Shariff Nassir bin Taib – KANU’s pied piper

Shariff Nassir bin Taib was the most voluble politician in Coast Province, perhaps even in Kenya, during President Daniel arap Moi’s regime. The Mvita MP who served from 1974 to 2002 was known to comment on anything and everything under the sun. In his eyes Moi was omnipotent, second only to deity.

Nassir even threw caution to the wind and reminded those opposed to the President that the political party KANU would rule for another 100 years. Indeed, he is known for what many consider utterances that often reflected official thinking within the corridors of power. He was widely regarded as the absolute political monarch in Mombasa and much of the Coast province.

Indeed, Kenyan newspapers often described him as the ‘KANU Mombasa supremo’ or ‘maestro’, in reference to his colossal political weight. To his detractors within and outside KANU, Nassir personified KANU’s ultra-conservative structure. For instance in March 1999 he came up with a controversial suggestion that Moi should stay in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms of five years each. At that time Moi was serving his second and final term in office. Nassir, of Arab descent, was born in Mombasa as were his forefathers. His father Shariff Abdulla Taib, moved to Lamu, but the young Nassir retuned to Mombasa for his elementary studies at Serani Primary School (formerly Arab Boys School) before attending Shimo la Tewa High School where he undertook junior and senior Cambridge examinations.

Upon completing his studies, he worked as a clerk, rising through the ranks over the years to become the Marine Manager at the Maritime Company of East Africa.

Nassir joined the Coast People’s Party (CPP) led by Ronald Ngala in pre-independent Kenya. He would then move to the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) of which Ngala became Secretary General after CPP was dissolved. At the time, KADU was the most popular political party in the Coast region.

After independence the two leaders, Nassir and Ngala, collapsed KADU in favour of KANU, and served as the party’s Mombasa Branch Vice Chairman and Chairman respectively. Nassir eventually became the Branch Chairman after Ngala’s death in 1972. He would later contest the Mvita parliamentary seat and triumphed over Mohamed Jahazi who had established himself as a powerhouse in Mombasa politics.

Nassir had served as Councillor for Makadara Ward, Mombasa, before vying for MP.

It is important to note that during the bitter presidential succession wars that preceded founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s death, a number of politicians aligned themselves to KANU factions revolving around either Vice President Moi or Mt Kenya politicians under the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) banner. The ‘Change-the-Constitution’ lobby group led by Nakuru MP Kihika Kimani was so virulent that it polarised parts of the country against Moi. Nassir was among those who sided with Moi. Others were Attorney General Charles Njonjo and Cabinet Ministers Mwai Kibaki, Julius Kiano, G.G. Kariuki and Stanley Oloitiptip. So it was payback time for Nassir and other loyalists when Moi finally ascended to power in August 1978. Consequently, Nassir’s position as a Moi ally was cemented. Nassir rushed to propose Moi as President immediately after Kenyatta’s death.

Despite being close to Moi for many years, Nassir didn’t rise to the position of Cabinet Minister until later in Moi’s presidency. He landed his first full ministerial appointment in February 1998 following the December 1997 General Election, thereby joining Hussein Maalim Mohamed as the only Muslim Ministers in the Cabinet.

However, Nassir served as Assistant Minister in many Ministries, including Information and Broadcasting, Environment and Natural Resources, Lands and Settlement, Labour, Commerce and Industry, Finance, National Guidance and Political Affairs, and Home Affairs and National Heritage.

Following the Cabinet reshuffle of February 1999 in which Shariff was handed the Home Affairs docket, Moi said the changes were aimed at “…ridding the government of irregularities in tendering and procurement procedures and to enhance efficiency in delivery of service.” Nassir’s Assistant Ministers were Marere Wamwachai and John Marimoi. He was moved to the Office of the President in November 1999.

Inexplicably, Nassir was either a backbencher in Parliament or served as an Assistant Minister for a very long time – 24 years precisely. But many people attribute Moi’s reluctance to appoint Nassir to the Cabinet to his relatively low level of education; his English wasn’t as good as his impeccable Kiswahili. His appointment was, nonetheless, a reward to Nassir for the role he evidently played in boosting the fortunes of the ruling party KANU in Mombasa.

If there is any political leader in the country who has been totally committed to his boss, the government and KANU, then it is the Mvita legislator, who has been one of the most outspoken defenders of the political establishment against all detractors, both local and foreign

Upon his appointment to the Cabinet, a popular news magazine of the day, The Weekly Review, wrote, “…fierce loyalty had finally been recognised and rewarded”. Under the headline ‘Fitting Reward for Loyalty’ the news magazine added, “Indeed, if there is any political leader in the country who has been totally committed to his boss, the government and the ruling party, KANU, then it is the Mvita legislator, who has been one of the most outspoken defenders of the political establishment against all detractors, both local and foreign.”

