Once, faced with a question by an international journalist, William Ronkorua ole Ntimama thundered: “In Africa, you need some level of regimentation to be able to lead; that’s what Africans understand!” And the straight-talking, self-styled champion of Maasai community rights wasn’t apologetic at all.
Ntimama, who died in September 2016, was definitely a force to reckon with in Kenya, and even as far as Tanzania. He was the poster boy for the struggle for the rights of indigenous people in Eastern Africa.
Born in 1927 in Melili area, Narok, Ntimama attended Ole Sankale Primary School in Narok where he sat for his Kenya African Primary Education (KAPE) examination. He later joined Kahuhia Teacher Training College and thereafter was deployed to teach at his former school, then known as Government Maasai School.
Ntimama always claimed to be a self-made man. In 1953, he approached the renowned Carey Francis, the headmaster at Alliance High School, requesting that he be allowed to sit for the ‘O’ level examination as a private candidate. The young man, who hailed from the populous Purko clan of Narok and the Nyangusi age set, the highest in Maasai community, was granted four weeks to prepare himself for the exam.
After this chapter at Alliance High School, where veteran politician Kenneth Matiba was his desk-mate, he returned to teaching and simultaneously enrolled for a Diploma course in Law through correspondence at Worsley College in the United Kingdom.
In 1954, he joined the Narok African District Council and rose to the rank of Secretary.
Ntimama was at the forefront of defending the political status quo. He was often referred to as a KANU party hawk, together with his counterparts Shariff Nassir and Darius Mbela. When in 1994 the civil society and the Opposition drafted a model Constitution, he rushed to brand it the work of ethnic-based outfits.
The self-declared champion of majimboism (federalism) once declared through The Economic Review of July 1994, “…any force used to stop us from federalism could create separatist sentiments (which could lead to) separatist movements.”
“Whenever he called news conferences we were always sure it would either be the lead story the following day or at least a front page story, depending on the events that were happening in the country,” revealed Joseph Kimani, a former correspondent for the Daily Nation in Narok. “He never minced his words nor later recanted his statements nor claimed to have been misquoted.”
Kimani, who covered most of Ntimama’s political meetings, further described him as “… the last breed of politicians who stood by what they said both in public and in private.”
Ntimama fought a protracted war with George Saitoti during the latter’s term as Vice President, over the amorphous post of Maasai spokesperson in the Moi succession battle. At one time he lured John Keen, a Saitoti rival in Kajiado, from the Democratic Party to KANU with the sole aim of intimidating Saitoti. Keen was as powerful as Ntimama before Moi propped up the scholarly Saitoti.
During an interview with The Weekly Review news magazine in September 1995 Ntimama, ever the guardian of his community’s vulnerabilities, declared, “I am merely fighting to create awareness among the Maasai to stand up to defend their fundamental human rights. Non-Maasai think they have the right to own our land and throw us out. For years, our people have been cajoled, coerced and threatened to sell their land. Imagine a Maasai who is illiterate, no skills, no land and no cattle. It will be irrelevant to give people kikombe cha amani (a trophy of peace) when they are hungry and landless. Even in Nairobi, where the Maasai have provided most of the labour for the security industry, they are today being replaced by sirens and hi-tech equipment.”
Ntimama served in the African District Council in 1954 and was elected to the Legislative Council (LegCo) four years later. He left the following year after being appointed as a District Officer. He quit the Civil Service in 1964 to become a farmer before venturing back into politics in 1974 when he was elected Councillor and thereafter Chairman of the Narok County Council.
In the early days, before he had decided to champion Maasai interests in his trademark ferocious way, Ntimama’s brand of politics was defined by his wars with the Narok political titan Justus Kandet ole Tipis. Ntimama captured the Narok North Constituency from Tipis in 1988; just as 12 years earlier, he had grabbed the Kanu Branch chairmanship from his arch-rival.
