Jackson Kimeu Mulinge – A man made of steel

Jackson Kimeu Mulinge was one of the most respected personalities in the Ukambani region. Before joining politics he had a successful career as Kenya’s top soldier, rising from a private in the colonial army to the pinnacle of the country’s military service as the Chief of General Staff (today referred to as Chief of Defence Forces) under both President Jomo Kenyatta and President Daniel arap Moi.

Mulinge was not keen on joining the military; neither was he keen to join politics. Nevertheless, he succeeded in both careers. He became the first Kenyan to hold the post of Chief of General Staff in 1978 and the first Kenyan to become a four-star General in 1980.

He was persuaded to join elective politics by Moi through influential Machakos District KANU stalwart, Mulu Mutisya. Mulinge eventually successfully contested the Kathiani parliamentary seat and worked in the Cabinet as Minister for Lands and Urban Development and in the Ministry of Health.

While working as the army chief and later the chief of Kenya’s defence forces, Mulinge initiated numerous development projects in Kathiani Constituency.

He is credited with transforming the sleepy Kathiani market centre on the northern foothills of Iveti Hills into a modern, thriving town through the tarmacking of the 21-km road from Machakos Town. In addition, power transmission lines were installed on the same route and the Muoni Dam was built, a stone’s throw from his Mutungoni Farm house, to supply water to homes and institutions. Also developed was Kathiani Hospital, which is today a Level 4 facility, and the Kathiani Boys and Kathiani Girls boarding high schools that are today national schools, among many other projects.

Mulinge’s political journey started after his retirement from the military in 1986. His retirement coincided with Moi’s quest to consolidate his support in the whole of Ukambani by neutralising the influence of minister Paul Joseph Ngei.

Ngei was part of the ‘change the constitution’ group fronted by Njoroge Mungai, Kihika Kimani and Njenga Karume, among others, which had sought to bar Vice President Moi from automatically succeeding Kenyatta. Moreover, Ngei had expressed an interest in becoming President after Kenyatta.

Until his debut in politics, Mulinge enjoyed respect from the military. In addition, and owing to his development record, his image loomed large in Machakos. This did not sit very well with Moi who sought to neutralise all other centres of power in the country in order to exercise political authority directly through his chosen point men.

Moi sought to kill two birds with one stone during the 1988 elections — disengage Mulinge from the army by introducing him to politics and use him to neutralise Ngei’s influence in Ukambani.

Mulinge agreed to contest the Kangundo parliamentary seat. Ngei, a veteran politician, was the MP and had held the seat since independence. After an acrimonious and widely publicised campaign, Ngei won the seat by a landslide. After his defeat in the elections, Mulinge went into full-time business in real estate and farming/ranching.

“This was perhaps the worst political misadventure in Kenya’s electoral history,” commented a former top official of the Machakos branch of the ruling party, KANU in an interview. “It was not, however, surprising given that this was probably what the sponsors of the misadventure hoped to achieve,” he said.

His legacy is that of a man who tried his best to be incorruptible and helped countless people to get education and find employment

Mulinge was born in 1924 in Kyuluni Village, Kathiani, in Machakos District (now Machakos County). He attended the African Inland Mission (AIM) Mumbuni School near Machakos Town. He joined the military ‘accidentally’ after a colonial military officer recruiting servicemen in Machakos in September 1945 noticed a tall and well-built boy with goats in the town.

This is how he joined the King’s African Rifles. When World War II broke out, Mulinge was among the young Kenyan recruits who were shipped out to fight for the British in Ethiopia. After the war he remained in the army and rose through the ranks, becoming the first African officer in Kenya to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1961. During the celebrations on the eve of Kenya’s independence in 1963, he started off the evening as a major and emerged as a lieutenant colonel just after midnight. Mulinge took over the reins of the army in 1969 as a brigadier. In 1971, he took charge of the entire military following the removal of Major General Joseph Ndolo and was promoted to the rank of Major General. When Moi became President in 1978, he promoted Mulinge to Chief of General Staff.

For 44 years, Mulinge was as a loyal and dedicated military officer who had an exemplary career. He retired in July 1986. The Daily Nation quoted a retired army man who knew him for years as saying, “Mulinge was a decent, level-headed, good officer whose decisions were sometimes hamstrung by his lack of formal education that made him rely on other officers who didn’t always mean well.”

