Elijah Wasike Mwangale – The minister who escorted a fleeing Obote to State House

‘Chairman,’ the name by which Elijah Wasike Mwangale came to be known, was coined by President Daniel arap Moi when he was still Vice President and Leader of Government Business in Parliament. Mwangale gave Moi a difficult time on the floor of the House as a government critic during President Jomo Kenyatta’s tenure. He would become Moi’s ardent defender only when the VP ascended to power after Kenyatta’s death in 1978.

The events leading to Mwangale becoming known as ‘Chairman’ were tragic, and involved the grisly murder of former Nyandarua North MP Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (popularly known as JM), whose body was found by a Maasai herdsman in the Ngong Hills near Nairobi on 2 March 1975. Mwangale, then a flamboyant, bearded and fiery MP for Bungoma East, chaired the 11-member Committee that investigated the murder.

Mwangale was summoned to State House over the Committee’s report, which recommended investigation of two top State officials by the police. When Mwangale and his team were summoned to State House, one Committee member remained behind with an original copy of the report. After he had tabled the report in Parliament, the MP waved his copy and said it differed from what had been tabled. The Speaker of the National Assembly, Fred Mati, ruled that the matter could be raised during debate as evidence – which never happened as there were fears of detention without trial at the time.

During voting, Moi, the Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and a number of other politicians rallied the House to “note and not adopt” the report – meaning it would have no power for further action. Nonetheless, it was adopted as Masinde Muliro, a Cabinet minister, and Peter Kibisu, an Assistant Minister, voted against the government.

The two were sacked on the same day, but not before Mwangale had emotionally moved the motion to adopt the report and concluded his argument with a Luhya proverb – the US-educated agriculturalist-turned-politician had a penchant for proverbs. Mwangale’s role in heading the Committee and getting the report adopted saw the nickname ‘Chairman’ stick.

Immediately after the 1979 General Election, the first under Moi’s regime, Mwangale was assigned to the Ministry of Labour. He would then move to Tourism and Wildlife, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture. It was thought that he was assigned  to head these ministries as a way for Moi to tame him. Mwangale became the most influential minister from Luhya land after Moses Mudavadi.

Although he was the son of a staunch Friends Church elder from Matili Village in Kamukuywa, Bungoma District (now Bungoma County), Mwangale was among a group of Kenyan politicians referred to as KANU hawks; Moi men who held total power and who were steadfast defenders of KANU’s single-party rule.

On his appointment to the Ministry of Labour, Mwangale immediately set about dealing with the wrangles between the Central Organisation of Trade Unions’ (COTU) Secretary General, Juma Boy, and opponents led by Yunis Ismail, who had dethroned him from the Dock Workers’ Union in an effort to block him from retaining his Secretary General position at the national level. The law required the COTU Secretary General to also be a Secretary General in a grassroots union. Boy had circumvented this by prevailing upon an ally in the Petroleum Union to step down for him.

Mwangale summoned the COTU Executive Board and threatened to dissolve COTU if the wrangling continued, which calmed matters down. It was also under Mwangale’s watch that the Kenya Civil Servants’ Union, whose Secretary General was Kimani wa Nyoike, was banned. Mwangale convinced Moi that civil servants offered essential services to the nation and could not, therefore, be free to call for a strike as that would paralyse services and hurt Kenyans.

The minister became such a staunch Moi defender that he helped to bring down two giant politicians from Central Province who were perceived to be a threat to the regime. When Njonjo, the Attorney General of transition, so deftly handled Moi’s move to State House after Kenyatta’s death, he became very powerful. He and G.G. Kariuki, another powerful minister, were the only ones who ever rode in the presidential limousine with the Head of State.

Then, sometime in 1983, Moi went to Kisii District and sparked the ‘traitor’ debate. He claimed there was someone being groomed by foreign powers to take over his government. The debate raged without anyone pointing fingers, until Njonjo returned from a trip abroad.

It was Mwangale who pointed at the AG in Parliament as the traitor being alluded to, prompting Moi to appoint Justice Cecil Miller to chair a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the allegations. The Commission absolved Njonjo of the treasonable act but by that time, the political tide had already turned against him. Meanwhile, Mwangale was rewarded after the 1983 snap elections by being transferred from the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife to Foreign Affairs.

Prior to KANU’s discredited 1988 mlolongo (queue) voting system, there was a sustained campaign for Moi to remove Mwai Kibaki as his VP. KANU power barons accused Kibaki of not showing total loyalty to the ruling party. For instance, they pointed out that he never wore the badge bearing Moi’s portrait on his lapel, as was the trend. Instead, he wore one with the KANU insignia.

