Dr Protus Momanyi Kebati – Passionate engineer, reluctant politician

As a politician, Dr Protus Kebati Momanyi served two terms in the Kenya National Assembly from 1988 to 1997. During this time he was an assistant minister in two ministries and the Minister for Tourism and Wildlife. A quiet and unassuming engineer and politician, he is perhaps remembered for his famous defection from KANU to the Democratic Party (DP) during the charged 1992 multiparty General Election. He won a parliamentary seat on a DP ticket and defected back to KANU, prompting a by-election that he won, after which he was reinstated as an assistant minister.

Hardly the most visible, famous or infamous politician from Kisii District like most of his contemporaries such as James Nyamweya, Andrew Omanga, Zachary Onyonka, Simeon Nyachae, Lawrence Sagini and George Anyona, Momanyi shied away from the media. He mostly worked with his constituents, away from the limelight. He was neither combative nor controversial, perhaps in line with the demeanour of his engineering background where actions, not rhetoric, define one’s profession.

Momanyi was born in 1935 in Igango, Bonchari Constituency, in present-day Kisii County. Even though he would represent the constituency for two consecutive terms, he never lived there as an adult; he had moved to a settlement scheme nearly 50 kilometres from his constituency in the late 1960s. In the two terms he was the Bonchari MP, he commuted from his home. Such was his popularity and acceptance in the constituency that he was elected twice (three times if you factor in the 1993 by-election), despite being a non-resident.

For his O’ levels, he went to St Mary’s Yala in the mid-1950s, at the height of the state of emergency. At the same time, the Government of Kenya was setting up the first commercial and technical college — Royal Technical College — that would later become the University of Nairobi. Momanyi joined the Royal Technical College in 1957 to study pure mathematics, physics and applied mathematics. He was among the few natives in the college that had many Indian students, since it had been merged with the Gandhi Memorial Academy Society.

After A’ levels, bright students had two popular options — head to Makerere University in Uganda like Mwai Kibaki and other independence luminaries or take advantage of scholarships arranged by the Massachusetts Senator and future President of the US, John F. Kennedy.

Momanyi chose neither, instead opting to go to the State University of Rome because he felt that Europe, with its Napoleonic education, would be a richer option than America. Even so, the British were opposed to the Kennedy airlifts and spread propaganda that their education system was superior to the American one.

In October 1960, Momanyi headed to Italy where he would spend the next eight years earning a first degree and a doctorate in civil engineering. His wife joined him in Italy and their first two children were born there. He named his first daughter Romana as a tribute to the city.

When he returned to Kenya in 1968, his first job was teaching at the University of Nairobi (which was still a college). However, he taught for only one year as he felt that he could better utilise his skills as a builder.

He was neither combative nor controversial, perhaps in line with the demeanour of his engineering background, where actions, not rhetoric, define one’s profession

He went into the construction industry and was among the first Kenyan consultants to be entrusted with building highways in the country, notably the Athi River-Namanga Highway where — like the Indian labourers who built the Kenya-Uganda railway more than a half-century earlier — they battled lions as they cleared the bush to lay ground for a road that would become one of the busiest in Kenya. He would also help to set up the Kisii-Chemosit Road.

Besides roads, he also helped to build several hotels and lodges across the country. This was between 1972 and 1979 when he was the Chief Technical Officer of the Kenya Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC). The hotels and lodges were mostly owned jointly by KTDC and the local municipalities or local/foreign investors. Notably, he built the Sunset Hotel in Kisumu Town, Sirikwa Hotel in Eldoret Town, the Marsabit Lodge and Mt Elgon Lodge. He also built the Kitale sewage line that is still being used to date.

In the 1980s, Momanyi’s clansmen started to demand more from him. As one of their most illustrious sons, whose education they had ensured, they wanted him to represent them in Parliament. Reluctantly, he joined politics.

