In 1976, Julius Gikonyo Kiano was appointed to head the newly-created Ministry of Water Development, where he remained until he lost the Mbiri (now Kiharu) parliamentary seat to Kenneth Matiba in 1979. Kiano had held the seat since 1966 when it was hived off from Kangema, where he had been Member of Parliament since independence. President Daniel arap Moi had been in power for one year when Kiano lost the seat to Matiba.
As the only senior Cabinet minister and the longest-serving legislator from Murang’a District, Kiano had become the dominant politician in the district even though he had lost the KANU party’s Murang’a branch chairmanship in 1976.
As one of the ardent supporters of Moi from central Kenya, Kiano was appointed Managing Director of the Industrial Development Bank (IDB) in 1980, following the death of Joseph Gatuiria. He was also appointed a member of the joint panel of experts under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The responsibility of the panel was to improve communication between organisations, agencies and individuals responsible or interested in the development, promotion and protection of a healthy environment. In 1977 as the Minister for Water, he was elected Chairman of the steering committee of the United Nations Water Conference held in Argentina, which was the beginning of his high-profile involvement in environmental issues. He led Kenya’s delegation to the UNEP Governing Council meetings in 1978 and 1979.
Politically, Kiano never made it back to Parliament and instead decided to support someone else in 1983 to oppose Matiba. He had opted out of the election hoping to win the post of Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). He was not selected for the job and again tried to remove Matiba from Mbiri in the 1988 General Election but lost.
The worst moment of his political career was perhaps in 1989, when he lost a by-election occasioned by the expulsion of Matiba from KANU. Although Kiano was the frontrunner right from the early stages of the election, he lost the the Kiharu seat to his former employee, Gidraf Mweru. In December 1989, Kiano was elected unopposed as the branch chairman of KANU for Murang’a. He lost again to Matiba during the multiparty General Election of 1992. Moi appointed him Chairman of the State-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).
Kiano, the first Kenyan to obtain a PhD degree, was a pioneer scholar and freedom hero. He was born in 1926 in Githiga, Kangema, in Murang’a District. He went to Weithaga Primary and Kagumo Intermediate schools before joining Alliance High School.
He subsequently did two post-secondary education programmes at Makerere College in Uganda and eventually proceeded to Antioch College in Ohio, USA, in 1948. He graduated with a degree in economics in 1952. At Antioch, Kiano developed an interest in cooperatives, a movement that would revolutionise agriculture and other sectors of the economy after independence.
After eight years in the US studying economics and political science, he got a university fellowship from Stanford University to study political science in 1953.
Before leaving Kenya for the US, Kiano was aware of the political situation (colonialism) and the need for educated and non-educated Kenyans to join hands in the liberation struggle. The desire to free Kenya from the yoke of colonialism had been planted in him by African soldiers returning home from the Second World War in 1945, when he was in high school.
Kiano, who later became independent Kenya’s first Minister for Commerce and Industry, went to California University’s Institute of International Studies, Berkeley, for a PhD in comparative studies on colonial liberation in Asia and Africa.
During a 1996 interview, Kiano recalled: “My going to Berkeley to study nationalism was not theoretical at all. I could see what had happened in India, what was happening in Indonesia, what was happening in Dien Bien Phu and so I knew things would also be happening in Africa.
At Antioch, Kiano developed an interest in cooperatives, a movement that would revolutionise agriculture and other sectors of the economy after independence
“In 1951, Dr Kwame Nkrumah became the Leader of Government Business in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and it later became the first African country to be independent from British rule in 1957, a year after I got my PhD. I was trying to relate my studies as much as I could with what was happening in Africa and what was likely to go on in the continent.”
In September 1956 Kiano returned to Kenya and got a job at the only post-secondary school college in the country, the Royal Technical College (now the University of Nairobi) as its first African lecturer. He taught economics and constitutional law. He later abandoned the classroom for politics and was elected to the Legislative Council (Legco) in 1958 to represent Central Province South. Kiano and other leaders knew freedom would not mean much unless the country had enough personnel to take over from the departing colonial technocrats.
The leaders therefore wrote to their friends in American universities, colleges, the political leadership and the trade union movement, seeking scholarships for young Kenyans to study in America. The response from American universities was overwhelming and resulted in the “Great Airlift” through which hundreds of Kenyan students got opportunities to study in the US.
In 1959, the Kennedy Foundation and its associates offered a whole aircraft to ferry students from Nairobi to the US. This was the first airlift; others followed in 1960 and 1961. Kiano and Tom Mboya will be remembered for and credited with organising the airlifts that formed the core of the country’s future Public Service and chief executives in the private and public sectors. In July 1961, Kiano said the African’s love for education was rivalled only by his love for freedom.
“There is a great need for vocational training (shorthand and typing for girls and technical training for boys) for children leaving school,” he also said.
In December 1961, as a member of Legco, Kiano accused the colonial government of operating a torture house, used to extract confessions from people who had been put under restriction without trial. In 1963, he was elected to the House of Representatives as the MP for Kangema and appointed Minister for Commerce and Industry.
At a time when Indian dukawallah (shopkeepers) were notorious for engaging customers in endless bargaining for small items, Kiano called for an end to the bargaining culture.
“You tell a customer that an item costs KES 20 and it is only worth KES 5. If he bargains down to KES 10, he thinks he has bought something cheaply,” he said.
This contention was, however, bitterly opposed by the mainly Indian members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Kiano was also instrumental in placing and sustaining Africans in business and trade, especially in the rural areas, from where people of Indo-Pakistani origin were told to move to the major towns and leave local trading to Africans.
The Ministry of Commerce worked out a programme that would enable small-scale African traders to buy goods at wholesale prices, a plan approved by the Cabinet. Before that, African traders would get goods for sale from Indian retailers and therefore could not compete with them. To encourage Kenyan Africans to get involved in trade and commerce, the minister travelled across the country opening African shops and businesses.
In 1964 at a Commonwealth trade ministers’ conference, Kiano called for an international trade and development organisation under the United Nations. He envisaged that the organisation would function on lines similar to FAO, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and WHO. Later, the Geneva-based UNCTAD was born and in 1976 Kiano vied unsuccessfully to become its executive director.
Kiano consistently urged Kenyans to save through societies, the Post Office and commercial banks, saying the “savings would be available for investment in development even as the country seeks development capital from the socialist East and hard-hearted Western businesses”. Following the assassination of Mboya in 1969, he termed the heinous act as the “darkest hour and most shocking blot on Kenya’s history since independence”.
At the time, he was the Minister for Education and was later moved to Local Government. Later, in the 1970s, he returned to the expanded Ministry of Commerce and Industry before moving to the Ministry of Water Development, earning himself the infamous distinction of the Cabinet minister Kenyatta had shuffled the most.
Kiano’s last attempt to return to politics was in 1989. He died in August 2003.