Tipis wasn’t just any ordinary politician. He was counted among Kenya’s eminent pre-independence leaders, as a member of the Legislative Council. After Kenya gained its political freedom from colonial rule, he embarked on a battle with Stanley Oloitiptip for the amorphous position of Maasai spokesperson.
As a civic leader Ntimama was the Chairman of Narok County Council, a very powerful position that always placed him at odds with the political leaders in the area. In 1983 Ntimama failed to dislodge Tipis from his parliamentary seat, after Moi prevailed upon him to stand down for the MP. He was rewarded with an appointment as Chairperson of the National Housing Corporation (NHC). Because he had relinquished his Council position, that he had held since 1974, Ntimama was basically out of the political loop.
Moi would appoint Tipis to the powerful Ministry of State in charge of Internal Security and Defence, after the 1983 elections. In hindsight, this was the most powerful docket in the nation’s history, because since then, it has been broken down into two separate dockets. In August 1989, The Weekly Review painted Tipis as a titan of Maasai politics: “The political history of Narok from the immediate post-independence years might well read like a history of Tipis, who stamped a near-indelible mark, punctuated by his intense and bitter (30-year) rivalry with Ntimama…”
The Economic Review noted in July 1994, “It is difficult to decipher what might have gone wrong between Tipis and Moi. But it is instructive, in light of current politics, to recall that at the 1988 elections, Ntimama’s campaign in Narok North was based largely on accusing Tipis of being behind large scale settlement of the Kikuyu in Narok District”. Perhaps this is what led to the fallout between Tipis and Moi.
Ntimama, as it now appears, was inching his way back into the corridors of power, and Moi was preparing him to take over from a now out-of-favour Tipis. In fact, in 1988 Ntimama would wrestle the KANU National Treasurer’s post from Tipis, who had held it for 22 straight years (1966-1988).
In the 1988 elections, Tipis – who had been unchallenged as Narok North MP in 1979 and 1983 – faced a more fierce Ntimama. As Chairman of Kanu Narok Branch, Ntimama was a powerhouse in national politics.
Whereas Tipis was a Minister, Ntimama was also powerful in his own right. It was at a time when, as one news publication put it, the line between the presidency, Parliament and the government was as thin as the edge of a razor blade. Apparently, KANU leaders were perceived as being more powerful than even Cabinet Ministers – and they wielded immense powers, thanks to Moi, who believed that the party was more important than the other structures of governance. Indeed, in those days the party was a mass movement, a political cult.
Ntimama survived the anti-Kanu onslaught of 2002 and still became a Minister in the Mwai Kibaki government. By the time he died in September 2016, three years after retiring from politics, Ntimama had served in various Cabinet positions, including Local Government, National Heritage and Culture, Ministry of State in the Office of the President, Ministry of Home Affairs and National Heritage, and Ministry of Transport and Communications.
He had served in the colonial government, as well as in the first three post-independence administrations of Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki. The month prior to his death, he led a delegation of Maasai leaders to State House to meet Kibaki’s successor, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Unlike most first-time MPs who served as backbenchers, Ntimama was rewarded with a Cabinet slot in Supplies and Marketing immediately he captured his parliamentary seat in the 1988 General Election, before he was assigned to the powerful Ministry of Local Government.
As Minister for Local Government, he had to deal with the issue of ‘ghost workers’ at City Hall, in addition to the legendary corruption, mismanagement, debilitating debts and incessant leadership wrangles. By 1995, the Nairobi City Council was paying KES 108 million annually to fake workers. An audit released by Ntimama identified 1,294 fakes – some who were long dead, had deserted duty, resigned or were under disciplinary measures with no pay.
His was a powerful Ministry. He had the authority to hire and fire officials of any civic authority (City Council, Municipal Councils, Town Councils) in the country. He could also dismantle a council and replace it with a commission. He had the authority to approve budgets for respective civic bodies. But more importantly, he could use his position to popularise and entrench KANU at the grassroots level.
