During the course of his illustrious political career spanning two decades, Eliud Timothy Mwamunga is credited with establishing a sterling track record in the eyes of his constituents as their Member of Parliament, and being instrumental in helping shape the social, political and economic future of post-independent Kenya.
Born on 21 July 1935 at Ishamba at the foot of the Taita Hills, Mwamunga built himself a reputation as an astute politician adept at navigating the choppy waters of Government. The proof of his political savvy is found in his long service in the Cabinets of both the Founding President Jomo Kenyatta and of his successor, President Daniel arap Moi, over the course of an uninterrupted 20-year term as elected MP of his native Voi constituency. None of those who came before or after him – Basil Mwakiringo, Darius Mbela, Boniface Mganga or Adiel Kachila – served for even two terms.
Under Kenyatta, Mwamunga held the Water Development, and Commerce and Industry dockets and in the successive administration under Moi he served as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Mwamunga would later co-found the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) that was destined to catapult Mwai Kibaki into the position of Kenya’s third President.
The native of Taita-Taveta grew up in an area richly endowed with natural resources: minerals such as rubies, cash crops such as sisal and fruits such as mangoes, in addition to wildlife, since the Tsavo National Park is adjacent to the area. As a youth he attended Ishamba Primary School, later joining Shimo-la-Tewa Secondary in Mombasa for a brief period before transferring to the nationally reputed Alliance High School in Kikuyu near Nairobi.
His higher education was undertaken at Makerere followed by the University of Dar-es-Salaam where he went to study law. If Makerere was considered the educational Mecca of Eastern Africa, Dar es Salaam was the premier law institution in the region. Upon attaining his degree in Law, Mwamunga taught in various schools in Coast Province at a time when the struggle for independence was at its zenith. The Mau Mau war was in top gear, the State of Emergency had been declared in 1952 and leaders were forming political parties to agitate for independence.
The key player of that political struggle at the Coast was Ronald Ngala, a major inspiration for the young teacher. Ngala, who abhorred the marginalisation and exploitation of the Coast people, played a central role in the struggle for independence.
The independence constitutional conferences in London, the 1963 elections pitting the Kenya African National Union (KANU) against the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), and the dissolution of KADU in 1964 were pivotal political events of the freedom struggle and the genesis of the young nation, and the young teacher caught the fever. He would later be deployed to work in local government to serve as Clerk to the Taita-Taveta County Council, where he began to rub shoulders with civic leaders and parliamentarians. During this time he had opportunity to visit every part of Taita-Taveta and learn about the dire need for the basic necessities of life among his people.
This is when he discerned the role he could play in serving the people of Taita-Taveta.
As Town Clerk and later, he waged a relentless campaign against land grabbing and championed protection for ranchers, provision of water and education. The Daily Nation of 1 July 2018 reported shortly after his death that “…he convinced the civic leaders to sub-divide and register empty rangelands into ranches to keep off land grabbers, speculators and brokers, as a result protecting more than one million acres of community land”.
In 1969, at the age of 34, Mwamunga contested and won the Taita-Taveta parliamentary seat, initiating numerous development projects while in his first term in Parliament. He proceeded to make useful connections with agriculturalists, wildlife conservationists and mineral prospectors, including wealthy Kenyans and foreigners who could exploit the natural resources of the district.
Over time he grew into a wealthy landowner and courted the Kenyatta and Moi administrations by not only rising above other political greenhorns in Taita-Taveta and the Coast, but also playing low-profile politics at a time when the careers of abrasive and combative politicians could be brutally cut short through detention, summary dismissal from the Cabinet or rigging out of Parliament.
He also consolidated his political connections at the national level. This strategy bore fruit and, when he was re-elected in 1974, Kenyatta appointed him Minister for Water Development. During his two-year stint in the Ministry, Mwamunga spearheaded projects that included construction of the country’s first dams, water supply schemes for urban areas and irrigation schemes that boosted agricultural production.
Since agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, the Water Ministry was regarded as a vehicle through which Kenya could use irrigation to grow enough food for its growing population as well as for export.
In 1976, Kenyatta switched Mwamunga with Gikonyo Kiano who had been overseeing the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. In the new ministry, Mwamunga put in place policies that created a good environment for foreign and local investment in trade and industry. Following in the footsteps of Vice President and Home Affairs Minister Moi and his predecessor Kiano, Mwamunga accelerated the Africanisation policy in Trade and Commerce. Europeans and Asians dominated the sector, the latter having set up camp not only in Nairobi but also in other urban areas, to the chagrin of indigenous businessmen.
With Kenyatta’s blessing, Mwamunga issued quit notices to Asians doing business in the rural areas, effectively confining them to Nairobi and other major towns. This was in line with the mandate of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) to extend loans to indigenous people so they could open up businesses and fill the gap left by the departing Asian traders.
In 1976 Kenya hosted the 4th Session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The first of its kind to be held on African soil, the international conference was opened by Kenyatta and drew international personalities such as US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. In his address as host, Mwamunga urged world nations to resolve trade disputes, especially between rich and poor countries. He called for agreements to guide international financial lending and commodity prices to protect poor countries.
