He was seen as the face of the ‘Mt Kenya Mafia,’ a coterie of arrogant and abrasive central Kenya politicians accused of forming a wall around President Mwai Kibaki during the nascent days of Narc administration.
But Meru Senator Kiraitu Murungi, who has twice been thrown into the political cold on corruption claims, denies any wrongdoing and says the tribulations have only served to harden him into the iron gentleman of Kenya’s politics.
One of the leading lights of the Second Liberation, he was elected to represent Imenti South in Parliament in 1992 on Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Ford Kenya ticket, but his critics say he has since morphed into a Gema supremacist, easily replacing the late powerful cabinet minister Jackson Harvester Angaine as the ‘king’ of the Ameru.
He does not regret getting stuck in a bus without a driver during the last elections. The miraa-chewing, battle-hardened Kibaki general, who was a classmate of US President Barrack Obama at Harvard, where he got his second Master’s degree, has vowed to take the khat war to the heart of London.
He told Saturday Nation why he thinks President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto’s Jubilee coalition could suffer the fate of Narc if they do not demonstrate commitment to devolution.
Q: Do you chew miraa?
Hahaha. Yes, I do, but I am not a habitual user. I remember whenever I went back to Alliance from holidays, boys would ask me whether I had come with the vegetation.
Q: What is the experience?
A: It gives a lofty feeling, but a temporary one.
Q: Ahead of the March 4 poll, former US diplomat Johnnie Carson warned that choices have consequences. Are Meru miraa farmers paying for supporting Uhuru Kenyatta?
A: The British High Commissioner has told us that Merus are not being punished for supporting Uhuru. But in politics perception is everything.
Those rumours are there. He told us they were banning it because other European countries had done so. But those countries, like Netherlands, did not ban it for medical reasons. They said miraa littered their streets and encourages loitering.
Q: So what next?
A: When the matter comes before the House of Commons, which is now on recess, we will present memoranda before it since there is no scientific or medical ground to justify the ban. We are also lobbying the UK Executive to review the ban. Miraa is not a drug.
We have explained that we are not asking Britons to chew miraa. We are exporting it to Merus, Somalis, Yemenis and Ethiopians in the diaspora. Banning miraa from Kenya to the UK is like banning whiskey from Scotland to Kenya. We also plan to challenge it in the High Court of Justice in London.
We are seeking to explore markets in Australia, China and the Middle East. Miraa is the backbone of our economy, especially Meru North. You cannot replace it.
Q: You stuck in a bus without a driver, withstanding the TNA wave sweeping Central Kenya in the last elections. What point were you making?
A: I was at the centre of a dream for a strong national party since the original Ford days. But we all have been victims of social gravity of regional forces. What we thought could happen still remains a dream.
We have been forced to resort to ethnic mobilisation. You can’t invent humans. You deal with them as they are. Even the Welsh and the Scots have their identities but are still part of one country called the United Kingdom. In the last election, I put Merus in the bus and told everyone else we meet in Nairobi.
Q: This government is hopping from one crisis to another: the teachers’ strike, the Chinedu controversy, the hustlers’ jet and now the spat with governors over devolution. What is not being done right?
A: Let me put my cards on the table. I support Jubilee and I mobilised support for Uhuru. I have spoken to him and Ruto in private and in public and I know they are committed to devolution but promises are easy to make.
They are like babies. The devil is in the delivery. What the President is facing is what we faced at Narc where we were fought for not delivering the Constitution in the first 100 days. If Uhuru and his team do not take a more robust ownership of devolution, Cord will pick it up and if they get any evidence of any attempts at centralism, we are likely to see the 2005 and 2007 situations.
Q: Do you support a referendum to strengthen Senate and increase funding for counties?
A: Senators are the guardian angels of devolution and I will support devolution to the hilt. We also want a Senate with a supervisory role over the National Assembly.
