In 1988 President Daniel arap Moi overplayed his hand, and set in motion the beginning of the end of KANU’s dominance in Kenyan politics. Ever since the attempted coup of August 1982, Moi had increasingly concentrated power in KANU and in his own hands. First he made Kenya a de jure single party state under KANU and called the 1983 snap election to rid Parliament of critical voices. He then went about strengthening the KANU national office to serve as an enforcer of strict party discipline within and outside of Parliament. KANU became baba na mama, and Kenya a nascent Party State (albeit nothing near what CCM in Tanzania or UNIP in Zambia had accomplished). By the mid-1980s Moi had abandoned all pretenses to the supremacy of parliament, and in 1986 declared KANU to be supreme over bunge. In the same year he removed security of tenure for the Attorney General and Auditor General; and in 1988 leaned on Parliament to remove security of tenure for judges.
1988 was also the year of the infamous Mlolongo elections. Ahead of the KANU primaries, Moi (through KANU) abolished the secret ballot and decreed that voters should queue behind their preferred candidates. This was an attempt to intimidate voters into selecting pro-Moi legislators. But in a sign of KANU’s weakness at the grassroots level, District Commissioners still had to rig out popular candidates whose lines were visibly the longest. The backlash against the Mlolongo election caused irreparable damage to the elite consensus that had (very tenuously) underpinned single party rule in Kenya since the death of President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.
Among those targeted by Moi in 1988 was Kenneth Matiba, a wealthy former Civil Servant, executive at East African Breweries, and M.P. for Mbiri (later renamed Kiharu) Constituency in Murang’a District since 1979. In order to defend his seat, Matiba went as far as hiring a helicopter and cameramen to take pictures and video evidence of the length of this queues, just in case the District Commissioner declared his opponent the winner. Matiba saved his seat, against his perennial opponent Julius Gikonyo Kiano, but would be out of government and then parliament in less than a year.
In September 1988 KANU held its branch elections. Matiba was vying for the position of Chairman of the Murang’a branch against Joseph Kamotho, MP for Kangema. Following brazen rigging, in which Matiba lost his own home area, the District Commissioner declared Kamotho the winner. Matiba disputed the result, forcing Moi to order a repeat of the poll. But Matiba and his supporters boycotted the repeat election, citing a lack of faith in the local Provincial Administration officials who doubled as KANU election officials.
Then on December 9, 1988 Matiba did the unthinkable: He resigned from the Cabinet as Minister of Transport and Communications. This was the first time since 1966 that a Kenyan Cabinet Minister had resigned. It was also a direct insult targeted at Moi, who was scheduled to receive international guests the next day to celebrate his first decade in power (“Moi Day” was created on the same day).
The move made Matiba a marked man. He was promptly expelled from KANU which resulted in the loss of his parliamentary seat. But these moves only served to strengthen Matiba’s cause for freer electoral politics in Kenya. In the words of Gibson Kamau Kuria:
Matiba was a kind of reluctant reformer… he did not have issues with the system until the excesses of mlolongo in 1988. Up until then, he was part of the authoritarian government. The important thing about him, however, is that he had a sense of decency. He got converted to the cause of pluralism. Kenya had reached a stage where it was contravening Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has a right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” Mlolongo was a negation of all that.
Matiba then joined forces with intellectuals, church leaders, and politicians who were calling for a return to multiparty politics. For his efforts he was detained on July 4 1990 as he and other opposition leaders prepared for the first Saba Saba (July 7th) rally at Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi. While in detention he was tortured, suffered a stroke on May 26th 1991, and was only allowed treatment a week later. He spent the next 11 months receiving treatment in London before his triumphant return to Nairobi on May 2, 1992 (see image). Matiba never fully recovered from the stroke, and in 2017 was awarded $9.5m in damages after a successful suit against the Kenyan state.
Moi would later acquiesce to both domestic and international pressure and allow for constitutional amendments to reintroduce multiparty politics in December 1991.
Was the end of KANU’s single party rule inevitable even without Matiba’s efforts?
Perhaps. Besides Matiba, there were several other leading lights in Kenya’s opposition movement capable of bringing down the proverbial Mugumo tree — men and women like Oginga Odinga, Bishops Alexander Muge and Henry Okullu, Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, Martin Shikuku, Gibson Kamau Kuria, James Orengo, Kijana Wamalwa, Kiraitu Murungi, Raila Odinga, Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua, and Wangari Maathai, among others. As single party regimes fell all over the Continent between 1990 and 1994 like dominos, so would have KANU’s single party dominance.
However, Matiba’s important legacy is that he was the first prominent insider to publicly ditch KANU and Moi. Because of his actions Moi went from appearing to be completely in charge in 1988 to fighting for his political life in 1992.
Scholars of democratization processes have long emphasized the importance of intra-elite splits in autocratic regimes as catalysts of transition. Seen in this light, Matiba’s resignation from Cabinet was important in that it forced Moi to react in ways that only accelerated further defections from his government and KANU. In quick succession he lost his Vice President Josephat Karanja, former Vice President Mwai Kibaki, KANU Chairman Peter Oloo Aringo, and Minister Njoroge Mungai. These defections, inspired in part by the considerable wealth and economic independence of those involved, were as clear a sign as any of open elite rebellion against Moi’s rule, and forced him into accepting term limits and multiparty electoral politics. Moi would later survive the 1992 (with 36.4% of the vote) and 1997 (40.6%) elections amid opposition division, but was forced to step down in 2002 in observance of term limits.
As Kenya mourns Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba (1932-2018), his legacy will endure forever as the ultimate insider who nonetheless took significant risks against Moi’s autocracy. His personal sacrifices created space for many of the freedoms that Kenyans enjoy today.
Lala salama Bwana “Let the People Decide!”, a true hero of Kenya’s Second Liberation.