Jackson Itirithia Kalweo – A crowd-pleasing orator

In 1992, President Daniel arap Moi made an announcement at a KANU party rally in Mau Stadium in Meru District: Jackson Itirithia Kalweo was going to be one of his point men in the region. The President singled him out from a group of several officials in the ruling party. Why Kalweo? The question in the minds of many was valid, since he had been out in the political cold for nearly a decade.

Kalweo had been expelled from the party in 1984, when his name featured in the controversial Njonjo Commission of Inquiry that Moi had set up the previous year to investigate the powerful KANU minister, Charles Njonjo. The Head of State had branded Njonjo a traitor, accusing him of being groomed by foreign powers to overthrow him.

Prior to his expulsion, Kalweo had been a close political ally of the President, who had appointed him Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services following the 1979 General Election. Kalweo was serving his second term in Parliament. But after his name was linked with the Njonjo affair, he fell out with Moi, who first sacked him from his government position before expelling him from the ruling party.

In the General Election of 1983, Kalweo lost his Nyambene North parliamentary seat to Joseph Muturia. He had ousted Muturia in the 1974 polls after failing to unseat him in 1969 when he made his début in elective politics.

It was widely expected that Kalweo would be pardoned in the run-up to the 1988 elections when Moi was extending an olive branch to politicians he had fallen out with over the Njonjo affair. This, however, did not happen to Kalweo. Consequently he did not participate in that election and it was won by a newcomer, Joseph Malebe.

The beleaguered politician however successfully applied for readmission to the party after the General Election. He went ahead to vie for the party chairmanship in Igembe Constituency of Nyambene Division, which he won. So, in the lead-up to the first multiparty elections of 1992, Kalweo was back in the political fold and was among the few politicians in the Meru region donning KANU colours.

Kalweo knew the message, the language and the tone to use in political rallies to electrify crowds

A keen political observer, Moi must have realised that Kalweo was still in the good books of the electorate. During subsequent meetings KANU conducted in Meru North, many are the times when voters carried the veteran politician shoulder high, prompting the President to provide him with a Land Rover vehicle for his campaigns and other logistics. It was therefore not such a big surprise when the Presidentextended favours to him at a meeting of the ruling party that had been organised by the Nyambene sub-branch officials.

The party officials had met as part of their attempts to counter-balance the growing popularity of the Democratic Party (DP). Campaigns for the first multiparty elections were gaining momentum and the President, who had lost ground in Mt Kenya region following stiff opposition from DP and FORD-Asili, had to deploy a new strategy to scuttle his rivals in their strongholds. DP, led by former Vice President Mwai Kibaki, had made inroads into the larger Meru District (since renamed Meru County), winning the support of most of the political giants and the elite in the vote-rich region. However, this was the same region the President was banking on not only to register victory, but also to capture at least one or two parliamentary seats for the ruling party.

In his efforts to consolidate his votes in Opposition strongholds like Meru, Moi had suffered huge setbacks as leaders he trusted would defect upon realising that KANU was hard to sell. Voters preferred Kibaki’s DP or FORD-Asili, whose presidential candidate was Kenneth Matiba. In Meru North Sub-county (formerly Nyambene Division), one of Moi’s key strategists was Erastus Mbaabu. The President had information that the man was in the process of defecting to DP. He had appointed him Chairman of the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) following his retirement as a District Commissioner. Aware of Mbaabu’s intended move, Moi was careful in his choice of team leader to carry the KANU flag. This led him to choose Kalweo, who had shown unwavering support in his bid for re-election as President.

In response to Kalweo’s appointment, Mbaabu renounced KANU and joined DP, which sponsored him to vie in Igembe Constituency (known as Nyambene North before the 1988 elections) against Kalweo. There was no other threat to the former Culture and Social Services Assistant Minister in KANU since Muturia, who had ousted him in 1983, had moved to neighbouring Ntonyiri in 1988, becoming the first MP for the new constituency carved out of Igembe.

Joseph Malebe, the incumbent in Igembe, had failed to live up to voters’ expectations during his five-year term. A geologist who had secured contracts to drill boreholes across East African countries, Malebe had won the hearts of the electorate with his academic credentials. Unlike Kalweo who did not have much in the way of an academic background, Malebe had a Master’s degree in Geology. But he could not match his rival’s mastery of the political game; Kalweo knew the message, the language and the tone to use in political rallies to electrify crowds.

Kalweo knew the message, the language and the tone to use in political rallies to electrify crowds

After clinching the KANU ticket, Kalweo easily beat Mbaabu. He also surprised the DP brigade in Meru after Moi, KANU’s presidential candidate, came close to DP’s Kibaki in the polls, garnering 8,127 votes against the latter’s 8,870.

