John Joseph “JJ” Kamotho – The KANU cockerel

As a Cabinet minister and the Secretary General of KANU, John Joseph ‘JJ’ Kamotho was famed for his habitual terse and snappy statements, especially in defending the government of President Daniel arap Moi and the ruling party. Kamotho’s political ascension started in 1979, when he was elected MP for Kangema. Although he lost his seat in snap elections called by President Moi in 1983 to rid his government of dissidents perceived to be aligned with Attorney General Charles Njonjo, accused of attempting to wrest power from Moi, Kamotho recaptured his seat in 1988 – earning him a reputation for having the proverbial nine lives of a cat.

In 1993, at the height of the KANU regime, he commented to the media in response to a question on rampant corruption, “KANU never promised zero tolerance on corruption in its campaign manifesto.” During the 1992 multiparty elections, a major focus of the campaign manifestos of opposition parties was to fight corruption, giving Kamotho the ammunition of sarcasm. When under siege ahead of KANU’s merger party elections with Raila Odinga’s National Development Party (NDP) in 2001 – Kamotho was apparently to be axed from the Secretary General position – he told journalists at Parliament Buildings, “Politics is not a soccer match between Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards football clubs.”

The remark was directed at Raila, who was vying for the KANU Secretary General position in the new power-sharing arithmetic and who was famous for using football analogies. In this case, the Luo-backed soccer team Gor Mahia and the Luhya-backed AFC Leopards were the subject of the illustration. Kamotho’s remark was graphic: “Football is straightforward. You cannot score from an offside position. In politics you can score from anywhere and with a leg or even Diego Maradona’s hand of God!”

Under Kamotho’s watch, the Mackay team recommended the establishment of a second public university and thus Moi University in Eldoret was born

As KANU Secretary General, he had no problem answering calls from journalists day or night. His stock answer to most questions was, “KANU shall not accept it.” That was vintage Kamotho.

JJ, or ‘Kaleft’ (the jocular  translation of his Kikuyu name Kamotho) as he was teasingly called, was a wordsmith with a penchant for prickly phrases shaped by the Soviet Union’s Kremlin parlance. Kamotho had lived in both the East and the West in an era that divided the globe into capitalist and socialist blocs, which exposed him to the manipulation of propaganda and Machiavellianism in public communication.

Between 1990 and 2000, Kamotho belonged to the ruling party’s wing known as KANU-A that was fronting Professor George Saitoti, then Vice President, to succeed President Moi. Another wing, KANU-B, was lethargically opposed to Saitoti, preferring younger KANU politicians who included Uhuru Kenyatta, Musalia Mudavadi and Kalonzo Musyoka. Kamotho and Saitoti, the party’s Vice Chairman, were thus targeted for side-lining.

Indeed at the 2001 KANU Delegates’ Conference held at the Moi International Sports Complex in Kasarani, Saitoti’s post was diluted and his attempt to vie for one of the four party deputy slots was blocked. The posts were filled by Uhuru, Mudavadi, Musyoka and Coast Province politician Katana Ngala. Kamotho’s post was similarly taken by Odinga.

After the conference, journalists sought comment from Kamotho about the party elections. His response was, “Which elections?! That was a marketplace!” Kamotho was further quoted as saying in the media regarding the KANU-NDP merger, “Mark my words, this marriage will not last; divorce proceedings will begin at the wedding.” This turned out to be an accurate prediction. Divorce proceedings in what came to be called “the short-lived KANU-NDP merger” began immediately after Kasarani.

Odinga’s supporters expected Moi to position him as the successor, which did not happen. The merger caused significant harm to KANU, tearing it into pieces with Moi’s anointment of Uhuru as KANU’s 2002 presidential candidate. They all scattered and the rest is history.

Kamotho was in many ways a man for all seasons. One of the low points in his chequered political career came in 1983, during the hurricane that felled Njonjo, the all-powerful Minister for Constitutional Affairs. Moi accused Njonjo of conspiring with foreign powers to topple him. The ensuing Njonjo Inquiry, headed by the late Justice Cecil Miller and justices Chunilal B. Madan and Effie Owuor, absolved him – but not before a political witch-hunt purged Parliament of all politicians perceived to be ‘Njonjo men’.