Soon after his retirement Mulinge was appointed Chairman of the Kenya Railways at a time when the government sought to revive the fledgling corporation to boost the transport sector. In 1988 he was appointed Chairman of the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC) in a move aimed at restoring the fortunes of the defunct commission. With his experience in the livestock and meat industry, it was hoped that he would revamp the commission operations and restore its lost glory. This proved to be a tall order. It was while he was at KMC that he was prevailed upon to contest the Kangundo parliamentary seat.

Mulinge decided to contest the Kathiani parliamentary seat in the 1992 General Election. The incumbent, Laban Maingi Kitele, who was in the Cabinet, knew he was in deep trouble.

“Kitele knew he had no chance against Mulinge due to his military career and unassailable development track record,” said Wilson ‘Muthungulule’ Muema, Kitele’s confidante and former nominated councillor in the Machakos Municipal Council, in an interview.

In the end, Mulinge won the seat by a landslide, not just because of his development record but also because he had maintained direct political links with Moi and the local party leadership led by Mutisya. The retired general was appointed Minister for Lands and Urban Development when Moi formed his government following the 1992 elections.

Mulinge was one of the few Kenyans at the time qualified to manage the Lands docket. He owned 90 parcels of land with ranches and housing estates in Machakos and Nairobi that were successfully managed under a ranching company.

He understood land ownership issues and therefore moved quickly to institute measures to speed up the two bottlenecks that bedevilled landowners in Kenya: Land adjudication to facilitate the issuance of long-delayed title deeds and the winding up of a plethora of land-buying companies that had been exploiting their members and corruptly selling off their livestock and pocketing proceeds from their agricultural produce.

And since Kenya had lost its meat export opportunity to the European Union to Botswana, Mulinge successfully secured alternative meat markets in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations, where KMC did thriving business.

But in a June 1995 Cabinet reshuffle midway through his term, Mulinge was transferred to the Ministry of Health, where he often appeared to be at sea, especially when he had to answer health-related questions from MPs in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, in the short period he presided over the ministry, Mulinge oversaw the expansion of health services through construction of additional health centres across the country, immunisation programmes and distribution of drugs through a kit system.

As a Cabinet minister, just as during his military service, Mulinge remained close to Moi, who visited Kathiani numerous times to preside over fundraisers for various development projects, including the construction of Kathiani Hospital.

In addition to his military decorations, Mulinge was awarded national honours, according to documented records, that included Elder of the Golden Heart (EGH) and Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS).

Mulinge, a staunch KANU supporter, become a victim of pluralism politics when the 1997 General Election was called. A proliferation of political parties had sprung up across the country, some of which were created along ethnic lines. These new parties were more popular than KANU. Thus, when the youthful Peter Kaindi presented himself as a Kathiani parliamentary candidate under the Social Democratic Party (SDP) party led by Johnstone Makau and Charity Ngilu, Mulinge had no chance. He was defeated by the young man. Mulinge had served only one term as MP.

He returned to his Kathiani home where he concentrated yet again on his vast business empire until his health failed and he was confined to a wheelchair. He died on 16 July 2014 aged 90 years.

Moi described Mulinge’s death as a big loss to the country. “The death of Mulinge has robbed Kenyans of one of the most industrious sons who was always ready to take responsibility for his actions,” said Moi in his message of condolence.

He revealed that Mulinge’s bravery as a soldier caught his eye, which led to his speedy promotion to the rank of general. “After realising that Mulinge was a man made of steel, I picked him and in recognition of his bravery and hard work, promoted him to the rank of full general,” he said.

Eulogising him, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Mulinge was a “great soldier who led a life of honour, service and patriotism”. He added that “… for all his achievements, everyone who knew and worked with General Mulinge respected him as a humble, kind and courageous man, devoted to his family, community and nation”.

Quite apart from Mulinge’s sterling military accomplishments and service as a Cabinet minister, his legacy is that of a man who tried his best to be incorruptible and who helped countless people to get education and find employment. Yet, despite all his achievements, he remained a humble man with a local touch to the end.

Mulinge will always be remembered for his military service and development record, particularly in Kathiani and in the greater Ukambani.

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