But Ntimama also exercised his powers in a manner that had far-reaching effects on the operations and performance of civic authorities. For instance, in March 1993 he came up with a circular that essentially made Mayors, Town Clerks and committee Chairpersons subjects of the central government. The central government now had sweeping powers over the local government. Those affected complained, but the directive remained.
Ntimama decided to further use his sweeping powers to champion the interests of his Maa community. In August 1992, he declared Enoosupukia Forest to be under the management of the Narok County Council – the institution he had headed for many years. Implicitly, those who were squatting in the forest had to be removed. Incidentally, most of the squatters here were members of the Kikuyu community, and were targeted for eviction under the guise of protecting the water tower.
Ntimama declared that the invaders were guilty of causing deforestation in the area and organised a delegation – among them Minister for Environment and Natural Resources John Sambu, Chairman of Narok County Council Shadrack ole Rotiken, Narok District Commissioner Calestous Akelo, Maasai leaders and a horde of journalists – to visit the area to prove that it was being destroyed by squatters. A conflict pitting Kikuyus to Maasais would erupt, claiming 20 lives.
Ntimama was blamed for the ethnic bloodletting. Kimili MP Mukhisa Kituyi demanded that the Local Government Minister be sacked and prosecuted over the conflict. But leaders from the Rift Valley rallied round Ntimama. Among those who defended Ntimama was the all-powerful Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott, who claimed that the Minister was defending the Maasai “…who have been oppressed for too long by the Kikuyus in Enoosupukia”. Later Biwott, President Moi’s closest confidante, would remark that the Kikuyus were “playing the camel and the tent game”.
Ntimama viewed the Kikuyu as “immigrants”, while the Maasai were the indigenous inhabitants of the area. In a statement that came to define his perspective and perhaps his legacy, he advised the “immigrants” to “lie low like antelopes”.
Somehow, as fate would have it, the journalist who reported the phrase thought the burly politician had stated “lie low like envelopes”. Asked about it, Ntimama was anything but apologetic. In fact to him, the inadvertent twist to the statement made it even more dramatic.
In an interview with The Economic Review in July 1994, Ntimama stated: “Let us just say envelopes because it has gone all over the world now … but to elaborate on my ‘lie low like antelopes’ remark, I think somebody must teach these immigrant communities to try and integrate as much as possible with indigenous communities. Some of these immigrant communities have in most cases demonstrated uncontrolled greed and arrogance and this has always brought them into conflict with the local communities. If only they would adapt and integrate, I do not see any problem at all with people living together in harmony.”
Kikuyu leaders, among them Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Opposition leaders Mwai Kibaki, Cabinet Minister Joseph Kamotho and MP Njenga Mungai, complained bitterly about Ntimama’s onslaught on the Kikuyus, but Moi was unmoved. Nor was this a new phenomenon. Apart from Ntimama, other powerful leaders including Simeon Nyachae and Kipkalya Kones had also accused the Kikuyus for oppressing other communuities.
In defending himself, Ntimama was always quick to use the phrase “my hands are clean”.
In an interview with The Weekly Review of 29 September 1995 he said, “I am not anybody’s basher. I have merely been sounding an alarm that the land rights of my community were being trampled upon under the excuse of the so-called willing-buyer willing-seller policy. I want people to realise the fact that Maasai land rights must be put onto the human rights agenda.
“The Kikuyu community have contributed more than any other community to the alienation of Maasai land. Their massive encroachment into maasailand was assisted by corrupt land adjudication committees. They even settled in water catchment areas and destroyed the livelihood of Maasai pastoralists. If speaking against these injustices is what is causing me to be branded a Kikuyu basher, then I have no regrets.”
The self-educated politician always said he was inspired by renowned civil rights activists Martin Luther King, former American President Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and India’s Mahatma Gandhi.
