Taita Kipyegon arap Towett – The odd man of Kenyan politics

Taita Kipyegon arap Towett first joined politics in 1958, when he was elected to the Legislative Council to represent Kericho District. When the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) party was formed in 1960, he became its chief adviser and even prophesied the death of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) within the next four months. He was also among prominent Kenyan political leaders who participated in the writing of the country’s first Constitution during the Lancaster House Conference.

In 1963, Towett joined KANU without the consent of his party. He also resigned as MP for Sotik Constituency to defend the seat on a KANU ticket, but lost to Alexander Bii. When he quit KADU, he cited political disillusionment.

When Jomo Kenyatta became Prime Minister, Towett gave conditions for his support: he would only work with Kenyatta if those close to him did not stab him (Towett) in the back. When KADU was dissolved in 1964 and merged with KANU, he refused to cross the floor of the House and was the only one who took the principled option of seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate. He lost the by-election and stayed out in the political cold until 1969, when he recaptured the seat.

After the election Kenyatta, who had since become President, appointed him Minister for Education. He was re-elected in 1974, but lost in 1979 during President Daniel arap Moi’s tenure, and did not return to Parliament until 1992, when KANU nominated him to the House. He was also appointed Chairman of the Kenya Seed Company.

Towett was born in 1925 and started his education at Litein Primary School before joining Kabianga Mission School. In the 1948 Kenya African Preliminary Examination (KAPE), he emerged the top pupil in the country and joined Alliance High School. From there he proceeded to Makerere College in Uganda.

In 1981, he caused a stir when he disclosed that he had written a will directing that when he died, his corpse should be donated to the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine

He then enrolled for a correspondence course with a South African university and obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. He would later study for a Master of Philosophy degree at the University of Nairobi and a Doctorate in Linguistics at the same institution.

Towett’s political woes began in the early 1970s, when a group of politicians tried to change the Constitution of Kenya to bar Moi, who was then Vice President, from ascending to the presidency in the event of Kenyatta’s death while in office. He was said to have been sympathetic to the group and this heightened tensions between him and Moi, who eventually took over as President upon Kenyatta’s death on 22 August 1978.

Towett lost his parliamentary seat to Professor Jonathan Ng’eno in the General Election that followed, and attempted a comeback in 1988, only to bow out of the race because of what he termed “dirty politics”. In the early 1990s, during the clamour for multipartism, he advocated for a partyless state. He would be appointed as a Director of KANU’s Kenya Times Media Trust, which owned the now-defunct Kenya Times newspaper.

Prior to 2007, Towett cautioned the Kipsigis community not to jump onto the bandwagon of multipartism, saying the new opposition political parties could eventually lock them out of the next government. He advised the community to weigh its options — joining other parties or sticking with KANU. He said the Kipsigis had found themselves in the opposition in 2002 due to lack of strategic planning, and advised them not to ignore Moi’s call to them to remain steadfast in KANU. At the time, the Orange Democratic Movement led by Raila Odinga had gained ground.

Towett was controversial, mercurial and known for many eccentricities. In 1961, he declared himself a tribalist and said his Kalenjin community should be proud of their ethnicity. But 10 years later he changed his tune and said people who valued their tribes to the exclusion of all others suffered from shortsightedness.

Not a man to shy away from speaking his mind, he once denounced parliamentary reporters as “semi-deaf and mediocre”. Years later, he would dismiss boarding schools as “useless creations of the colonialists”. When free primary school education was introduced in 2003, he said it should  be abolished because it was a drain on the resources allocated to the Ministry of Education. On crime, Towett once addressed a press conference and said thieves should be arrested and shot in public.

As Minister for Education between 1969 and 1979, he was angered by widespread failure in national examinations. As a result, he placed an advertisement in the press urging students not to give up but to seek his help.

“I do not believe that a person’s chance in education should be curtailed by results. Everyone should get a chance to pass examinations for a bright future,” he said in the advert. Within two weeks, he had received more than 1,000 letters from students. It was not, however, reported how he responded.

Several years before his death, he told journalists at the Nakuru Railway Restaurant that he ate his dinner at exactly midnight. When drinking in a bar, he insisted on using his own bottle top opener and kept the bottle tops in his pocket. Asked why, Towett explained that this ensured that bar attendants could not cheat him if he got drunk. When his bill was brought to him, he would fish out the bottle tops, count them and then pay.

Towett’s strong convictions led many to believe he was arrogant. But during many meetings with journalists in Nakuru, he expressed his belief in the independence of the individual and disagreed with the inclination to judge others. He was an accomplished scholar in Philosophy and Linguistics and authored publications on Kipsigis literature and language as well as Kalenjin social life. His titles include A Study of Kalenjin Linguistics and The History of Kipsigis.

He also had an insatiable appetite for reading and always had a book in his car, which he read during long trips. In appreciation of the role he played during the struggle for independence, he was decorated with the Freedom of the City of Nairobi Honours Award.

In 1981, he caused a stir when he disclosed that he had written a will directing that when he died, his corpse should be donated to the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine. But it was his research on moles in the 1980s that was a spectacle. He studied their sleeping habits and established the effects on human beings if they ate moles. At first, he wanted to use cats for the study but abandoned the idea because he discovered that they are naturally heavy sleepers. He paid KES 15 for each mole delivered to his Mashimoni home, which was another peculiarity; the house was not built on the ground but below it, hence the name mashimoni (bunker).

He was married five times and divorced twice. In an earlier interview, he said he had divorced his first wife because she sued him over the custody of his children. The second wife, he said, could not cope with his lifestyle and opted out of the marriage. His wives and 26 children could not just walk into his house – he insisted that they book an appointment.

On 8 October 2007, Towett was involved in an accident in Free Area, six kilometres from Nakuru Town. The politician did not survive the crash. He was 82 when he died.

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