Q: You were comrades with Gitobu Imanyara, Raila Odinga, Paul Muite, James Orengo, Anyang’ Nyong’o and Kijana Wamalwa yet you are now ideologically opposed. How did you find yourself on the other side?
A: We were all pulled away by social gravity over time. After the 1992 polls, ethnic issues forced us out of Ford Kenya. We then founded a more national and progressive party called Safina.
Raila was comfortable in his NDP. Nyong’o was still national, choosing to go to Ngilu’s SDP. I joined DP because Safina could not be registered. Even the Young Turks had the challenge to align to the prevailing political culture.
Q: You represented Raila during his detention. When did you first meet him and what was your impression of the man?
A: I first met Raila Odinga in 1984 when Jaramogi asked Gibson Kamau Kuria and I to represent his son. So we went down to Shimo La Tewa and found Raila on a hunger strike. It was not long after the attempted coup and I told him: people will be very happy to have you dead.
So instead of starving yourself to death, you should live to fight another day. He told us the food was terrible. So we asked for the food to be brought. And because we were with the Police Commissioner Philip Kilonzo, they brought very good food, you know, eggs and all. And Raila said ah if it is this ni sawa (it is alright) I can eat it.
Q: You admired Jaramogi, yet you have no love lost with Raila. What is the difference between father and son?
A: My father was a Mau Mau and Jaramogi’s book Not Yet Uhuru resonated well with us. We had also read a lot on socialism which was sweeping the continent. Examples were Marxism-Leninism in Ethiopia and Frelimo in Mozambique.
We quickly connected with Jaramogi. He was our hero, a radical reformer and likened him to such leaders as Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau. Raila, who had been a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, also joined us in Ford Kenya.
The father was a tolerant, patient and amiable man, the son a fighter. Raila is responsible for some of the freedoms we enjoy today. You can’t take it away from him. Both were admirable characters.
Q: In your collection of poetry The Song Of My Beloved, you seem to echo Okot P’Bitek’s Song Of Lawino. To whom are you singing?
A: It is a collection of poetry since my university days. I wrote The Song Of My Beloved to uplift me as I was very low at the time (he had just been sacked from Cabinet). The beloved is my country.
It goes: As I shrivel/ Coil and shrink/Shivering and pissing/ At his feet/ Almost finished/ The shattered fragments/ Of the Song/ Of my beloved/ Come galloping/ Into my ears/Aren’t you the man I loved/ The hero of heroes/Who refused to die?/Why have they made you/ A beast of burden/Why have you/Allowed them/To shit/ And walk/ All over you?/Unsheathe your sword/And sharpen it/We shall fight with them/And with their children/ And their children’s children.
Q: Do you regret the remark about ‘raping a willing woman’?
A: Blame it all on Okot p’Bitek. There is this man in Song Of Ocol who knocks down a prostitute, tearing her clothes instead of seducing her. And the lady is saying: ‘why are you pushing me as if I am refusing?’
At the time I gave the rape analogy I was very angry at the US which was threatening all kinds of sanctions over our corruption fighting commitment. We had set up the Golderberg commission, revived Kacc and done the radical surgery.
Then I said what Americans have done is like raping a woman who was too willing. Women were angered. I said let me apologise for the storm to pass. I would explain later.
Q: Apart from p’Bitek whom you clearly admire, who is your other favourite poet?
A: Soyinka is brilliant writer, but I am frustrated by the complexity of his poetry. That is why I am telling him in one of the poems:
Remove those dresses/ Lift your petticoats/and show us/ the petals beneath. I am asking him to come down and speak to the ordinary folk.
Q: As a Senator you are a busy man. Do you still get time to read?
A: I steal moments like when I am on a long flight to such distant lands as China.
Q: So what are you reading now?
A: The End Of Man by Hanna Rosin. The book says women have taken over men’s territories but they have not ceded their own grounds. Rosin sees a situation where in this battle of the sexes, men will have to raise the white flag in order to survive.
