Yusuf Waruru Kanja is one politician who never shied away from controversy. An ardent critic of general corruption in Kenya, he was known to stick to his convictions even to the extent of risking career and friendship. A case in point: When Robert Ouko, the Foreign Affairs Minister, was assassinated in February 1990, Kanja – then serving as Minister for Information and Broadcasting – broke ranks with his Cabinet colleagues after President Daniel arap Moi asked Kenyans not to speculate on the death of Ouko, promising that his Government would carry out thorough investigations leaving no stone unturned.
No Minister would dare talk about Ouko’s death for fear of facing the wrath of Moi and, without a doubt, losing both Cabinet position and parliamentary seat. Convinced that the government had a hand in the assassination, Kanja, famous for his fiery speeches whether inside or outside of Parliament, could not be silenced.
Kanja eventually emerged as a hero for taking on the courageous role of government critic following Ouko’s assassination in 1990
He compared Ouko’s death to that of slain Nyandarua North MP, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki – or JM, as he was widely known – who was assassinated in March 1975. The Minister stood on the floor of Parliament and asked whether the freedom Kenyans fought for was freedom to eliminate one another. He questioned why people who rose to national prominence, like Ouko, were targeted for elimination. He further assured the House that Kenyans may never know who killed JM and Ouko.
By uttering such words, Kanja contravened the principle of collective responsibility, thereby straining his relationship with the government. He was subsequently expelled from the ruling party KANU and lost his seat as Nyeri Town MP.
In response to his expulsion, Kanja unapologetically stated, “I have not wronged anybody, I have neither regrets nor apologies to make. My true day of judgment will come when I stand before my God,” the Sunday Nation reported on 22 December 2013.
In another story published by Standard Digital on 20 November 2008 he was quoted as saying, “…there was a lot that we needed to tell Kenyans and not lie that he – Dr Ouko – had got lost. How does it happen?”
He described how Joseph Leting, Head of the Civil Service, summoned him for implicating the government in Ouko’s death. Leting threatened him with sacking. Kanja later related his response: “Nilimwambia wachukue hiyo bendera yao siyo blanketi eti wakienda nayo nitasikia baridi au nikose usingizi. Nanikamwambia aambie hao wakubwa hivyo.” (“I told him they could take away that flag they issue to Cabinet Ministers to mount on their cars; it is not a blanket that would leave me freezing or cause me to lose sleep if they took it away. And I told him to tell the bosses as much”).
In typical Moi fashion, Kanja’s dismissal from the Cabinet was announced over the State-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation radio while the Minister was on official duty in Naivasha. Upon hearing the news, his driver removed the flag from the car and abandoned him at Kinungi along the Nairobi-Naivasha road. But the politician, who was a man of the people, managed to hitch a ride to Nairobi from a passing motorist.
Since his school days Kanja was known to be passionate when speaking against injustices and other forms of discrimination that the British colonial regime meted out on Africans. As a result, he was constantly rubbing the authorities the wrong way.
Born in 1931 in Muruguru Village of Nyeri County, Kanja attended the local Muruguru Primary School before joining Tumutumu Intermediate School. He proceeded to Pumwani Secondary School in Nairobi where he acquired a Kenya Junior Secondary Certificate. He then trained as a male nurse at King George Hospital (now Kenyatta National Hospital) but was expelled in 1950 before he could complete his medical course. The young Kanja had led a strike protesting the poor training conditions of African students.
He was later recruited to join the Colonial Police force. After training for six months at Kiganjo Police Training College, he was posted to Kisumu and attached to the Weights and Measures Department. At the age of 23 he was arrested and taken to trial for allegedly smuggling arms and ammunitions to the Mau Mau freedom fighters.
He was handed a death sentence which he unsuccessfully appealed. While on death row he went on a hunger strike and eventually Queen Elizabeth II commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. However, Kanja walked to freedom in 1959 at the close of the State of Emergency in Kenya following an amnesty extended by the Queen.
The following year he secured a job with Gailey and Roberts Ltd as a trainee in the weighing machines department. They further sponsored him for a one-year course in weighing machine technology in the United Kingdom. He quit the company in 1964 to found his own machine weighing firm which he later sold to Avery Kenya Limited (today known as Avery East Africa Ltd).
While in detention the former Minister met JM Kariuki, the flamboyant Nyandarua North MP who had been incarcerated for being a member of the Mau Mau movement. JM is said to have groomed Kanja to join politics and in 1969 Kanja declared his candidature for the Nyeri parliamentary seat comprising present-day Nyeri Town, Tetu and Kieni constituencies.