“They were his heroes because like him, they fought for the oppressed and the marginalised, and were advocates of human rights,” explained Ntimama’s daughter Lydia Masikonte, who unsuccessfully vied for Narok Women’s Representative seat on a Chama Cha Mashinani ticket in the 2017 General Election. She also unsuccessfully vied for the same seat on an Orange Democratic Movement ticket in 2013.
“He was fearless and loyal. He believed that in politics, loyalty was a necessary input, but any sound politician must know when to release the punch and when to withhold it,” she added.
She described her father as a no-nonsense personality and relentless in his pursuit of truth and wisdom.
Just before the 1997 elections, the Opposition jointly with a section of the civil society sought constitutional reforms to level the electoral playing field. Ntimama was one of the strongest voices opposing the model reforms drafted by the KANU critics. According to him, any constitutional reform that hardly provided for Majimbo (a loose form of federalism) would not be accepted.
“The Majimbo Constitution of 1963 which was agreed upon in Lancaster House was very well thought (out), and it glorified local government. It was a Constitution which gave autonomy to the regions to control their economic, social and political set-up,” said Ntimama.
During a news conference that he convened in 1994, he launched into a subject that had been considered out of bounds; Ntimama blamed Independence President Jomo Kenyatta for Kenya’s ills. “I believe in regionalism and federalism. But although I would actually support equitable distribution of land in the Rift Valley even as late as now, it’s because Kenyatta in his own wisdom wanted to give the Kikuyu … both an economic and firm political base,” he said.
He would later tell The Economic Review in July 1994, “Kenyatta made sure that it was only the Kikuyu who benefitted in replacing the white man in the agricultural lands of the Rift Valley … what I am trying to say is that Kenyatta committed a breach of trust because he had the Rift Valley exclusively for the sons and daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi.”
Further, in an opinion piece in The Weekly Review of June 1995, Ntimama argued, “There is nothing like a model or ideal Constitution. The Constitution is not intended to serve a preconceived political agenda, but it is supposed to build structures that would establish immortal humanist foundations. It is therefore important that people of this country try to frustrate and discourage attempts by elitist, affluent, professional, aristocratic and other recognised groups to monopolise or hijack the preparation of the Consitution.”
Towards the tail end of the 1990s, when he was moved to the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the politics of Kenya had changed drastically. Moi was nearing the end of his final term, part of the Opposition was now cooperating with KANU and the rest were amalgamating into a united front against the ruling party. The new Ministry was a different ball game. Kenya Railways (KR) was on the verge of collapse and the road network was in tatters.
KR, in particular, was near bankrupt. Ntimama proposed that the government take over the corporation’s debts because they had been incurred in the course of KR’s operations. He oversaw the process of the corporation leasing 10 locomotives from South Africa and the rehabilitation of dozens of others. But he was opposed to the privatisation of KR, claiming that the timing was not right.
A man who had strongly resisted political pluralism, constitutional reforms and the possible demise of KANU, the party that had ruled Kenya since independence, faced a dilemma after Moi, through Uhuru Kenyatta, lost in the 2002 elections.
Ntimama survived as an MP. Just before the 2007 elections, he decamped to KANU and was appointed Minister for Home Affairs and National Heritage in the Coalition Cabinet of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Ntimama would later describe Moi as “one of the worst dictators who did not want anybody to go ahead of him.” In total, Ntimama served as Narok North MP for 25 consecutive years.
To his critics, Ntimama was a war-lord. However, without doubt, he fought for the rights of his Maasai community. He was the pioneer activist of Maasai rights. He championed the community’s interests in Kenya and even across borders in Tanzania and Uganda. It was during his time that many Maasais embraced education.
Ntimama gave the Maasai a voice. A people who since time immemorial had felt inferior and of lower status, could now stand tall. The elite among the community came to realise that they could invest in things other than livestock. The Maasai shuka became a common household icon globally, and the red dresses were both recognised and coveted internationally.
Ntimama loved reading. His favourite authors were Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. He had built a magnificent home library to house his numerous books. Before his death, he donated what he often described as his “heritage to the Maasai community” to a library in Narok.