Q: You have been in ‘The Mud of Politics’ – as you call it in your book – which is defined by ethnicity, corruption and impunity for more than two decades. Why is it difficult to fix Kenya’s broken politics?
A: We have come from far. You wouldn’t say we are stuck in the mud where we started. When you study the history of Europe and England, you will realise that people used to acquire power through all sorts of crude methods, including chopping off heads and vote-buying. We are making progress. Devolution is another epoch like the return of pluralism two decades ago.
Q: In your biography, An Odyssey Of Kenyan Politics, you say politics does not give one the space to live a civilised life. Why are you still in it?
A: I am in it because of the hopes and possibilities that it can bring transformation to this country. When I joined Parliament in 1992, for instance, I couldn’t drive home because there was no road.
Today there is a tarmac road. Now, there is electricity. In fact, Kenyans should thank me for accelerating electrification. These are products of politics. I stay in politics with the hope of using it to transform our people’s lives.
Q: You were sent on what one of your books calls a ‘forced sabbatical’ over the multi-billion Anglo-leasing scandal. Who actually ate the pie?
A: In the Goldenberg case, we lost Sh5.8 billion. Anglo-leasing is a big, vague exaggeration. No money was lost. I am not able to tell who ate what. It is the most investigated saga and I was cleared.
Q: Why did you tell John Githongo to go slow?
A: Well, this is the story. One day a man called Malik happened in my office with a file, saying: ‘Look Githongo’s father has our Sh70 million debt and he has been harassing us to drop the case.’
He left me with fire so I called John and showed him the file and we were laughing about the matter. Five months later he resurfaced in London with the tape. It was not about Anglo-Leasing. John was a friend and I have never understood the reason behind his action. Certain conversations are protected by law and common decency.
Q: Which book would you buy for John?
A: Just the Bible. You know, the Bible because it teaches forgiveness.
Q: You joined the Cabinet in 2003 a poor man. But now you are worth hundreds of millions. How did you make so much money within such a short time?
A: What makes you think I’m that rich? I raised funds like anyone else to run the bus. But I have been an MP for 20 years, ten of them as minister. My wife is also in business. Professionals of my generation are also comfortable. I don’t lack but I’m not one you can describe as stinking rich.
Q: Mt Kenya Mafia which you were said to be a key member of was blamed for alienating President Kibaki from Kenyans in his first administration. Do you regret your role?
A: That was an invention of our opponents in the Liberal Democratic Movement. They felt I was blocking Raila from becoming Prime Minister, yet the fact is that the President was sick. He was not in full control of all his faculties.
He was not in a position to direct on how to move on the matter. But even as we grappled with the issue, they quickly joined hands with Kanu. From then, we embarked on fighting fires and survival of the government.
Q: Dr Willy Mutunga introduced you to neo-marxism at the university and even supervised your thesis, A Demystification Of Legal Education At The University Of Nairobi: A Study In The Chemistry Of Jurisprudence. How did he influence the man you are today?
A: I met Dr Mutunga in our formative years and we admired him. I still do as he is very committed to justice and the cause of the underprivileged in society. He is also a pragmatist, unlike, say, Makau Mutua.
Mutua is full of ideas but without the mechanics of making things happen. At some point I tried to pull him into Ford and he said it was full of thieves. I asked him how we could remove Moi and Kanu from power if we did not soil our hands.
It is easy to be a political prefect like some of you in the media, as you can’t soil your hands and take the risk. I see Makau in that light. We should commend Mutunga for accepting the job of CJ. He could have chosen to remain in the civil society or the university and continue writing about a rotten Judiciary.
Q: Some have dismissed the radical surgery which you spearheaded as witchhunt. They say the patient died during surgery.
A: We were acting on a report -the Kwach report. It was unfortunate we appointed retired judges with no income. They dragged the tribunal for five years so they could remain in gainful employment.
Those claiming the patient died are the same ones who were crying for the radical surgery. We inherited a rotten Judiciary and we had to do something. We did our best.