James Nyamweya was a politician and pioneer lawyer who served as MP for Nyaribari (before it was split into Nyaribari Chache and Nyaribari Masaba), as well as an influential Cabinet minister in different ministries in President Jomo Kenyatta’s government. Under President Daniel arap Moi, he headed the Elections and Boundaries Commission briefly ahead of the 1988 mlolongo (queue voting) elections. He was also a founding member of the Democratic Party (DP) along with Mwai Kibaki and was the Vice Chairman of the party at the time of his death in 1995.
Nyamweya was one of the modern patriarchs of his native Abagusii community; he was also present at the very beginning of the Kenya nation state, one of the founding members of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, and one of the first Kenyans to establish a legal practice in the country. He was one of the youngest MPs and Cabinet ministers in Kenyatta’s founding Cabinet.
The child of a Seventh Day Adventist preacher, Nyamweya was born on 27 December 1927 in Nyaribari Masaba. He attended exclusively Adventist schools, namely Nyanchwa SDA Primary School and Kamagambo Mission School, before joining Kisii Secondary School. At the time, many Adventists in South Nyanza were satisfied with elementary education as long as it guaranteed them jobs in teaching, which was the highest vocation.
But not Nyamweya, who acquired secondary school education and sat for his Cambridge School Certificate through correspondence. He joined King’s College in London in the 1950s, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in law and working briefly as a barrister in the English capital. It was in London that he met future key figures in Kenya’s first government such as Kibaki, who became a long-time family friend. Others were Munyua Waiyaki, John Marie Seroney and Matthew Guy Muli.
When he returned to Kenya, Nyamweya initially worked as a legal secretary for the colonial government. This gave him further access to future decision makers in the first government.
For his service to the country, Kenyatta awarded him the Elder of Golden Heart (EGH) and Member of the Burning Spear (MBS)
He soon resigned from the government and set up a legal practice in Kisumu District (now Kisumu County). Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first Vice President, gave him an office in Kisumu Town. He became one of the learned Kenyans who joined the anti-colonial struggle, alongside Argwings Kodhek and Mareka Gecaga, the first African lawyers in the country. He worked with Odinga and later represented him in a sedition case. Reportedly, he even wrote a letter to the Queen of England to complain about the treatment of Africans by whites in Kenya. This agitation put him on the map and after independence, he started as a Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
He then served as Assistant Minister in the Office of the President and was later promoted to Minister for Foreign Affairs, and then Minister of State in Charge of Provincial Administration. In the mid-1970s, he was the Minister for Power and Communication and later, the Minister for Labour.
As Foreign Affairs minister and a confidant of Kenyatta, he often represented the President outside the country. This close relationship with the President would prove fatal in his later political life; when Kenyatta died, he was sidelined during Moi’s tenure as President.
In the 1960s, with his friends Kibaki and Tom Mboya, he was part of the team that worked on Session Paper No. 10 that was the economic blueprint of the country in its formative days.
When Joseph Murumbi resigned suddenly as Vice President and Moi was appointed in his place, Nyamweya was appointed Leader of Government Business in Parliament, a position that many thought would undermine Moi, who was second in command in the country. Technically, he was Moi’s boss and this rivalry festered until Kenyatta died in 1978. In the 1979 elections, he lost his parliamentary seat to Andrew Omanga. He briefly headed the Elections and Boundaries Commission in 1987; the appointment was apparently an attempt to stop him from vying in the 1988 elections. Even so, Moi barred him and Simeon Nyachae from vying.
As Minister for Labour, Nyamweya was credited with founding the Industrial Court and is largely regarded as the father of the labour movement. He formulated the Employment Act of Kenya and made it possible for employers, employees and the government to work together.
As an Adventist, Nyamweya also negotiated for Saturday to be a day of rest to allow those who worshipped on Saturdays to rest and worship. Kenyatta used Nyamweya to persuade Adventist members of his community not to uproot their tea plantations because of their over-zealous interpretation of their church doctrines that forbid or discourage the use of stimulants.
With Nyamweya at the helm of the Labour docket, Kenya became a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO), helping Kenyan employers to adhere to ILO conventions. His efforts earned the country a nomination to serve as Chairman of the ILO governing body for two years.
He also played an advisory role in the building of Mwalimu Hotel in Kisii District, that is jointly owned by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), Kisii Branch. He advised KNUT to use a salary check-off system to collect the money required for construction and ensured that the system got the right approvals by the authorities.
As an MP, he represented Nyaribari when it was a large constituency — later split into two — from 1963 to 1979. He is credited with starting and building many secondary schools in his consitituency. In the 1960s and 1970s, schools, especially secondary schools, were rare. The establishment of schools was especially critical in stopping the haemorrhaging of students to Bugema in Uganda in search of secondary school education. He also started a maternity hospital in Nyanturago.
As a nationalist, Nyamweya rarely meddled with community politics or aspired to be a kingpin. For his service to the country, Kenyatta awarded him Elder of the Order of the Golden Heart (EGH) and Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear (MBS).
Nyamweya remained out of the government in the 1980s and joined Kibaki, who was the Minister for Health in Moi’s Cabinet, to form DP, which helped Kibaki come third in the 1992 presidential elections. Nyamweya vied for the Nyaribari Masaba Constituency seat in 1992 and lost to Hezron Manduku. Although he petitioned the results in court, he lost the case.
He served as the National Vice Chairman of DP, actively campaigning in Kisii where the party won a considerable number of votes, and winning the first defection in Protus Momanyi (who was later wooed back to KANU). Kibaki got more votes in Kisii than other presidential aspirants.
Nyamweya’s son, George Nyamweya, served as Secretary General of the party and later founded the Party of National Unity that Kibaki used as a vehicle for the 2007 General Election. The younger Nyamweya was nominated to Parliament.