Johnstone Muendo Makau – Navigating the choppy waters of transition

Johnstone Muendo Makau was a flamboyant, youthful Minister for Information and Broadcasting who spent most of his time fending off local and international criticism of President Daniel arap Moi’s government for muzzling media freedom.

An outgoing politician who nursed presidential ambitions, Makau was at the centre of scathing criticism from the Kenyan opposition for allegedly agreeing to be used by the President and the ruling party KANU’s top brass to splinter the Opposition at a crucial time when it was poised to dethrone Moi’s government in the watershed 1992 General Election.

Makau worked at a time when the media was caught up in the vortex of anti-government activities by so-called dissidents who ended up being detained without trial or handed long jail terms for treason; a time when journalists were arrested and locked up in police stations and released without trial for “writing false reports”; when newsrooms were routinely raided and “seditious documents” and equipment seized by the dreaded Special Branch officers.

Makau was accused of failing to advise the government against its retrogressive policy of denying or delaying the registration of private print and electronic media companies, even as applications continued to pile up.

He controversially registered and launched the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1992 while still a Cabinet minister, a move that was roundly criticised by the emergent Opposition as part of the strategies employed by the Kenya African National Union (KANU) to create several Opposition parties in order to splinter the main one, Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) jointly led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba.

The fears were vindicated when Makau abandoned the SDP following the split of FORD and defected back to KANU, winning back his Mbooni parliamentary seat during the 1997 General Election. The party would later sponsor presidential candidates Charity Kaluki Ngilu (1997) and James Aggrey Orengo (2002).

As the nation braved the birth pangs of pluralism, Makau held his own and found his niche in the promotion of local artistic talent

Born in Yatwa village in the hilly Mbooni Constituency of Machakos District, Makau attended Yatwa Primary School before joining Mbooni High School. He then went to the University of Nairobi to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree.

After graduating, Makau entered the publishing industry and cut his teeth as an editor and marketer at Longhorn Publishing Company, one of the leading publishing firms in Kenya that has published millions of school books in addition to local fiction and non-fiction. He later went into partnership with the centuries-old British book publishing company, Thomas Nelson.

While he published and sold books, Makau developed a strong interest in politics. He was often to be found attending political rallies in Machakos, especially in his native Mbooni Constituency, presided over by the district KANU heavyweights led by powerful party branch Chairman Mulu Mutisya, which did not go down well with the incumbent MP, Joseph Konzolo Munyao.

Few people were surprised, therefore, when Makau announced his intention to run for the Mbooni seat in the infamous 1988 mlolongo (queue voting) election. He was pitted against two top contenders: Munyao and a previous holder of the seat, the fiery veteran politician, Fredrick Mulinge Kalulu. All were running on a KANU ticket. This would be the last single-party election in Kenya. The next one in 1992 would be under a multiparty political dispensation that ushered in competitive politics and freedom of expression unprecedented since the country attained independence in 1963.

Makau put up such a spirited fight in the hotly contested poll that he emerged the winner. The queue-voting election was, however, marred by widespread criticism from across the country and viewed as being unfair. It was condemned as one of the world’s worst methods of holding elections. Many popular candidates, who clearly had the longest queues, lost after corrupt presiding officers ruled that their queues were the shortest. The 1988 elections went down in history as one of the worst stains on the Moi government.

The polling method was seen as having been used to weed out political leaders perceived to disagree with the President. In Mbooni, for instance, Makau was perceived to be a Nyayo follower, meaning that he was seen as a diehard KANU supporter and loyal to Moi and his government. On the other hand, Joseph Munyao was seen as a lackey of Mwai Kibaki, who had formed the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) with hopes of ousting the Moi government.

Upon his election, Makau joined the Cabinet as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. He worked in the ministry for a decade after he was re-appointed following his re-election as Mbooni MP for a further five years. Makau enjoyed close political ties with Moi and was often regarded as one of the President’s trusted point men in the Ukambani region. He often held press conferences to defend the government against accusations from the international community that it was engaged in such excesses as human rights abuses and violation of the people’s freedoms – including a level playing field through political pluralism.

During his tenure in the ministry, Makau is credited with having strengthened the government-run Kenya News Agency (KNA) network by opening up more offices across the country. This measure was aimed at providing a platform to explain government policy and to counter negative anti-government sentiments. The minister also forged closer links between his ministry and the Chinese government, the result of which was the introduction of the official Chinese government’s Xinhua News Agency to Kenya.

