Justus ole Tipis – Champion of Maasai land rights

Justus Kantet ole Tipis, once a powerful Minister of State in charge of Internal Security in President Daniel arap Moi’s government, saw no battle he could not fight. Those who crossed the path of this man who enjoyed unbridled power, lived to regret it. He is reputed to have consigned a number of politicians and civil servants, who he viewed with suspicion or who dared question his actions, to political and career oblivion.

Born in 1919 in Narosura, currently Narok South, Tipis attended the government-funded Maasai School Narok, which would be renamed Ole Sankale Primary School. He later trained as a veterinarian and was employed in the Livestock Department in 1937. In 1939 when the Second World War broke out he was enlisted in the military where he rose to become a colonial Colonel. In 1946 after the war had ended, he joined the provincial administration and his first posting was Olenguruone in present-day Nakuru County.

Tipis ventured into politics in 1957 and was elected to the Legislative Council (LegCo) as a representative of the Central Rift Valley. Between 1960 and 1969, he was elected the first Narok MP. In the 1969 General Election after Narok North and Narok South were created, he lost the Narok North seat to Moses Marima. In the 1974 General Election, he threw himself back into the ring and trounced Marima. From then on until 1988 when he lost to William ole Ntimama, he was re-elected in subsequent elections.

Tipis, who hailed from the populous Masai Purko clan, which Ntimama also belonged to, led a Maasai delegation out of the Lancaster House Conference in the UK on the pre-independent constitution because of his community’s land rights. He and a group of Maasai leaders wanted all the land the British colonialists had taken from the community in the former White highlands to be returned before the independence talks and the writing of Kenya’s constitution could commence.

When the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) party folded and merged with the Kenya African National Union (KANU), Tipis and Moi worked together to bring the Rift Valley, predominantly in the Opposition, into Jomo Kenyatta’s government. Those who know him say Moi prevailed upon Tipis to ask his community to abandon the Opposition and join the government; when he did so, their bond strengthened.

“Tipis convinced the Maasai who were in KADU to work with the government for their benefit. After meeting with Kenyatta and other regional leaders to work out how members of the Opposition would be incorporated into the government, Moi – who Kenyatta liked more than others in the Opposition – tasked Tipis with the work of bringing the Maasai into the fold,” said Philip Lemein, the first Senator of Narok.

Lemein, who accompanied Tipis to the Lancaster House Conference and after independence worked closely with him, said after Tipis accomplished the mission, Moi counted on him to do more for him.

“Despite being firm, he was diplomatic and affable. Interactions with him were based on respect. Those who crossed his path lived to regret it because he could sometimes sort issues out physically,” he added.

On the contentious Maasai land rights, he explained, Tipis wanted to pursue justice even after independence but was prevailed upon to drop the matter. He said he was a big asset to the Maasai, adding that his contribution to community wellbeing could not be measured.

“If he were corrupt, he could have been a billionaire owning huge tracts of land. He legally acquired the parcels of land he owned. In fact when he died, the family had no money to settle hospital bills before his body could be released for burial; Moi stepped in to help,” revealed Lemein.

Initially, Tipis went into politics to champion the return of Maasai land that had been taken by colonialists. Lemein said he quit after accomplishing the mission.

Tipis and Stanley Oloitiptip, a former Kajiado South MP and also a former member of the Moi Cabinet, played a big role in the Rift Valley in campaigning for Moi to succeed Jomo Kenyatta. In 1976, some politicians mainly from Central Province wanted the constitution changed to bar Moi from ascending to power in the event of Kenyatta’s death.

“After the death of Kenyatta, Moi wanted loyalists to assist him to run the government. Tipis was one of his advisers,” said Lemein. “Moi knew he was fearless and could be depended on to ward off opposition to his fledgling administration. Because of that, Moi helped him win subsequent elections in Narok North.”

Those who crossed the path of this man whose trademark was a long moustache, cursed the day they did so. As KANU Organising Secretary, he was a powerful operative that Moi entrusted with the running of the party’s affairs. Other powerful players in the KANU hierarchy and who sat on the infamous KANU Disciplinary Committee included Okiki Amayo, Mulu Mutisya, Robert Matano, Isaac Salat, Ezekiel Barngetuny, Shariff Nassir, Burudi Nabwera and Moses Mudavadi.

These men were reputed to have the ability to make ministers and their assistants cry and kneel before them during committee meetings, begging for pardon. Those that the Disciplinary Committee recommended for expulsion or suspension from the party left politics to wallow in seclusion.

“Using his walking stick or a rungu (club), he could whip anybody who he viewed as being anti-KANU. Those who were called to show cause why they should not be suspended or expelled from the party feared him,” revealed Kelena ole Nchoe, a former Narok Town Council Chairman.

In 1982, Tipis differed with his Cabinet colleague, Robert Matano, within the precincts of Parliament and after an exchange of harsh words he hit Matano with a rungu.  MPs who witnessed the altercation had to intervene to cool his temper. Matano’s son had befriended Tipis’ daughter, something the minister did not want to entertain.

“He was temperamental. He couldn’t sustain an argument for long. Those who knew when he was unhappy steered clear,” said Nchoe.