With JM’s backing he easily won, beating the incumbent Joseph Kiboi Theuri. Kanja went on to recapture the seat in 1974 and in 1979, despite the demise of his political mentor JM before the 1979 elections.
During his first and second terms in Parliament, Kanja distinguished himself as a good debater. He was a critic of the government of President Jomo Kenyatta, which he chided for not resettling former freedom fighters. Jointly with the likes of Martin Shikuku, George Anyona, Mark Mwithaga and other opponents of the Kenyatta administration, he took the government head-on following the political assassinations of Pia Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya.
Kanja was part of a select Parliamentary Committee chaired by Livestock Minister Elijah Mwangale constituted to investigate the brutal death of JM. In their inquiry they censured several people in government, linking them to the shocking murder.
Moi appointed the fiery MP to his first Cabinet as an Assistant Minister for Local Government and Urban Development after the 1979 polls.
Like other Nyeri leaders, Kanja was unhappy with the way the Vice President, Mwai Kibaki, was being treated by the new administration, which appeared to favour Constitutional Affairs Minister Charles Njonjo. Kibaki, the MP for Othaya, was the senior-most politician in Nyeri and pegged as a future president. To secure their political future, MPs in the Nyeri region had to align themselves with him. Njonjo had resigned as the country’s Attorney-General to vie for the Kikuyu parliamentary seat.
Immediately after his election, Njonjo was appointed Constitutional Affairs Minister and started undermining the VP. Kibaki allies had expected the President to address what they deemed unbecoming behaviour by Njonjo, but noticing how nonchalant Moi was about the issue, they took matters into their own hands.
Kanja decided to take the bull by the horns. During a KANU group parliamentary meeting, he asked the President to confirm, between Kibaki and Njonjo, who his Deputy was. Moi responded that it was Kibaki, arousing the curiosity of the other lawmakers since Njonjo was already endearing himself to them in a bid to win their loyalty.
Little did Kanja know how much trouble his prodding would later land him in!
In later press interviews, Kanja insisted that he had consulted Kibaki before making the statement, but claimed that Njonjo openly threatened him over his remarks. A firebrand who could not remain silent over such threats, he immediately embarked on a countrywide campaign, announcing that his life was in danger. At one point he took the floor in Parliament and accused Njonjo and his Internal Security counterpart, Godfrey Gitahi (GG) Kariuki of hatching a plot to assassinate him, which the two denied.
From that point on, the fiery MP became a marked man.
Later that year Kanja was scheduled to travel for a United Nations conference in New York with his Minister, Noah Katana Ngala. The MP received his per diem from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. On his return home, he still had USD 2,000 in his possession and failed to convert the currency into local Kenyan currency within the 24 hours stipulated by law. Police in six vehicles – four Land Rovers and two Peugeot 504 saloon cars – arrived at his Nyeri home to search for the dollars he was holding.
Found guilty of contravening the prevailing exchange control laws, he was jailed for three years, culminating in the loss of his parliamentary seat.
“The money had been given to me by the same government for official foreign travel. I hadn’t had the time to surrender the dollars. Somebody just wanted me out of the way,” he told the Sunday Nation of 22 December 2013.
The September 1983 General Election offered a perfect opportunity for Kanja to make a political comeback. He decided to seek sympathy with the electorate, having just been released from jail for his outspokenness. As it turned out, the VP had decided to discard him.
Kanja found himself in unfamiliar territory when his bid to return to Parliament in 1983 flopped. He now had to look for ways to reinvent himself so as to survive another election, as a younger generation of leaders with more elitist leanings had allied themselves with the VP.
In 1985 KANU had held party grassroots elections which Kibaki used to consolidate his position in Nyeri. His allies had clinched most of the executive positions.
Isaiah Mwai Mathenge, a former Provincial Commissioner, was elected Chairman with entrepreneur Munene Kairu as Secretary. He already had his preferred MPs in Mathira and in Nyeri Town. With such a well-prepared team, people anticipated transformation in the district, and members of the Old Guard like Kanja had a very slim chance of succeeding.
Meanwhile, Moi was keenly watching the unfolding events in Nyeri. He had already succeeded in edging Njonjo out of active politics after an inquiry he appointed to investigate him found him guilty of insubordination. In order to consolidate his grip on power, Moi now turned to Kibaki whose popularity was growing.
Kanja decided to join the Moi camp for political survival. At one time he invited Elijah Mwangale, who was in Moi’s Cabinet, to conduct various fundraisers in Nyeri district. Mwangale was touted as a potential VP. His presence in Nyeri was therefore viewed as undermining the VP, prompting local politicians allied to Kibaki to refer to Mwangale as a political tourist.
