Little is known about Gilbert Kabeere M’Mbijjewe although many may remember his trademark pipe. He was among the few Kenyan politicians whose appointment to the Cabinet was because of his impressive career as a civil servant and as a corporate executive.
As a minister in President Daniel arap Moi’s administration, M’Mbijjewe had a quiet political career. He was among the renowned leaders in his home district of Meru, but low key in the national arena. His educational background was unmatched. He had a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.
M’Mbijjewe returned to Kenya from university and joined the colonial civil service. His return coincided with the land adjudication process to issue individual title deeds to Kenyans. He therefore got a position as a land consolidation officer in the Ministry of Agriculture and later became a planning officer in the same ministry before resigning to join the private sector.
He worked with Twiga Chemical Industries in Nairobi, which was a subsidiary of the Imperial Chemical Industries of Britain. He joined the company as a senior executive officer. At the time, not many Africans held such senior positions in multinational corporations.
However, M’Mbijjewe left his well-paying job to join politics in 1969. He lost the Meru Central (renamed South Imenti in 1986) seat to the incumbent Member of Parliament, Elias Marete. He won the seat in the subsequent 1974 General Election.
Besides having previous experience in government and the corporate world, M’Mbijjewe was the most senior politician among his colleagues after Jackson Harvester Angaine lost his seat. Angaine, the first MP from Meru to be appointed to the Cabinet, lost to Nteere Mbogori in Meru North-West Constituency.
M’Mbijjewe was appointed Minister for Tourism and later held the same position in the Agriculture, Energy and Health ministries. He had previously served as an assistant minister under President Jomo Kenyatta.
Born in 1926 in Mikumbune Location in Meru District (now Meru County), M’Mbijjewe was among the lucky few who managed to access education as his father, M’Mwirichia Mabura, a senior chief in the early years of colonial rule, was among a small number of African leaders who embraced education. M’Mbijjewe went to Alliance High School before joining Makerere University College in Uganda for a Diploma in Agriculture. He subsequently got an opportunity to advance his education at Aberdeen College, now University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. After he graduated, he enrolled at the University of Reading for a degree in agriculture. He returned home in 1950.
His experience as a farmer and academic credentials in agriculture made the appointment to the Ministry of Agriculture a good fit. During his tenure at the ministry, proposals to establish irrigation projects in some dry parts of the country through the National Irrigation Board were effected. One such project was the Mitunguu Irrigation Scheme at the boundary of present-day Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties which was key in addressing food security in the area.
M’Mbijjewe is also credited with initiating the Meru College of Technology, now Meru University of Science and Technology, and for initiating water projects.
He was re-elected in 1983 and appointed Minister for Health. He is credited with expanding health facilities in the country. He was later transferred in the same capacity to the Ministry of Energy.
Unlike other politicians, M’Mbijjewe appeared to be a loner. He did not even hold a grassroots position within his political party, KANU. This somewhat affected his relationship with other Meru MPs, who referred to him as “mbogo ya kirithya” (lone buffalo) for isolating himself from their caucus. He failed in his attempt to become the KANU chairman in Meru, a position held by Angaine.
M’Mbijjewe’s name was adversely mentioned in the Miller Commission of Inquiry set up by President Moi to investigate the conduct of the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Charles Njonjo. This led to Bahati MP Fred Omido’s demand in Parliament that the minister resign from his position. The President defended M’Mbijjewe. The matter also prompted Angaine to convene the Meru KANU branch Executive Committee to suspend the minister.
This marked a period when the minister faced several obstacles. In Parliament he was accused of receiving a bribe during his time as the Minister for Health. The accusation proved false. He also had pending lawsuits and other accusations, including claims of some dealings with the Meru County Council that had MPs calling for him to resign.
M’Mbijjewe was eventually dismissed from his Cabinet post and the President appointed Angaine as Minister for State in the Office of the President. The position had been held by Peter Nyakiamo, who was transferred to the Ministry of Health to replace M’Mbijjewe.
During the 1988 General Election, he won the newly-created South Imenti parliamentary seat and was appointed Assistant Minister for Research, Science and Technology. He lost the seat in 1992 to the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya candidate, Kiraitu Murungi.
M’Mbijjewe retired to his rural home and led a quiet life until his death in November 2017.