Jeremiah Joseph Mwaniki Nyagah is best remembered as a politician who opted to retire from politics to a village life, having served with distinction in the ministries of Agriculture and Education. Born at Igari, Embu, on November 24, 1920, Nyagah started primary education in 1925 at the Anglican Missionary School at Kabare in present-day Kirinyaga County. Later, he was moved to Kagumo in Nyeri, where he sat the Standard Eight examinations. He then joined Alliance High School in 1937 (student number 427). From Alliance he went to Makerere College, Uganda, in 1940 for a three-year diploma course.
Nyagah had many firsts in his life. He was among the first Africans to sit the Cambridge School Certificate exam in Kenya. Among his classmates at Alliance were B.M. Gecaga (they later taught at Kahuhia, Murang’a, where politician Kenneth Matiba was their student) and Njonjo. From Makerere, Nyagah returned to Kenya in January, 1944, to begin a teaching career that he slowly combined with moderate politics. Between 1944 and 1958, Nyagah taught in various schools and colleges and became the first teacher of Kangaru School in Embu with only 30 students.
It was his appointment as an education officer that enabled Nyagah to criss-cross central Kenya, endearing himself to the moderates and the church leadership, especially in the Anglican Church. Before he was posted to Kiambu as an assistant education officer, Nyagah had a two-year break at Oxford University’s Department of Education for further training from 1952 to 1954. In this period, the Mau Mau war of liberation had started. Nyagah integrated the independent schools, run by the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association (KISA), into the leadership of District Education Boards (DEB). The schools were considered as education bases for subversion.
When — as a result of the Lyttelton Constitution — the colonial government called the March, 1957, elections to allow the first group of eight Africans to the Legco, Nyagah contested the Central seat. But he lost to a comparatively unknown South African-trained teacher, Bernard Mate, who won 51 per cent of the votes against Nyagah’s 12 per cent. Others in the race included Eliud Mathu, the first African at the Legco, lawyer David Waruhiu and Stephen Kioni, the first Kenya National Union of Teachers’ (KNUT) secretary-general. In the Legco, the eight African representatives, under Tom Mboya’s leadership, pushed for an additional six African elected seats to bring Africans to parity with European legislators. This move forced Allan Lennox-Boyd, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, to impose a constitution on Kenya in November, 1957, that created additional African seats. Nyagah vied for the new Embu seat in the 1958 elections and won.
Nyagah was a moderate politician and in 1960 he joined a small multi-racial band of idealists — known as Capricorn Society or, officially, as the Kenya College of Citizenship Association. The group believed that a future without racial discrimination would allow East and Central African countries to prosper. He was appointed the governor of the association in place of Musa Amalemba.
In those early years, Nyagah was instrumental in the formation of the Kenya Youth Hostels after a 1957 challenge by the president of the International Youth Hostel Federation, E. St John Catchpoll. Among those who joined Nyagah were Chief Scout Commissioner Godfrey Rhodes, anthropologist L.S.B. Leakey, Edmund Crosher, Amalemba, G.S. Amar, and D.Q . Erskine. Today, the Kenya Youth Hostels, whose headquarters is on Nairobi’s Ralph Bunche Road, is part of a global network of more than 4,000 hostels.
Upon his return from Oxford, Nyagah was posted to Kiambu, where he served as an Assistant Education Officer (AEO) at the height of the Mau Mau war. Part of his task was to take over Kikuyu Independent Schools and channel them into the government curriculum. The colonial authorities had closed the institutions for their links to the independence movement, especially in central Kenya, where they were associated with Jomo Kenyatta and KAU leadership. They were accused of being breeding grounds for nationalism and subversion.
Nyagah was a pioneer trade unionist and served as secretary of the Union of Civil Servants, Kiambu branch. He first met Mboya, a leading trade unionist and politician, in the union’s Kariokor offices next to Mboya’s residence. But it was Nyagah’s role as a scout that earned him global accolades. Nyagah had joined the Boy Scouts at Alliance in 1937 and was one of the most senior African members of the Kenya Boy Scout Association during the colonial era. It was through his efforts that the African troops survived since the Scouts Association was keen to shut them down for sympathising with the liberation movement.
After independence, Nyagah successfully recast the scout movement as an African institution, frequently using the Kiswahili adage udongo upate uli maji (work the clay while it is still wet). He argued that this was the only way to mould the youth in Kenya. He rose from a Rover Scout to one of the longest-serving Chief Commissioners of the scouting movement in Kenya. At Oxford University in the 1950s, he was vested as a King Scout. But it was not until February, 1982, that Nyagah got the highest distinction in the Scout Movement. He was awarded the Bronze Wolf medal for outstanding service to international scouting. At the regional level, Nyagah bagged the Elephant and the Platinum awards, the highest in Africa and Kenya, respectively. By the time he died, he was considered the father of scouting in post-independent Kenya.
Nyagah’s entry into politics, thanks to the loyalists among his Mbeere community, made him the most astute politician in the larger Embu. Upon election to the Legco, he was appointed the first African Deputy Speaker. One of his most memorable tasks was to swear in Kenyatta as MP for Kigumo in Fort Hall District (now Murang’a County) after Kenyatta was released from detention and house arrest. The move was to enable Kenyatta to join the Legco and lead the Kanu delegation to the 1961 Lancaster Conference in London. Nyagah was part of the delegation. He became a Parliamentary Secretary (Assistant Minister) in the Ministry of Power and Works at independence in 1963. He also served long in the Cabinet — 1966 to 1992.
