Robert Stanley Matano was the veteran coast politician whom President Daniel arap Moi used to re-engineer the moribund ruling party, KANU, into a well-oiled political machine. Matano had presided over what had been described as a “dead” party as Acting Secretary General for 13 years from 1966 to 1979, when he was confirmed to the position by the party organs presided over by Moi a year after the death of President Jomo Kenyatta.
KANU was doing so badly that Organising Secretary John Keen wrote to Kenyatta to complain that the party had not held a delegates’ conference since 1962, nor held elections since 1964, and had a debt of GBP20,000. Phone lines at the party headquarters had been disconnected for non-payment and staff had not been paid for nearly a year. In short, Keen reported to the party leader that since the party did not meet or hold elections, it had no powers and had been subordinated to the government.
The party’s weakened position was not an accident. As a political strategy, Kenyatta and his advisers felt that party elections would divide the country and widen divisions between forces within the party.
Vocal Butere MP, Martin Shikuku, raised the matter in Parliament in 1975: “KANU is dead,” he declared. But when another MP asked him to substantiate the allegation, Jean-Marie Seroney, the temporary Speaker and a government critic, said there was “no reason to substantiate the obvious”. Shortly after that, Shikuku and Seroney were arrested in the precincts of Parliament and detained.
As one of KANU’s top officials, Matano had a rough time, particularly during parliamentary elections, when candidates complained of being “barred” or not “cleared” to contest constituencies or ward seats for one reason or another. KANU was the only vehicle through which politicians could contest parliamentary or ward seats since the country was a de facto one-party State.
Unlike Kenyatta, Moi, a founder member of the independence opposition party, Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), believed in running the country through the various organs of a political party. After confirming Matano as Secretary General, the President embarked on an elaborate process of reorganising KANU by way of injecting fresh finances, establishing a strong secretariat, opening branch and sub-branch offices in every district and division in the coun try, and holding elections from grassroots to national level. In the end, the party became so powerful that it appeared to be running the government; the party’s national leaders were among the most influential in government. The party even set up its headquarters in the State-owned Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) in Nairobi.
Matano represented Kinango Constituency in Kwale District (now Kwale County), for 27 years — from 1961 to 1988, when a political newcomer, Ali Bidu, beat him in the infamous queue-voting system. Moi had introduced this system that was condemned both locally and internationally as flawed.
Matano was the political mentor of many coast politicians, including Shariff Nassir and Noah Katana Ngala, who later became members of the Cabinet. Matano was also among the founder members of Shirikisho Party of Kenya, whose leader is Chirau Ali Mwakwere, former Matuga MP and Cabinet minister.
Matano is credited with having played a leading role in the quest for multiparty politics precisely because he knew exactly how the single-party system had been used to finish the political careers of many leaders. Moreover, he became a victim of the queue-voting elections introduced by KANU in 1988 to remove politicians who were considered disloyal to Moi.
For him, political pluralism would not be just about the restoration of people’s rights around the freedom of speech and association, but also political accommodation and tolerance.
Matano was born in Mazeras, Kaloleni, in 1925 and tended his father’s livestock and farm. He started his education at Mazeras Intermediate School before joining the Church Missionary Society School in Kaloleni. As a hardworking and disciplined student, he did well and was admitted to Kaaga Secondary School in Meru District, and later Alliance High School in Kikuyu in 1936. In 1946 he joined Makerere College in Uganda for a diploma course in education, graduating in 1948.
He started his teaching career at Ribe Boys Junior Secondary School in 1949 and later moved to Alliance. He was then promoted to District Education Officer in Mombasa and Kwale.
Matano joined politics in the 1960s at the prodding of Ronald Ngala. Politically, he was drawn more to the side advocating for a majimbo (regional) system as opposed to KANU’s unitary preference. He was in the Lancaster House Conferences delegation of 1960, 1961 and 1962. KANU won the 1963 elections and formed the independence government as KADU went into the Opposition. But in 1964, KADU was dissolved and the members, including Matano who had been elected the MP for Kinango, joined the ruling party.
As MP and minister, Matano’s high sense of integrity made other party members regard him as politically naïve. But his political star started rising when he was thrust into KANU with Tom Mboya as the Secretary General. After Mboya’s assassination in 1969, Kenyatta appointed Matano Acting KANU Secretary General until 1979, when he was confirmed to the position at the beginning of the revitalisation of the party.
During the process of strengthening KANU, Matano fought many battles with politicians. The most memorable was his violent confrontation at the party headquarters with KANU National Treasurer, Justus ole Tipis, over the clearance of former Kenya People’s Union members, including Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, to vie for political seats in 1979.
In 1985 as Matano was travelling from his Mazeras home in Coast Province by train, he heard a terse one o’clock radio announcement by the Presidential Press Unit. He had been dismissed from his position as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. He remained in Parliament until he lost his seat in 1988, then settled on his farm in Kinango.
Matano did not cut a niche for himself as a local or a national leader. No development project can be associated with him. The former minister will, however, be remembered for his role as founder member of the largely coastal Shirikisho Party. However, the party is yet to make any political impact. Suleiman Shakombo described Matano as a down-to-earth politician who eschewed corruption and other vices.
“Matano was a clean man,” said Shakombo, who was a Cabinet minister between 2005 and 2007.
A civil servant who worked with Matano in Nairobi pointed out that he did not use his influence to get his children and other relatives employment in the government. When he died in absolute poverty, those who eulogised him blamed the government for having neglected him.
Ngala described him as a great team player who shunned controversy while former Bahari MP, Joe Khamisi, said he was a laid back leader who preferred to work behind the scenes. Shirikisho Secretary General Yussuf Abubakar said the former minister encouraged local MPs to support the party.
But Matano’s critics accuse him of failing to fight for the landless and protect them against unfair distribution of national resources in the coast region. There are claims that Matano did not comment on the collapse of industries at the coast — the Ramisi Sugar Company and the Kilifi Cashewnut Factory — which had offered a lifeline for thousands of people in Kwale and Kilifi.
Matano retired from farming and moved to his rural village, Ndugu ni Mkono, in Mazeras. He died in a Mombasa hospital in 2008 aged 83 years.