Tipis was so loyal to KANU that he was fond of wearing a red shirt and a striped tie in the colours of the national flag. He was always ready to defend Moi and the ruling party whether within or outside of Parliament.

As Minister for Internal Security, he was a proponent of detention without trial where anti-government figures could be arrested and detained in preservation of the Public Security Act. Ntimama, his arch-rival in his Narok backyard, bore the brunt of his unbridled power. He orchestrated numerous arrests of the self-proclaimed Maasai spokesman to instil fear in him in a bid to deter opposition from him.

Those who wanted to vie for political positions in Narok, including aspirants for civic seats, could not get clearance certificates until he personally cleared them. He ensured that those he endorsed sailed through unopposed in the one-party State era.

Those who complained about his leadership style were branded msaliti (traitor) and enemies of development. “In 1988, I wanted to vie for a civic seat in Narok Town but because of my political inclination towards Ntimama, he denied me clearance despite my visiting him in his rural home and his Nairobi offices,” said Isaya Ndung’u, a businessman.

Ndung’u, a former Chairman of the local branch of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, (KNCCI) added, “I even used his close friends like the former Transport Licensing Board Chairman, Hassan ole Kamwaro, to get the certificate but he did not give in.”

In December 1986 during his tenure as Internal Security Minister, Tipis dared Ugandan troops who had been amassed at the Busia and Malaba borders to attack Kenya over differences between President Yoweri Museveni and Moi. This was a time when there was a surge of Mwakenya, a radical group campaigning for a regime change. Moi had accused foreign powers, including Uganda and Libya, of harbouring and supporting elements bent on overthrowing his government.

Tipis, who did not imagine that at one time Moi would want him out in favour of Ntimama, wanted Kenya to go to war with the neighbouring country; but Moi, who had already deployed the Kenyan army along the common border, had other plans. Moi would later travel to Malaba to meet with Museveni and negotiate a truce that resulted in both countries withdrawing their troops.

Friends of Tipis say that the 1 August 1982 attempted coup was one of his low moments. He is said to be among those who convinced Moi to get out of his Kabarak home and travel to Nairobi to address the nation after the attempted coup had been crushed by the Kenya Army. Other friends say that during his time as an MP, Narok – divided as it was between Ntimama and his own political camp – was peaceful and devoid of tribal tensions.

“I respected the man. He was a person you could count on in times of need,” said Kamwaro, who also served as Narok County Council Chairman. He said Tipis believed in strong institutions and placed his people in positions where they could deliver services to the public. “He was not a tribalist or a bootlicker. He welcomed all tribes in Kenya to work and live in Narok. He stood for the truth and could sacrifice anything for that cause,” he said.

Kamwaro, Chairman of the Maasai Council of Elders, remarked that among other reasons why Tipis joined active politics was to serve his people and turn their lives around. “He helped build schools and health facilities among other development projects. Most schools in Narok North were built when he was the area MP.” He added that Tipis was independent-minded and knew what was good for his people and the country. “He was somebody who couldn’t be pushed to do things he didn’t believe would have positive results irrespective of who pushed them,” he said.

It is said that around 1987, Moi developed an interest in Ntimama and had to use every trick in the book to have him replace Tipis in Narok North. When Ntimama was a powerful Narok County Council Chairman in 1976, he helped Moi acquire about 3,000 acres of land in the 46,000-hectare Maasai Mau Forest, one of the 22 blocks that form the over 400,000-hectare Mau Complex. Moi planted tea on the land and built the Kiptagich Tea Factory, which serves about 7,000 large and small-scale farmers near Olenguruone Township.

Ntimama’s push for the excision of part of the forest that was under the management of the County Council necessitated a full Council meeting; this further cemented his friendship with the Head of State.

“Moi was happy after he was allocated the land. When we visited Moi in Kabarak before the 1988 General Election, he told us he wanted Ntimama to succeed Tipis,” said Raen Ololoigero, a Maasai elder aged 92.

He said because of Tipis’ support for Moi during the 1976 ‘change the Constitution’ campaign, the President had assisted him to win elections. “There was no way he could ditch him immediately and bring on board Ntimama, who didn’t want him to succeed President Jomo Kenyatta. It had to take some time,” said Ololoigero, a member of the Maasai Council of Elders. He recalled that apart from returning the favour for the land, Moi had had enough of Tipis and wanted a change of guard in Narok. “After consolidating power, Moi wanted other people to do his bidding. Tipis had outlived his usefulness.”

Tikoishi Nampaso, a son of the first Narok South MP, Partasio ole Nampaso, said Tipis was like all other politicians who were useful to Moi for a time but who later fell out of favour with him. He said the President was known for returning favours to those who assisted him and knew he owed Ntimama, who had had his eye on the seat for many years.

“Moi never kept friends for long. After one outlived one’s usefulness, one was dispensed with. Tipis stood up to those who wanted to bar Moi from becoming President, but that didn’t matter to Moi in 1988, when he influenced Ntimama’s election,” he commented.

After a series of hospital treatment, Tipis died in 1994 at the Nairobi Hospital. He had two wives, Rhoda and Ng’endo, both deceased. Of his several children, none have followed his footsteps into the political arena.



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