Kamotho was among the casualties and went on to lose his Kangema parliamentary seat to John Michuki in snap elections held later that year. From a Cabinet position as Minister for Higher Education flying the ministerial Kenyan flag on his car, Kamotho became a pariah in society along with other ‘Njonjo men’. They were shunned in the streets and in social places. No one wanted to associate with such people for fear of being expelled from the only legal political party in the country at the time.

Kamotho took this new state of affairs in his stride. With his financial stability threatened, he began selling groceries from a kiosk on the ground floor of Finance House along Koinange Street in Nairobi. At his side in the kiosk was his wife Eunice. Kamotho used to call friendly journalists to the kiosk to draft handwritten press statements for him. They were usually ignored by the media, but he never gave up.

But Kamotho’s work should not be overshadowed by the politics of Moi’s KANU.

When he was appointed Minister for Higher Education, he hit the ground running. For instance, he vowed to clamp down on the frequent university closures that had characterised the previous regime under President Jomo Kenyatta. Riots were frequent, especially every year on 2 March, to commemorate the murder of former Nyandarua North MP Josiah Mwangi ‘JM’ Kariuki whose body was discovered in the Ngong Hills by a Maasai herdsboy in 1975.

University of Nairobi (UoN) students would habitually go on the rampage, stoning cars along Uhuru Highway and University Way. They would also stone and loot shops. Kamotho would rush to the UoN and Kenyatta University College to address students whenever there was trouble. The irony was that under his watch, he was to preside over the longest university closure lasting over a year after the 1982 attempted coup by renegade Kenya Air Force soldiers.

However, Kamotho’s most outstanding chapter in the Ministry of Higher Education came on 21 January 1981, when Moi appointed the Collin Mackay Commission to evaluate the viability of a second public university and give detailed plans and recommendations. As minister in charge, Kamotho’s role was to oversee the commission’s work and ensure the report was handed to Moi on time. The 18-member commission was mostly comprised of university professors and education technocrats. Devoid of government bureaucracy, it was thus able to move with speed and completed its work barely 18 months after it was constituted.

Under Kamotho’s watch, the Mackay team recommended the establishment of a second public university and thus Moi University in Eldoret District was born. Professor Douglas Odhiambo, Mackay’s Vice Chairman, was appointed the university’s founding Vice Chancellor initially operating from Development House in Nairobi as construction went on in Eldoret. Also under Kamotho, groundwork for the 8-4-4 education system, the second Mackay recommendation, was put in place for implementation without a hitch.

After his fall from grace, Kamotho had to find a way to return to mainstream Moi politics. One day in 1987, the President made a trip to Nyandarua District and Kamotho appeared out of nowhere and managed to catch the eye of the President. That day marked Kamotho’s political resurrection.

In the KANU-era jargon of the time, Kamotho became ‘Nyayo damu’ and went all over Central Province preaching the party gospel and praising Moi’s leadership. Kangema Constituency was split into two, hemming him into Mathioya, which he won at the polls, while leaving Kangema for Michuki. He was appointed Assistant Minister for Transport and Communication and never looked back.

But to Kamotho’s credit, he had studied Moi the politician and come to know what the President liked. He did not want to go back to selling groceries in a kiosk

In a subsequent Cabinet reshuffle, he was elevated to Minister for Transport and Communication. His high moment in KANU came with the death of Moses Mudavadi in February 1989. Mudavadi had been flown home from a hospital in Europe the previous year to be installed as the KANU Secretary General.

Kamotho ended up getting the powerful post in what was seen as KANU’s political re-arrangement sharing out the party’s top posts to regions: Moi as President, Saitoti (Rift Valley) as his VP, Peter Oloo Aringo (Nyanza) as Chairman, Japhet Lijoodi (Western) as Treasurer and Kalonzo Musyoka (Eastern) as Organising Secretary. Kamotho was from Central.

Kamotho’s ascendance to the pinnacle of power in both the party and in the Cabinet marked the turning point of his fortunes; he became the KANU cockerel that crowed every hour, becoming the darling of party diehards and an irritant to the anti-Moi populace. He would soon pay the price as he was to lose his parliamentary seat with the re-introduction of multiparty elections in 1992, prompting his acerbic remark: “Even a dog would have won on a FORD-Asili ticket” in Central Province.

