru was among the few leaders who stood with Moi despite his critics pointing a finger at his age. There were calls for him to retire and allow younger and better educated people to take over the mantle. However, in his five years in Parliament, Wamae could not match his predecessor’s development record, which included installing piped water in rural homes.

In addition to ensuring residents had water, it was through the cooperative movement, which Kuguru had founded jointly with others, that families in Nyeri were able to transform their livelihoods through access to loans from coffee societies.

The Mathira Farmers’ Cooperative Society, established in 1961 and whose long-serving Chairman was the MP, established 36 coffee factories across the constituency. And with his experience in dairy farming, Kuguru was also installed as Chairman of the Mathira Dairymen Cooperative Society, established at the same time. Several other cooperative societies followed the example of farmers in Mathira Constituency.

Wamae’s campaign strategy involved shining a spotlight on the poverty that had ravaged the farming community in Mathira; he blamed it on cooperative officials, who were accused of pilfering money from their members. This worked for him in 1983 as coffee prices had dropped since the famous 1976 boom. Kuguru could not stop the young professional who had been at the helm of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC), a government-owned financial investment company, when he decided to vie against him for the Mathira seat.

The Mathira people had high expectations of Wamae who, unlike his rival, was well educated, with a degree in Economics. But on the ground, Kuguru was the man to beat. The polygamist with a large family was a grassroots mobiliser. He had married from every location in his constituency and used this as a campaign tool.

“Don’t forget that one of my wives comes from this area and therefore I am one of your own,” he would remind the crowds during his campaigns. He knew almost all the community leaders by name. Wamae, on the other hand, had strong backing from elites from all over Nyeri. Theirs was always a battle of titans.

Kuguru’s loss to Wamae in 1983 was seen as the death knell to his political career, but the electorate demanded his return to politics. His rallying call in 1988 was “Tucokie rui mukaro” (let’s return the river back to its course), a slogan that was destined to deflate Kibaki’s well-oiled political machine in Mathira.

Moi first appointed Kuguru as an Assistant Minister. In 1990, he was named Minister for Home Affairs and National Heritage after the exit of Nyeri Town Constituency MP Waruru Kanja, who had been Moi’s point man in Nyeri during the infamous 1988 elections in which voters were required to queue behind their preferred candidates at the party nominations stage.

Kanja was relieved of his Cabinet duties after falling out with the Moi administration over the death of Robert Ouko, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He criticised the government and blamed it for Ouko’a murder. Kuguru became Moi’s closest confidant in Nyeri upon Kanja’s exit from the political scene, and was named Deputy National Treasurer for KANU in 1991 after Kibaki walked out of government to form the Democratic Party (DP).

Kuguru’s final stab as the Mathira people’s representative came in the first multiparty elections in December 1992 when Wamae, who had since joined DP, once more trounced him at the ballot. The scene had changed; there was a new wind sweeping across most parts of Kenya.

When he died on 10 April 1997, Moi was among the mourners who attended the funeral. Today, Kuguru’s legacy in Mathira lingers on and most of the projects initiated under his leadership remain unrivalled.

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