After Independence, Nyagah had hoped to get a ministerial post, but Kenyatta appointed Mwanyumba in the Ministry of Works, Power and Communications. In 1964, Nyagah was one of a few leaders who went to the US on a leadership scholarship. When he returned, he was appointed an assistant minister for Home Affairs under Moi with Matiba, Nyagah’s former student, as the Permanent Secretary.
In 1966, President Kenyatta appointed Nyagah the Minister for Education, a docket he ran for three years. Before his appointment, the Ministry of Education, under Joseph Otiende, had gone through turbulent times as Knutstaged two successful strikes demanding a central employment agency. During the second national teachers’ strike in October, 1965, the unresolved issue of a single employer for all teachers resurfaced.
Knut had found it hard to negotiate teachers’ salaries since they were employed by different entities. It was after the third strike in November, 1966, that Nyagah, a former teacher and trade unionist and now the Education Minister, took to Parliament a Bill to establish the Teachers Service Commission (TSC), bringing teachers in public schools under one employer. This ended the missionary grip on education in Kenya.
As a result of Nyagah’s efforts the TSC Act was passed in 1966 and the Commission came into being on July 1, 1967. It was during his tenure that several technical and middle-level colleges were started. He reduced the number of teacher training colleges to 16 and turned the others into secondary schools. He also started a policy that favoured natural sciences — agriculture and nature study. But these were also turbulent times in Kenya’s political history as the Cold War was replicated in Kanu’s ranks. Nyagah was one of the politicians who attended the Corner Bar meeting in 1966 under the chairmanship of Ronald Ngala. Others included G.G. Kariuki, Clement Lubembe, Makone Ombesa, John Okwanyo and Justus ole Tipis. They agreed to cut Vice-President Odinga to size. The meeting laid the ground for the Limuru Conference of March, 1966, that finally dethroned Odinga. As a result, Nyagah became one of the insiders in Kanu, playing above-board politics as he became a solid figure in the party ranks. The Limuru Conference elected Nyagah to one of the eight party vice-presidents (Eastern).
In 1969, Nyagah was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture to replace McKenzie, who had opted to retire on health grounds. The ministry and that of Lands and Settlement — under Angaine — were considered the bedrock of Kenya’s economic future. Nyagah took over at a crucial time. The redistribution of former white-owned land was coming to an end and the new farmers had settled in the former scheduled areas.
New settlement schemes in degazetted forests, known as Salient Schemes, were being formulated, giving Nyagah a challenge and an opportunity to develop agriculture. During his tenure, agricultural production was higher than at any other period in Kenya’s post-independent history. The only exception was wheat, whose production started to decline after the sub-division of large-scale farms. The new owners replaced wheat with maize and dairy farming. But Nyagah sustained agriculture as the backbone of the economy and as the single most important sector, contributing about 25 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employing 75 per cent of the national labour force. His tenure was also marked by controversy following a maize shortage in 1978, when he was accused of selling the crop to Mozambique at a time when Kenya had no maize in its silos.
By then, Kenyatta had died and Moi taken over. Nyagah and Kiano were initially thought to be natural choices as Moi’s Vice-President. But finally, the mantle fell on Finance Minister Kibaki. After the 1979 General Election, the Ministry of Agriculture was divided into two and Nyagah was appointed the Minister for Livestock Development. He later served with distinction in various ministries, including Water, Information and Broadcasting, Environment and Natural Resources. Nyagah finally retired from active politics in 1992, at the height of the multiparty debate and dedicated his life to the church as a lay leader. He was still the Commissioner of Scouts in Kenya.
His son, Norman Nyagah, took over his father’s Gachoka seat on Kibaki’s Democratic Party ticket. Norman was to shift to Nairobi’s Kamukunji constituency in the 1997 General Election. He won. And the Gachoka seat went to his brother and Nyagah’s eldest son Joseph, a former ambassador and Kenya Airways managing director. In 2007, Joseph and Norman lost their seats. However, Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement nominated Nyagah to Parliament and he was appointed Minister for Cooperatives Development and Marketing in the Coalition Government. Nyagah’s eldest daughter, Mary Khimulu, is Kenya’s ambassador to Unesco.
Nyagah’s other son, Nahashon, is a career banker and the chairman of TATU City Limited, the company seeking to develop TATU City within the greater Nairobi, off the ultra-modern Thika Highway. TATU City will be home to an estimated 62,000 residents. Nahashon served as the Central Bank of Kenya Governor for two years up to March 2003 when he resigned after being criticised for failing to prevent the loss of 1.4bn Kenyan shillings (£11.6m; $18m) which state organisations had deposited in the collapsed Euro Bank.
Nyagah’s wife Eunice Wambeere, a former Girl Guide he met at Kahuhia, died on October 29, 2006. He served various voluntary organisations, including the Heart-to-Heart Foundation, where he was the chairman of the board, and the Kenya Fund for the Disabled. He also held various positions in international organisations, such as FAO, Unesco and Unep. Nyagah was also an Honorary Doctor of Letters’ holder from Egerton University for his contribution to agricultural development. He died on April 10, 2008, at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi. He was 88.