During this election, Moi’s ministers in Meru District, Kabeere M’Mbijjewe (South Imenti) and Jackson Angaine (North Imenti) did not survive the Opposition wave. The former lost to Kiraitu Murungi of FORD-Kenya while the latter was replaced by David Mwiraria of DP. In Tigania, another staunch supporter of KANU, Mathews Adams Karauri, was dethroned by DP’s Benjamin Ndubai.

KANU did, however, manage to capture two other seats. Kirugi Laiboni M’Mukindia, the Minister for Energy, recaptured his Imenti Central seat and in Tharaka Constituency, Francis Kaguima also retained his seat. To neutralise the Opposition in Mt Kenya, Moi needed a strong KANU team from the region. And so it was Kalweo’s turn to fly the KANU flag as the first minister from Meru North. He was appointed Minister for Culture and Social Services but was later moved to the Office of the President as Minister of State in charge of Internal Security and Provincial Administration.

Had Kalweo decided to seek election on a DP ticket or through any other opposition party, many believe he would still have won as he was the favourite candidate for Igembe Constituency in the 1992 elections.

Together with Moi, Kalweo was credited with transforming Igembe Division through various projects that had been initiated in the region through Plan International (PI), a development and humanitarian non-government organisation. There was, for instance, the Kawiru Water Project that provided water from Nyambene Hills to the lower areas of Igembe and Ntonyiri. Besides this project PI, which became established in Meru North in the early 1980s when Kalweo was an assistant minister, had also built several boreholes for the community.

The President was known for his partiality towards the development of marginalised areas and the presence of PI in Igembe was viewed as being courtesy of his administration. It also created a favourable political ground for him and for KANU.

The NGO transformed the entire Igembe Division. The area had remained one of the most backward in the country. Despite the lucrative miraa trade, Igembe had very poor infrastructure. Most primary schools were in a pathetic state. Classrooms were built of mud walls and children would drop out of school to work on miraa farms. The situation started to change with the arrival of PI. Several cattle dips as well as markets were built by the NGO, which also employed several locals. Livelihoods were changed in the process and the organisation became Kalweo’s main campaign tool in the 1992 elections as he kept reminding his constituents: “Nindabuunere nchang’i muthuumu ni keenda bunyua mauta (I killed the giraffe for you to feed on).”

Born in Igembe in 1937, Kalweo attended Maua Primary School for his early education between 1951 and 1956 before proceeding to Katheene Intermediate School in 1957. He later joined Meru Teacher Training College where he qualified as a P3 teacher. He taught at various primary schools in Meru District before resigning to go into politics. His entry into politics was not accidental; he had caught the eye of President Jomo Kenyatta back in the early days of independence. As a music and dance teacher, he had distinguished himself from his fellow teachers in the Meru region. Every year, the school in which he was the choir master unfailingly secured a place at the annual national music festival.

Antobochiu Primary School, the last institution he taught at before quitting to join politics, had placed Igembe Division on the national map for its good performance in the primary schools music festivals. The choir was so good that President Kenyatta would routinely invite the schoolchildren and their teacher to perform both at State House and at his Gatundu home.

Kalweo was described as a jovial, eloquent and witty man who amused crowds while on stage with his choir or his dancing troupe. Kenyatta is said to have admired the teacher so much that he insisted on having Kalweo’s school choir permanently listed as part of the entertainment at events where he was officiating. Kalweo eventually became a frequent visitor to State House and the President’s rural home where he would interact with politicians and the ‘who’s who’ in Kenyatta’s government.

This exposure gave Kalweo a lot of confidence and determination to seek higher office; it is said that President Kenyatta encouraged him to enter politics. At home, the teacher was a community leader and so when he made his début in politics in 1969, after declaring his candidature for the Igembe parliamentary seat, his name was already on the lips of many.

Kalweo was appointed a KANU minister at a time when politics had become competitive following the reintroduction of pluralism. With the Opposition in Parliament on a mission to discredit the government, it was not easy for him to respond to questions regarding security as the Minister of State in charge of Internal Security and Provincial Administration. A man with limited education, he had devised a way of evading questions from a formidable Opposition that kept the government on its toes.

Instead of tackling the questions directly, the minister would play around with words. This ended up irritating the opposition side. Many are the times when Kalweo found himself at odds with opposition MPs, who took to routinely interrupting his speeches.

When ethnic-based violence broke out in the Likoni area of the Coast region in August 1997, opposition MPs claimed it was State-sponsored. A group of assailants had overrun a police station, broken into the armoury and taken away over 30 modern assault rifles and 5,000 rounds of ammunition before embarking on an orgy of arson and senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, according to the news magazine, The Weekly Review, of 22 August 1997.

Prof Rashid Mzee, the Kisauni MP, accused the government of failing to explain to the House what was going on, or even reassuring the country that it was in control, whenKalweo attempted to describe the steps taken to arrest the situation. Aware of his style of evading questions, his fellow MPs drowned out his speech with heckling and points of order, leaving him with little choice but to take his seat. But heckling did not usually deter the minister from tackling matters raised in Parliament; he was in the habit of vehemently defending the President and his administration amid insults and disparaging remarks from the opposition benches.