He was referring to the FORD-Asili party’s win in a province-wide political wave spearheaded by Kenneth Matiba that brought in 31 MPs mostly from Murang’a, sharing it out with Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party sweep of 23 seats mainly from Nyeri and Meru districts. Moi, whose party KANU won, would nominate Kamotho to Parliament and appoint him as Minister for Education. From this position during his tenure as KANU Secretary General, he ended up rubbing his opponents the wrong way.

In one memorable incident, Fred Gumo, a Cabinet minister, publicly claimed that Kamotho had insulted the Luhya community by calling them “cooks and watchmen” – an accusation Kamotho vehemently denied. Despite his denial, Gumo’s political message had already achieved what it intended. This estranged Kamotho from the Luhya community and indirectly marked the start of a slow-motion fall from his membership among the Moi-era power barons. He was forever relegated to the pro-Saitoti political grouping, which had no favour in the Moi succession line.

But to Kamotho’s credit, he had studied Moi the politician and come to know what the President liked. He did not want to go back to selling groceries in a kiosk. Accordingly, he perfected his unswerving loyalty to the man who ruled Kenya with an iron fist for 24 years. He never tired of reminding Kenyans wherever he went that “KANU ni baba na mama” (KANU is our father and mother – in other words, our lifeline) and “Nyayo juu juu juu zaidi!” (Long live Nyayo!).

Kamotho would, for instance, praise Moi and say unrealistic things without batting an eyelid. A case in point was during a public fundraiser in Karatina, Nyeri District, in 1993 when he amused Moi to the point of laughter. After the first multiparty elections of 1992, nobody in Central wanted anything to do with KANU. Indeed, anti-Moi sentiments in the region were so high that no one even wanted to attend a Moi event. Schoolchildren would be bussed to the President’s rallies to form a crowd. Kamotho, who had been rewarded with a nomination to Parliament and a Cabinet post, rose to welcome Moi. He said, “Mzee, huu umati wote na watu wote wa mkoa wa kati wako ndani ya chama kinachotawala cha KANU!” (“Sir, this entire crowd and all the people from Central Province belong to the ruling party KANU!”). This sent all the dignitaries into peals of laughter as they cast telling glances at each other.

Kamotho was also very adept at handling ministerial and party matters. When the Goldenberg scandal erupted in the 1990s putting his political friend Saitoti at the centre of the scam, Kamotho shrewdly and uncharacteristically steered clear of the controversy, preferring to completely avoid contributing to the debate when it raged in Parliament.

He used the knowledge he gained in KANU corridors to avoid crossing the path of powerful politicians in the Moi era, including Nicholas Biwott, even as he supported Saitoti as the man who would have succeeded Moi. When he realised that Josephat Karanja, a former Vice President, had lost favour with Moi in 1989, Kamotho strategically aligned himself with a group of politicians led by Limuru MP Kuria Kanyingi in bringing down the VP.

As a politician he knew when to act for his own good. Prior to the 2002 elections, he read the signs and knew KANU was a sinking ship; he therefore made a timely move to desert the party that he had so eloquently defended during his political career. He had earned himself nominations to Parliament after failing at the polls in 1993 and 1997, and in the entire decade up to 2002 remained in the Cabinet. During those years he served in the key ministries of Trade, Environment and Local Government.

Moi trusted Kamotho as his point man in Central Province at a time when he lacked the support of the populous community in that region. It paid dividends as powerful business tycoons in the region used Kamotho as the ladder to government tenders.

When Moi’s tenure at State House was coming to an end, Kamotho chose to align himself with the Opposition’s National Rainbow Coalition that eventually swept KANU out of power.

Born in 1942 in Mathioya, Murang’a District (now Murang’s County), Kamotho enrolled in Muthangari Primary School where he sat for the Common Entrance Examination and later joined Njumbi Intermediate School. After sitting for his Cambridge School Certificate in 1962, he left for the Soviet Union to pursue his degree course. Upon his return in 1968, he was employed as a lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Administration (KIA, now known as the Kenya School of Government). In 1970 through a scholarship obtained by KIA, he travelled to the UK for a Master’s degree in Public Administration.

Kamotho died in South Africa on 6 December 2014 of a heart attack.


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