In addition, Makau was often seen at events that were aimed at promoting local home-grown entertainment. He often recognised and occasionally awarded talented local actors and musicians and demanded that they be promoted through the government-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) TV and radio stations.

“It is the policy of the government to promote the local film and music industry by training local talent and populating KBC radio and TV content with local drama and music,” said Makau at a music awards presentation ceremony.

Makau’s stint at the ministry coincided with the re-introduction of plural politics through the registration of more parties in 1991, which came about via a constitutional amendment that repealed Section 2A. The State subsequently allowed for the proliferation of opposition political parties and human rights groups. The parties could not, however, operate freely as they were often prevented from operating in certain areas considered to be strongholds of the ruling party.

At other times the government, through the provincial administration functionaries and police, denied the Opposition licences to hold political meetings. Political violence by hired goons often disrupted rallies organised by the opposition parties. This strategy, along with that of splintering the Opposition, enabled Moi and KANU to sail through in the 1992 and the 1997 elections.

However, upon sensing defeat by the FORD coalition, the ruling party’s top brass launched deliberate propaganda campaigns that sowed suspicion among the leaders of FORD, contributing to its split in June 1992. This resulted in the formation of FORD-Kenya (FORD-K), led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and FORD-Asili (FORD-A), led by Kenneth Matiba. The surprising speed with which the Registrar of Societies registered the two FORD factions further served to fuel suspicion that Moi had a hand in the split of the original FORD.

More political parties were registered, with suggestions that KANU sponsored the registration of some of them – leading to further splintering of the Opposition. It was during this period that Makau, still serving as a minister, formed SDP.

“This is nothing but an evil plot by Moi’s regime and KANU to subvert the will of the people of Kenya by attempting to split the Opposition,” fiery Butere MP and one of the original FORD luminaries, Martin Shikuku, told the media.

By the time the presidential candidates were nominated, nine opposition parties had been registered and subsequently contested the 1992 General Election. In the end President Moi’s strategy paid off when he won the elections, garnering 1,964,867 votes against his closest rival, FORD-Asili’s Kenneth Matiba who bagged 1,430,627 votes. Mwai Kibaki’s DP garnered 1,064,700 while Oginga Odinga of FORD-K managed 944,564 votes.

Many political pundits were in agreement that had FORD not split into two, and had the likes of Makau and company not been persuaded to register more opposition parties, Moi and KANU would have been sent packing in 1992. Makau’s SDP did not nominate a presidential candidate and received only 177 votes in the National Assembly elections.

After the win, the government tightened media controls and restricted political activity and freedom of expression. According to a Daily Nation report of December 1994, both Moi and Makau publicly attacked the Nation group of newspapers, including a threat to ban the daily newspaper. Two reporters were summarily dismissed in as many months. One of them had written about a government minister’s alleged property deals, while the other had criticised the Attorney General.

Makau was put on the spot when Moi waded into a court case in which more than 50 applicants, including the Royal Media Services (RMS), sued the minister for the delay in granting them private commercial broadcasting licences. Moi had criticised the manner in which the presiding judge was handling the case.

The RMS proprietor, Samuel Kamau Macharia (popularly known as S.K. Macharia), would later withdraw his application, suggesting that he had been pressured by the State to do so.

One of the violations of press freedom, one that elicited much local and international criticism and made Makau squirm in his ministerial seat, was the 1994 prosecution for contempt of court of Bedan Mbugua and David Makali, editor and reporter respectively of The People, a weekly newspaper owned by Kenneth Matiba, and of lawyer G.B.M. Kariuki.

According to media reports, the weekly paper had published an article quoting Kariuki as saying that a Court of Appeal ruling in a case involving striking university lecturers “… reeked of State interference.” The three were given heavy fines, which Mbugua and Makali refused to pay; instead, they opted to serve five and four months in prison respectively. Their jailing was seen as proof that the Judiciary was susceptible to pressure from the highest levels of government.

One political analyst commenting on Makau’s political standing said, “Makau’s political stature has been badly bruised by the manner in which the government has treated the Press. Criticism against the government by local and international media has dealt Makau political body blows from which he is unable to recover.”

In the 1997 General Election, the minister was dealt a fatal political blow by the ageing Fredrick Kalulu who made a dramatic comeback as MP for Mbooni on a KANU ticket. Makau, who was larger than life and had dominated Mbooni Constituency in his political heydays, never recovered from Kalulu’s blow.

He retreated to his businesses and eventually developed cardiac complications that led to his death in June 2005.


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