On his home turf, he was seen by his constituents as a power to reckon with. He was the most powerful man in Meru and he used this position to consolidate his support and widen networks for Moi and the ruling party. To maintain his popularity in Meru North and in other marginalised areas of the Mt Kenya region, Moi embarked on a campaign to create more districts and other administrative units in what he said was an effort to bring development closer to the people.

The creation of Nyambene District (later renamed Meru North District), carved out of the larger Meru in 1993, was a milestone for the people of Igembe and Tigania. Two other districts – Meru South (Nithi) and Tharaka – were also hived off, leaving the Meru region with three new districts. In doing this, Moi was using sub-ethnic criteria with a rallying call, “It is time for us (the small and marginalised sub-tribes) to eat.” In a nutshell, the move was more of a political project.

Other new administrative divisions were created in Meru North, increasing the number from three to thirteen. This meant the creation of additional jobs as new district officers, chiefs and their assistants were deployed. Kalweo was able to build support networks all over to ensure that no rival could beat him in the 1997 polls. No chief or other civil servant would have dared to show any opposition to the minister. He was instrumental in recommending who should be employed, even in the Nyambene County Council.

Come the 1997 polls, Kalweo could not be swayed by the Opposition. The Meru region was still considered a DP zone but owing to the creation of the new administrative centres, KANU’s popularity had soared and the party won more seats in Meru North. Apart from Kalweo, there was Karauri, who won the newly-created Tigania East Constituency. Moi managed to secure 49,000 votes against Kibaki’s 54,000. What the President garnered in this region accounted for virtually the total number of votes from the whole of Central Province. Kalweo had by now replaced Angaine, the once self-styled ‘King of Meru.’ He was like a monarch.

His closeness to the Head of State was hailed as a solution to most of the economic disparities that existed between the remote parts of Meru North and other parts of the Mt Kenya region. Following his victory in the 1997 elections, Moi appointed Kalweo Minister for Health, where he once again faced the same challenges as when he was Minister for Internal Security.

The Ministry of Health was engulfed in a series of scandals over the process of procuring medical drugs meant for public health facilities. There were incidents of loss of drugs that were blamed on the tendering process. It was alleged that some of the companies supplying the drugs were privately owned; Kalweo and his Permanent Secretary, Sammy Mbova, were accused of conniving with the suppliers to divert the drugs, an accusation they denied. As usual, Kalweo would not be shaken by the barking of opposition MPs. He stood his ground in defending the government.

In January 1998, he averted a nurses’ strike that would have paralysed operations in public hospitals. The minister had to summon all departmental heads to his Afya House office where he made the statement that convinced the nurses to return to work. He said, “I would like health staffers countrywide to be patriotic and honest while discharging their duties. This is the only way we can gain the confidence of patients under our care,” as reported in the Daily Nation of 13 January 1998.

Moi’s term of office was ending in 2002 as stipulated in the constitution, which said that a President could serve only two terms. Despite Kalweo’s win in the 1997 elections, the political tide turned against him after his opponents started evaluating his performance as a KANU minister. His critics included Kiraitu Murungi, the Imenti South MP at the time, who had joined DP from FORD-Kenya and become Kibaki’s key man in Meru.

Unfortunately for Kalweo, he had made several blunders while he was in charge of the Internal Security docket. He had become so powerful that he had offended several people in his constituency and in Meru North Sub-county in general. This situation is what was used to hound him out of politics.

There were those who accused him of using the provincial administration and other security organs of the State to fight his political battles. For instance, it was alleged that he would threaten chiefs and their assistants with the sack if they did not mobilise voters to vote for him during the 1997 General Election. Most of these administrators had secured their jobs through his patronage; some were allegedly relatives or political supporters.

His political opponents successfully used this perception to campaign against him. They claimed that by using his influence to have his relatives get government jobs, Kalweo was not only abusing his powers but also treating his constituents with contempt.

Insecurity in Meru North is also said to have deteriorated during his tenure as Minister for Internal Security. Meru pastoralists, who occupy the northern locations, had approached him, having lost large herds of livestock to Samburu rustlers in 1996. The pastoralists wanted him to order the return of their herds and provide more security to protect the animals. Kalweo was unable to respond for fear of antagonising the Kamatusa (an acronym for Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu communities), who had come together to rise against the dominance of the larger communities – the Kikuyus and Luos – who were in the Opposition. As a KANU stalwart, Kalweo could not dare upset Kamatusa leaders who were seen as having Moi’s blessings.

Furthermore, Moi had become hugely unpopular in the Mt Kenya region after picking Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding President, to take on the newly formed National Rainbow Alliance (NARC) that was led by Kibaki. The political tide in Meru North had turned. After Kalweo lost to Murungi, who had been nominated by NARC in the 2002 elections, he opted to hang up his political boots.



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