Despite the mouthful of a name, the Ministry of Home Affairs, National Heritage, Culture and Social Services was considered a lacklustre docket. Once again, Moi had shown that despite considering Nassir an asset for the party, the Mombasa maestro didn’t have much management capacity and skill to navigate a worthwhile ministerial position.

Nonetheless, when it came to matters concerning KANU, Nassir was unmatched. The late 1990s saw KANU’s popularity swell in the Coast region. In the 1997 election, Moi received 63.4 per cent of the presidential vote in an area that had, five years earlier, given him 62.1 per cent. KANU won 18 out of the 21 parliamentary seats in Coast Province. Consequently, the Cabinet reward for the Mvita MP wasn’t unexpected.

As an Assistant Minister for about 20 years, Nassir wielded as much political power as any Minister of his time. For instance in 1980, while serving as Assistant Minister for Labour, Nassir moved to assert himself in the labour movement by orchestrating the ouster of perceived critics.

For obvious reasons, including turf wars, Nassir disliked Juma Boy, a powerhouse in the Coast labour movement. Therefore, when Nassir was appointed to the Ministry of Labour, he immediately targeted Juma Boy with the singular intention of crippling his hold on the Mombasa Dockworkers’ Union. Juma Boy was eventually ousted from the Union.

In 1999, President Moi announced a Cabinet reshuffle following widespread lamentation about the inability of his government to deliver. The public was eager for a lean government. But the new government configuration was confusing; it was a vintage Moi move, reducing the number of Ministries yet retaining the same people. In fact he went ahead to increase the number of Ministers in his office from three to four: Marsden Madoka, Julius Sunkuli, William Ntimama and Nassir.

Moi cut the Ministries from 27 to 15, but almost all the old faces stayed put. Some Ministries had two Ministers, raising questions about the rationale of placing two Ministers in charge of a single docket. Stock analyst Namu Runyenje of Shah Munge brokerage once told the Daily Nation that in such circumstances, coordination between Ministries with more than one Minister would be difficult. “Who will be the final policy maker in a Ministry with two Ministers?” he asked.

Nassir moved to the Office of the President from the Ministry of Home Affairs which had now been sent back to its original home, the Office of the Vice President.

At times it was hard to understand Nassir’s ways. He had a knack of catching people flat-footed, so to speak. Although perceived as the President’s mouthpiece, he at times confounded all and sundry by appearing to speak at variance with his boss.

For instance, in 1987 when Moi suggested the removal of a clause in the KANU Constitution stipulating that candidates who attain 70 per cent of the vote in the preliminary polls be declared elected unopposed, Nassir opposed it. Although he was widely condemned, he managed to get some backing from a number of MPs including Peter Ejore, Josephat Karanja and Isaac Salat.

Some bigwigs in KANU, among them Francis Karani, asked that Nassir be expelled from the party for appearing to challenge the President’s position.

It was around this time that Nassir would make an outrageously contentious statement viewed to have summed up his character. When the country’s mood was evidently against queue-voting in the election, Nassir evoked the “wapende wasipende” (whether they like it or not) edict to lash out at critics of the method. Implicitly, he was declaring that the electorate had no option but to accept this infamous method of conducting elections and move on.

Whereas a full ministerial position should have placed Nassir in a different league and on a fresh new trajectory, he continued to operate as if there wasn’t any change in his political status. His demeaning remarks and public outbursts against those perceived as being opposed to Moi elicited public anger.

His critics often demanded that he be sacked from the Cabinet owing to his odd utterances that ignited the mood of the public as well as the party. For instance majimbo (regionalism), a loose form of political federalism, was his pet subject. He never lost any opportunity to attack those who maligned this form of governance, as he believed it to be the panacea to Kenya’s problem of negative ethnicity. He once threatened to move the Coast people out of KANU to a regional political party were the country to resist majimbo.

Yet, instructively, Nassir wasn’t really concerned about good governance and tribal equity in sharing national resources. Essentially, he was among a group of diehard politicians who appeared to believe that the Kikuyu community was so dominant in politics and business that it needed to be contained. Others who shared this opinion included his Cabinet colleagues William ole Ntimama and Francis Lotodo. The media described them as ‘tribal warlords’; they didn’t seem to mind this deprecating tag.

Debate on majimboism split Nassir and his Cabinet colleagues from the Coast, namely Katana Ngala (Lands and Settlement) and Madoka (Office of the President). The two remained fairly balanced in any public discourse by avoiding taking sides in matters that threatened to destabilise public sensibilities. Nassir would deride them for their non-participation in any public discourse.

The cardinal principle of ‘collective responsibility’ appeared alien to Nassir. For example in 1999 he took on his colleagues, Ngala and Madoka, over the issue of constitutional reform. Ngala had not taken lightly a suggestion by an assembly of Muslim scholars that, in the event of a federal system, the Coast region should be sharia-compliant. Madoka warned against separatist tendencies and called for cohesion and unity.