The opportunity came conveniently when Wanjare Constituency was split into South Mugirango and Bonchari constituencies, which ensured that each of the seven clans of the Abagusii community had a constituency. Also, conveniently, this was during the infamous 1988 mlolongo (queue voting) General Election. Reportedly, KANU, the ruling party, had invented the queuing method as an easy and open method to rig out undesirable elements from the party. During the party nominations, Momanyi garnered almost the same number of votes as the incumbent, Mark Bosire, and the party decided that both could square it out in the elections. Momanyi emerged the winner.

Immediately, he was appointed Assistant Minister for Transport and Communication under Kenneth Matiba. He later worked under Joseph Kamotho when Matiba was detained ahead of the 1992 multiparty elections.

In 1992, Momanyi, hitherto a staunch KANU supporter, was edged out of the party by what is believed to be Nyachae’s meddlesome hand in Kisii politics, according to Dennis Onyango, writing in The Standard of 31 July 2017. He defected to the Opposition, joining Mwai Kibaki’s DP, a party that enjoyed considerable support in Kisii. Against all odds, he won by a landslide and was the first MP to be declared the winner in the first multiparty elections since the repeal of Section 2A of the 1982 Constitution which allowed for a return to multipartism.

It was a slap in the face for President Moi — losing a staunch member of KANU, and an assistant minister no less. Soon after the elections, in an effort to win numbers back in Parliament, he sent emissaries to woo Momanyi back. His return to KANU occasioned a by-election against Richard Mbeche (another veteran opposition politician who, like many second liberation leaders, had been incarcerated in the struggle for multiparty politics). Momanyi won with 4,288 votes against the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD)-Kenya’s Mbeche who obtained 1,276 votes.

After Momanyi’s win in the by-election, Moi restored him as an assistant minister, this time in the Ministry of Home Affairs. This demonstrated Moi’s desire to maintain a veneer of diversity in his Cabinet. When Zachariah Onyonka, then the Minister for Science and Technology, died in 1996, Moi appointed Momanyi the Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, a reward for his loyalty and friendship.

He hardly ever participated in the community politics that commonly pitted leaders against Nyachae, who was accused of instigating supremacy wars so he could become the kingpin of the Abagusii (a dream he achieved in 2002 when the Abagusii voted for him overwhelmingly in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency; his FORD-People party won all the parliamentary seats in Kisii).

Momanyi was opposed to Nyachae’s dominance. This opposition was commonly led by Onyonka and Chris Obure. Momanyi, however, never publicly condemned Nyachae. For example, he was not among the four politicians who conspired to bury Nyachae’s political career in the early 1990s, according to a Hivi Sasa article dated 30 April 2018. The four were Onyonka (Kitutu Chache Constituency), Obure (Bobasi), David Onyancha (West Mugirango) and Andrew Omanga (Nyaribari Chache).

Momanyi steered clear of the charged politics and restricted himself to his constituency and his ministerial duties. In Bonchari, he helped to build schools and a market, and completed a sewer line that had been initiated by his predecessor Bosire. When he joined Parliament, the constituency had only three secondary schools: Suneka, Itiero and Igonga. After he took charge, he sub-divided the constituency into 14 sub-locations and helped to ensure that each had a secondary school, except for the three sub-locations that already one.

Before 1988, the closest market for people from Bonchari was Nyamarambe in South Mugirango; he brought the market closer to Suneka in Bonchari. He also built four clinics that were later upgraded to health centres. Most of the projects were achieved through fundraising and the sheer determination of his constituents.

As Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, he helped subdue the Likoni clashes. As the Minister for Tourism, he helped to reinforce the anti-poaching law with Moi. He also helped increase the number of tourists coming into the country, a record he held until Najib Balala took over. He marketed Kenya in Europe, notably Germany, England and Scotland, as well as in the Philippines, with his Permanent Secretary, Sammy Mbova.

In 1997, he lost his seat to Zebedio Opore and retired from politics, retreating to his farm in Matutu Settlement Scheme.

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