Mwamunga’s first political storm came in 1977 during a KANU election. He clashed with party Acting Secretary General Robert Matano when the latter appointed Mwamunga to supervise the Mombasa Branch elections. In what turned out to be an ugly duel with Matano, Mwamunga defied the order for fresh elections, saying the branch had just held polls the previous year and that officials had been elected and registered. They were John Mambo (Chairman), Abdullah Mwaruwa (Vice Chairman), Maurice Mboja (Secretary) and Mohamed Jahazi (Organising Secretary).
Mwamunga wrote to the officials and advised them not to hold elections. But the Registrar denied that any officials had been registered. Fresh branch elections were held, and all the officials were voted out and new ones elected. The new Chairman was Shariff Nassir, who was to become the most powerful politician at the Coast during Moi’s tenure.
This was to haunt Mwamunga in later years when he and Nassir locked horns over supremacy at the Coast at a time when the latter became Moi’s point man in the region. The election loss by the team that he supported did not deter Mwamunga from recapturing his seat – renamed Voi – in the 1979 General Election, the first after the death of Kenyatta the previous year. Mwamunga did even better than in previous elections, polling 8,363 votes against his only rival, Kwaya Mwatibo’s 2,699.
This was a strong mandate and those who had opposed him in the past reportedly changed sides and threw their lot behind the Minister. One such candidate was Augustine Mwagogo Ngume, who pulled out of the race midway.
In spite of an uneasy relationship with Moi due to his links with Ministers and businessmen close to Kenyatta, Mwamunga was reappointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. However, he was caught up in the 1983 ‘msaliti’ (traitor) affair involving former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, alleged to have plotted to overthrow the Moi government.
In what was to become Moi’s signature style of dealing with politicians perceived to be against him, Njonjo was subjected to public humiliation as the “…traitor in Moi’s Cabinet being groomed to take over the presidency illegally”. Politicians took advantage of the traitor debate both inside Parliament and in public fora to settle scores with Njonjo. Moi began to purge his government of perceived enemies. Some MPs accused Mwamunga of being sympathetic to Njonjo. Although he and a few others survived the political lynching and the 1983 snap election that was called to essentially get rid of Njonjo sympathisers, the association cast a cloud over Mwamunga’s political future.
Mwamunga issued quit notices to Asians doing business in the rural areas, effectively confining them to Nairobi and other major towns
Mwamunga experienced the full wrath of the ruling party and continued to face many difficulties until the end of his political career. For one, National Organising Secretary and Minister for Supplies and Marketing Laban Kitele publicly rebuked him over the whereabouts of KES 1 million disbursed to his Voi constituency.
Although he defended himself spiritedly against accusations of mismanaging the funds, the message, coming from a Moi point man, was clear that the Minister was no longer in the President’s good books. The KANU Taita-Taveta Branch tried to hound him out of office.
He was engaged in protracted running battles and petty squabbles initiated at KANU headquarters and Nassir’s Mombasa Branch. The disputes were spearheaded by a new crop of leaders led by Mbela, who would later oust Mwamunga from the Voi seat and become Minister for Lands.
It did not, therefore, come as a surprise when Mwamunga was sacked as Minister for Information and Broadcasting in January 1988, in the run-up to that year’s infamous queue-voting elections. Many MPs perceived to be anti-Moi lost their seats.
The queue-voting system elicited national and international condemnation and helped build the groundswell of opposition politics. Mwamunga became a victim of the electoral system soon after his dismissal from the Cabinet. Moreover as the national purge continued, he lost his chairmanship of the Taita-Taveta KANU Branch. And the party machinery was not through with him; Mwamunga was accused of all manner of misdeeds and suspended from membership in the branch.
His sacking from the Cabinet and subsequent troubles from KANU might not have been a result of the traitor issue alone, but also due to his perceived gravitation towards Kibaki.
In the run-up to the 1988 General Election he was alleged to be among candidates sponsored by Kibaki for the poll after Kibaki, who had been blocked from presiding over fundraisers outside Nyeri, accepted Mwamunga’s invitation to raise funds in Voi.
It was no surprise that Mwamunga joined Kibaki in January 1992 to launch the opposition party DP, after the Constitution was changed in 1991 to make Kenya a multiparty State. Kibaki had resigned from KANU and from the Cabinet as Minister for Health on Christmas Day 1991.
Mwamunga was named DP Coast representative. He played an active role in popularising the DP in the region ahead of the first multiparty elections in 1992. But division in the newly-formed opposition parties made it difficult for them to win the elections.
Mwamunga himself failed to recapture the Voi seat that had been synonymous with his name for a good two decades. It was won by KANU’s Mbela, who was subsequently appointed to the Cabinet.
At that point Mwamunga retired from public life and retreated to Ishamba to concentrate on business and farming.
The politician was, however, dogged by ill health and he eventually died on 9 June 2018 at the age of 83 while undergoing treatment at a Mombasa hospital.