There is, interestingly, hardly any information on record to quantify Nassir’s achievements in the Cabinet. Apparently, his role was not meant to add value to the management of the government. Rather, it was designed to strengthen KANU and to stabilise the Coast region – a feat he achieved very well.

A year before his elevation to a full Cabinet post, Nassir was called upon to stem the tide of secession violence that engulfed Kwale and parts of Mombasa, especially in Likoni. Nassir had to call a news conference to calm fears that the violence had dealt a big blow to the tourism industry. “Last year’s Likoni violence adversely affected tourism, leading to the closure of a number of hotels and the laying off of hundreds of workers, but now the government is determined to restore the industry’s glory,” he told the media.

As Assistant Minister for Finance in 1983, Nassir is on record as having defended workers against industrialists who sought to sack their employees.

“The industrialists want to close down their factories so that they can get rid of long-serving employees who are about to retire and get retirement benefits,” he complained. “Such factories only close for a short period of time before they resume their operations, and the government will take severe action against any industrialist who does not treat their workers fairly.”

In retrospect, it is people like Nassir who made KANU stronger than the other arms of government. Once, in an interview with The Weekly Review, Nassir said of the Legislature, “Parliament has many things to do but not to quarrel with KANU. It should help KANU.”

Nassir is on record as having demanded that KANU take action against Mombasa West MP Kennedy Kiliku for statements he uttered in Parliament. Kiliku had complained about the terrible condition of roads in his constituency, but Nassir felt the legislator was laying bare the failings of Moi’s government. It took the person of Deputy Speaker Samuel arap Ng’eny to remind Nassir that parliamentary statements were privileged and that MPs enjoyed immunity for whatever they said in the House.

Not happy with the ruling, Nassir would later call for an amendment of the Powers and Privileges Act to entrench KANU’s supremacy. It was reminiscent of the 1975 situation when MPs Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney were detained for declaring in Parliament, “KANU is dead”.

For his role in reshaping party politics in the country, Nassir benefitted from an amorphous position created by Moi to reward him. The Ministry of National Guidance and Political Affairs was created with James Njiru as Minister and Nassir as Assistant Minister.

Nassir did not have it all easy.  Apart from the many brickbats thrown at him at the national level, he smothered a number of coups at the KANU Mombasa Branch. He once suffered the indignity of expulsion from KANU. He even survived the onslaught that befell perceived allies of the all-powerful Attorney General and later Cabinet Minister Charles Njonjo, who had fallen from grace after his name was linked to a coup attempt against Moi’s government.

The Njonjo link was intriguing. During the subsequent Commission of Inquiry into the conduct of the fallen Minister, it was claimed that Nassir and Said Hemed, who would later become fierce rivals, used money to buy support for Njonjo. Whereas Hemed was thrown out of KANU, Nassir inexplicably survived expulsion and went ahead to recapture the position of KANU Mombasa Branch Chairperson.

But the slide that eventually saw him finally elbowed from the political landscape started in 1995 – three years before he was appointed Cabinet Minister. The architect of the downfall was none other than Moi himself.

Faced with a more energetic and youthful opposition within and outside of KANU, Moi had to reform the ruling party even as he appeased the public that he was out to transform the country’s politics. The opposition was eating into KANU’s support base; the young people in KANU were becoming restless and were demanding bigger roles in the party.

That year, 1995, Moi urged Nassir (then KANU Mombasa Branch Chairperson) to let young leaders take over leadership of the party. The President who, ironically, was older than Nassir and had been in politics longer, had an eye on Rashid Sajjad, a tycoon who was obviously younger than Nassir.

But the real reason Moi wanted Sajjad in the limelight was not chiefly that the young man was a worthwhile replacement for Nassir. Hardly. Multi-billionaire Sajjad could bankroll the forthcoming 1997 elections at the Coast. Ultimately, Moi chose Sajjad over Nassir to be the KANU coordinator for Coast region in the 1997 elections. For Nassir, the die had been cast. He was not elected at the grassroots level and therefore couldn’t defend his party seat. This time round the tactic he used to steamroll rivals was employed against him.

Sajjad would later wield great influence at the Coast until KANU was removed from power in December 2002.

As difficult as it is to quantify Nassir’s successes as a Cabinet member, putting a figure to his wealth is near impossible. He often said he owned very little, yet his father Abdulla Taib had vast business interests at the Coast. Taib owned many houses in Mombasa, Lamu and Malindi, in addition to coconut farms.

According to Arye Oded in the book Islam and Politics in Kenya, Nassir “…(showed) an uncompromising ambition to be the only well-known Muslim political leader in Mombasa and the coastal region and to be the decisive influence in the coastal branch of the party, the municipality, and the trade unions”. He would use his State House connections to fight off rivals and those he considered renegades.

Nassir died in 2005.

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