Mwangale made forays into Kibaki’s Nyeri District backyard in what was seen as an anti-Kibaki campaign, prompting the VP to publicly declare that there was no room for “political tourists” in Nyeri. The VP also responded to an attempt to oust him as MP of Othaya constituency saying, “Rigging requires some intelligence.”

When the time came to name the Cabinet after the 1989 General Election, Moi dropped Kibaki as VP and appointed him as the Minister for Health. Josephat Karanja, a former University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor and Assistant Minister, was named to replace him.

But in a bizarre twist of events Karanja, a flamboyant, arrogant politician, would suffer the same fate. Moi was on a trip abroad when it was reported that his new VP had boasted that he was the Acting President while Moi was away. Upon his return Moi, while officiating at a fundraiser at St Mary’s Yala High School, stated that he was the President even when he was away or asleep. David Mwenje, the MP for Embakasi, moved a motion in Parliament to impeach Karanja.

Mwangale took over the Foreign Affairs docket in a time of regional and international crises. There was political turmoil in Uganda, with coups and counter-coups keeping the country in a state of constant tension. Tanzanians were grappling with a smooth transition from the founding President, Julius Nyerere, to Ali Hassan Mwinyi. There were coups in Rwanda and Burundi. And an arduous Iran-Iraq war had affected oil prices worldwide.

His most difficult assignment was Uganda, which had had no peace since February 1971 when Idi Amin, a military officer, toppled Milton Obote’s first government. Obote’s fledgling second government was on its knees in 1985, when government forces tired of fighting the National Resistance Movement rebels led by Yoweri Museveni.

General Tito Okello staged a coup then went public to say it was “not a coup, but an uncoordinated movement of troops” in Kampala. This was to facilitate Obote’s safe passage through the Busia District border into Kenya’s State Lodge in Kakamega District. Okello immediately announced from Kampala that there was a new government, with himself as President. It was Mwangale that Moi sent to Kakamega to escort Obote to State House Nakuru. Later, Mwangale would publicly confess that he did not know whether to address Obote as “Your Excellency former President” or simply “Dr Obote.”

The minister became such a staunch Moi defender that he helped to bring down two giant politicians from Central Province who were perceived to be a threat to the regime

The second phase of this matter was the Uganda Peace Talks, which President Moi chaired for a month at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi in an attempt to unite Okello and Museveni. Mwangale and Okello’s Foreign Minister, Olara Otunu, burnt the midnight oil trying to find common ground for a political agreement without much success. A form of agreement that was reached and signed was rubbished by Museveni on the spot. He later fought his way to Kampala and took over power in 1986.

Mwangale was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture after he discredited the 1988 General Election, leaving Foreign Affairs to Robert Ouko. In Agriculture, the former lecturer proved his expertise by intensifying animal artificial insemination countrywide to boost the efforts of livestock farmers targeting beef exports. Payments to sugar and cereal farmers became his priority, and the timely procurement of fertiliser also helped farmers improve their crops.

The story of Mwangale’s rise to the pinnacle of power is as interesting as his early life. As a boy, his father enrolled him in Chesamisi Primary School, but when he reached intermediate level, he was dissatisfied with the school. So he decided to cross the border to a school in Uganda, but soon returned home.

His father took him to a school in Mombasa, where he is said to have developed an interest in agriculture. This later took him to Egerton College, near Nakuru Town, to pursue a diploma in the field of agriculture. One of his teachers there was William Odongo Omamo, another minister under the Kenyatta and Moi regimes. Omamo identified him among three students who got sponsorship for degree studies at Virginia University in the USA, on condition that they would return to teach at Egerton.

While in America, where Mwangale qualified for his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, he met his American wife, Janet. He returned to teach at Egerton before going into politics and later married a second wife, Salome.

So how did Mwangale’s star, which had risen as far as political stars can rise, come tumbling down? Many believe he became a manifestation of the quote by historian and moralist Lord John Dalberg-Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As an experienced politician,  he failed disastrously to read the wind of change that came with multipartism in 1992 and that swept several heavyweights out of Parliament. Before the multiparty General Election, he had disdainfully dismissed his opponent, the little-known Mukhisa Kituyi, a former minister in Kibaki’s regime and eventual Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Kituyi did not just win the seat but sent his predecessor packing with a landslide vote, thus consigning a man who had once relished power to the political desert for good. An attempt to revive Mwangale by appointing him Chairman of the Kenya Bureau of Standards came to nought in the changed political circumstances.

Born in Matili in Bungoma, Mwangale died in 2004 aged 66.

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