Subsequently, Kanja became Moi’s point man in Nyeri; his work was to check the rising influence of the VP. He was rewarded with an appointment as Executive Chairman of the State-owned Kenya Commercial Bank.
In order to take another stab at a seat in the National Assembly, Kanja had to reinvent himself since he had been branded a traitor. Accordingly, he launched a swift campaign to bring together former Mau Mau freedom fighters who had been neglected by the Kenyatta regime.
He had identified himself as a member of the Mau Mau during his stint in Parliament, and set up Burguret Arimi Company Ltd as a vehicle for the landless in Nyeri to buy shares. The company had bought land in Burguret area near Nanyuki where the shareholders – who were not necessarily freedom fighters – were eventually settled.
In February 1986 Kanja, who was now a critic of Kibaki who he accused of developing only his Othaya Constituency at the expense of the wider Nyeri district, convened one of the biggest meetings of former freedom fighters at Ruring’u Stadium in Nyeri Town. He mobilised the freedom war heroes from different parts of the country and invited Moi to preside over the function.
On that day Kibaki was attending a funds drive elsewhere and ignored the meeting where the Head of State was the Guest of Honour. At Ruring’u, Kanja dismissed local leaders who he said had chosen to shun his meeting, castigating them as Home Guards – local security personnel used by the colonial administration to report on Mau Mau activities. These utterances made Kanja very unpopular with the people and the local KANU branch officials summoned him, warning him against using such language. While Moi joined his new-found ally in castigating his VP and others who did not attend the Ruring’u meeting, Kibaki preached unity at the funds drive he was attending.
Before the 1988 General Election, Moi appeared to be uncomfortable with his number two, who was viewed in some quarters – especially in the populous Mount Kenya region – as a better choice of leader for the country. Kenyans had started expressing their displeasure with Moi’s leadership, accusing him of abuse of power and running down the country’s economy.
All indications showed that the President was out to clip the wings of his VP when James Muriuki announced his candidature to oppose Kibaki in Othaya. In the two previous elections, Kibaki had sailed through unopposed.
It was not easy for Muriuki to criss-cross Othaya or even other parts of Nyeri where hostile crowds were baying for his blood. Likewise, Kanja was also an unwanted man in the newly-created Nyeri Town constituency where Mathenge, the KANU Branch Chairman (and his brother-in-law), was Kibaki’s preferred candidate.
The anti-Kibaki line-up consisted of Davidson Ngibuini Kuguru in Mathira, Kanyi Waithaka in Tetu and Ngumbu Njururi who was defending his Mukurweini parliamentary seat. But it is Kanja who was the focal point. Crowds of Kibaki supporters had waited for him at the entrance to the office of the District Commissioner (DC), Keholo Muhalule, to be cleared to participate in the elections. In every district the DC acted as the Returning Officer as there was no electoral body at that time.
A gifted speaker and a crowd-puller, Kanja addressed the unreceptive gathering that was threatening to stone him and the candidate for Othaya, reminding them that Kibaki was still his friend.
“Kibaki is my friend and our families are also friends. Mathenge (his opponent) is my brother (in-law) and we are still friends. So what do you stand to gain by harming me simply because we are not in the same political camp?” recounted James Gatama, a Kanja supporter in Nyeri. The irate crowd had to disperse and both Kanja and Muriuki were cleared to contest their respective seats.
As the 1988 elections approached, relations between Moi and his VP had turned frosty and Kanja had now come out as Moi’s most trusted lieutenant in Nyeri. He would be heckled and booed during meetings, and people avoided attending any gathering that he called. Nevertheless, in preparation for the hugely disputed mlolongo (queue-voting) elections, Kanja managed to win the primaries and qualify for the second round amid protests from Kibaki supporters. His eventual victory over Mathenge was also questioned.
In yet another turn of events, Moi dropped his VP and relegated him to the post of Minister for Health. People expected him to reject the appointment, but he chose to continue serving the government as a Cabinet Minister.
Kanja eventually emerged as a hero for taking on the courageous role of government critic following Ouko’s assassination in 1990. Prior to this, he had launched a scathing attack on the Moi administration, dismissing it as corrupt for forcing leaders to attend fundraisers organised by the President.
Accordingly, after his dismissal from the Cabinet and his eventual exit from Parliament, Kanja left the august House a proud man. He had been determined not to keep silent over the death of a colleague that many believed was planned and executed by influential people in government.
His attempt at re-election on a FORD-Kenya ticket in the first multiparty elections of 2002 was unsuccessful. Kanja retreated to his Kiganjo home in Nyeri, focusing on farming until his death in December 2013.
Though there are those who dismissed Kanja as a political demagogue, others see him as a leader who stood for the truth whether or not it meant sacrificing his life.