Joshua Mulanda Angatia – The High School Head who called out corruption in the Cabinet

Joshua Mulanda Angatia is famous for having confessed his helplessness as Kenya’s Minister for Health by describing the ministry’s Afya House headquarters as “Mafia House.” Shortly after the 1992 multiparty elections when he was appointed to the ministry, a frustrated Angatia told journalists that the ‘mafia cartel’ had put road blocks everywhere. He declared that even a minister who was an angel would not dare go past the spikes blocking the way lest his legs got punctured and permanently maimed. Angatia further shocked the nation when he admitted that as the minister in charge, he had no idea how Aspirin, a first-line drug, was tendered for or supplied.

The Kenya Central Medical Stores (KCMS), the government’s custodian of all medical supplies, was so opaque that not even a minister could penetrate and scrutinise its operations. Angatia, a Quaker by faith and a former headmaster of Upper Hill High School in Nairobi, owned up to this state of affairs after the ministry’s Head of Audit had sought his help. The auditor wanted Angatia to compel officers in the Accounts and Tendering departments to make records available; he was frustrated at being unable to peruse any documents or even answer audit queries, which was a legal requirement, as he had been completely denied access to the records.A Sunday Nation columnist queried, “If the Minister for Health can cry, what will Kenyans do, weep?” Massive corruption, which characterised the Ministry of Health, had proliferated since independence. Angatia was being baptised the same way his fellow minister, Joseph Daniel Otiende, had been baptised by a scandal in which a KCMS officer was tried and jailed for corruption in procurement. Renowned journalist Peter Mwaura, a former university don and Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Nation, even won a prize for investigative journalism for unearthing the scandal in the 1970s. Angatia was essentially confessing that he was incapable of cracking the whip to break up the cartel, just like Otiende had been forced to do. He never found an opportunity to shed light on whether he had sought intervention from his boss, President Daniel arap Moi, or to share the response he was given, if any. Instead, what followed was indicative of the power the mafia wielded. He was switched to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

But before his transfer, Angatia faced a plethora of problems in Health that he was hard put to resolve. First, he was in the unfortunate position of having to deal with one of the longest doctors’ strikes in the country. For the first time in independent Kenya’s history, doctors, dentists and clinical officers challenged the government by demanding their right to form a trade union of their own.

Moi responded by threatening that the government  would import doctors from India and other countries to replace the Kenyan medics. But the doctors pressed on for registration of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists’ Union, which the government argued could not be registered since its members fell within the category of providers of essential services.

This was same reasoning the Moi government applied concerning the Kenya Civil Servants’ Union, which had threatened to call a strike. By a stroke of the pen, that particular union was deregistered in 1980.

“You can go on strike for a year, but the union will not be registered,” Angatia told the media in his response to the medics. This hard-line stance on the doctors’ strike entrenched the minister in Moi’s good books.

The doctors and dentists leading the agitation for members’ rights were either sacked or deregistered. Some even fled the country to practise in neighbouring countries, while others left government service to open private practices as far as South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia. But the union was eventually registered, and has since become very powerful.

Secondly, Angatia was confronted with the Pearl Omega affair. Pearl Omega was a herbal-based medicine developed by his schoolmate, Professor Arthur Obel, from ancestral medicinal lore from their native Busia District, and it was a supposed cure for HIV and AIDS. Obel, who with Angatia had attended Friends School Kamusinga in Bungoma District, attracted widespread media attention for this claim. The media reports indicated he had used the influence of another schoolmate, Professor Phillip Mbithi, then Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, to source research money for developing the drug.

Obel was well connected among the Kamusinga alumni who included professors Otieno Malo (engineer), Justice J.B. Ojwang’ (Supreme Court judge), Awuor Mulimba (pioneer orthopaedic surgeon) and Angatia himself. It was thought that Angatia, being the minister in charge, was extending petty high school differences against Obel to block the ‘discovery’ and, by extension, block Obel’s potential for global fame in medicine.

Obel even went ahead to give a lecture at Kenyatta University in which he told the audience that historically, medical discoveries are replete with scepticism. He reminded them that the Greeks, who discovered great medicines, had been treated to the same cynicism he was now facing. He drove his point home using a Luhya proverb that says a medicine man is never recognised in his own village, only in faraway foreign lands. He said this was the reason he was being dismissed by his fellow Kenyans for his discovery. Following this lecture, an Assistant Minister for Health, Basil Criticos (coincidentally a Kenyan of Greek descent) hailed the discovery in Parliament, proclaiming to the House that Kenya had at last found a cure for HIV and Aids. After this, many HIV and AIDS patients from as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries in the eastern Africa region trooped to Obel’s clinic in Nairobi’s central business district to obtain the medicine; curious journalists also jammed the clinic to find out how effectively the ‘discovery’ was working on the continent. Obel is said to have made a fortune from the thousands of hopeful patients who had previously had no hope of treatment before the advent of antiretroviral medications.  Then a can of worms erupted. Patients began to sue Obel on the grounds that according to trial tests they performed to monitor progress, they had not experienced any improvement since starting to take Pearl Omega. Angatia quickly denounced the drug a week later, saying that his former schoolmate had not followed medical ethics and had bent the rules of medicine to suit his quest. Then, in the midst of the furore, Angatia was transferred to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Prior to the transfer, Angatia was also occupied with an election petition against him, the second in his political career. His 1992 opponent, Nathan Anaswa, was challenging his election in Malava Constituency. The election was nullified towards the end of the Seventh Parliament in 1997. Angatia was defeated by Anaswa in the by-election, consigning him to permanent political oblivion. The subsequent 1997 election was won by Soita Shitanda, who would dominate Malava politics for the next 15 years.

Angatia had faced his first election petition after the 1979 elections, his first attempt in politics, in which he defeated titan Burudi Nabwera in Lurambi North Constituency, which later birthed Malava and Lugari. The victory was a feat because he felled not only an Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs but also a high-profile former ambassador. The ensuing petition against Angatia was dismissed by justices S.K. Sachdeva and J.M. Gachuhi who dismissed it on the grounds that the petitioners relied on hearsay and did not prove their case. Born on 30 December 1938 in Kabras, Kakamega District, to devoted Quaker parents Daudi and Leah Mulanda, Angatia was educated there and at Kamusinga High School. He joined Dar es Salaam University to read for a BA degree, later choosing to become a teacher.  He eventually rose to the position of Headmaster of Ingotse Secondary School in his home area before moving to Nairobi’s highly-reputed Upper Hill High School, from where he ventured into politics.A staunch Quaker like his parents, Angatia always observed Quaker traditions in Parliament by declining to hold the Bible while being sworn in (most Quakers do not believe the Bible to be the final authority or the only source of divine wisdom). Angatia was married to Emily and together they had eight children. He died on 21 October 2004.


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