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Obituary: Masinde Muliro

Massinde Muliro, politician, born Matili Kenya 30 June 1920, died Nairobi 14 August 1992.

AT THE highest level, Kenyan politics often resembles a game of poker played by some of the most astute minds in Africa. Over the last six months, a fascinating struggle for the leadership of Kenya's main opposition party, FORD (Forum for the Restoration of Democracy), has held the Kenyan masses in thrall. But as the rivalry for FORD's leadership and, by implication, the national presidency intensified, the sophisticated dealing gave way to a naked lust for power among the country's major opposition figures.

FORD, the only organisation that has a realistic chance of wresting control of the government from the ruling party, KANU (Kenya African National Union), was on the verge of disintegration when the veteran nationalist Masinde Muliro startled everyone by declaring his intention of entering the presidential race. The 70-year-old Muliro had emerged from political hibernation to become a founder member of the oppositon FORD movement and had since played a low-key, supportive role, as vice-chairman of the organisation, to more flamboyant personalities like Oginga Odinga.

His quietly stated decision to go for the highest political office when the whole opposition movement appeared to be floundering was typical of the man. He was offering himself as a compromise candidate in order to maintain unity within the opposition ranks. His candidature had an immediate and sobering effect on the opposition front-runners, Odinga and Kenneth Matiba. It also galvanised a surge of public support for this professorial, highly idealistic politician who had never relinquished public respect since his entry into politics some 35 years ago.

One month after his decision to run for President, Muliro died of heart failure while he was on his way back to Kenya after a brief visit to London.

Masinde Muliro was born in 1922 at Matili in western Kenya. His farmer father was a Roman Catholic. He attended several mission schools run by the Catholics, including the intellectually stimulating St Peter's College in Tororo, Uganda. His early political and social ideas were formed when he was at the University of Cape Town from which he graduated in 1954 with a BA in History, Philosophy and Education.

When he returned to Kenya, he lectured at the Siriba Training College but he was already laying the groundwork for a future in politics. He met the passionate and fiery Odinga and the two embarked on a course of radical politics that was to shape and define the African struggle for independence in Kenya.

Muliro fought for and won a seat in the first ever direct African elections to the colonial legislative council in 1957. The scholarly, pipe-smoking former lecturer often found himself clashing with some of his less far-sighted colleagues on the council. He formed the Kenya National Party, a multiracial organisation that made radical demands on the colonial government.

In 1960, the two largest ethnic groups in Kenya, the Luo and the Kikuyu, formed KANU (Kenya African Nationalist Union) as the political instrument that would take the country into independence. Muliro (who came from the third largest ethnic group, the Luhya), Ronald Ngala, from the coast, and Daniel arap Moi formed KADU (Kenya African Democratic Party) to represent the interests of the smaller ethnic groups.

Although KADU was defeated in the 1961 elections, Muliro retained his seat and was made Minister for Commerce, Industry and Communications in a joint government. In 1963, KANU, now under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta who had been released from detention in 1962, prior to independence, swept all before it and comprehensively defeated KADU. The following year KADU was dissolved and former members of the party, including Muliro, crossed the floor to join KANU.

At this point, Muliro, who had acquired a reputation as an intellectual and a formidable debater, appeared to lose his appetite for political in-fighting and instead turned to commerce. He became chairman of several parastatal marketing boards and developed his own farming and transport interests. Nevertheless, he remained the undisputed leader of the Luhya community and always spoke out, succinctly and often devastatingly, against injustice and corruption from the parliamentary back benches.

Muliro had carved out a unique position for himself in the country's political landscape. While he was regarded as a non-conformist by the government, there was no doubting his sincerity or idealism. In parliament, the force of his logic during debates made him an outstanding champion of causes which might otherwise have been lost.

In 1969, the government, under Jomo Kenyatta, made him a full minister in charge of Co-operatives and Social Services. His penchant for standing up for his principles, however, brought him into direct confrontation with the goverment.

When the government tabled a motion to proscribe Odinga's Kenya People's Union (KPU) after some members of the party stoned Jomo Kenyatta during a political rally, Muliro was the only member of the ruling party to set his face against the motion. He said that while he found the incident abhorrent, banning the opposition party would make Kenya the laughing stock of Africa. Odinga's party was eventually banned and Kenya became a de facto one-party state.

In 1975, Muliro was the only minister to vote against the government over a report into the murder of a popular politicians JM Kariuki. His vote swung the balance and the government lost the motion. For his pains, he was dismissed from his ministerial post by the imperious Kenyatta and was never to regain any position in government.

He continued to speak out against some government policies from the back benches but preferred to do so from within the party. There were several attempts to unseat him but he successfully petitioned one election result through the courts and regained his place in parliament.

From 1986 onwards, now under Daniel arap Moi's presidency, Muliro's criticism of the government and the ruling party increased. He accused the party of rigging elections and said that the cult of sycophancy being encouraged in parliament was turning it into a 'rubber stamp' for the executive.

He engaged in spectacular public clashes with Shariff Nassir who controlled the port of Mombasa and was one of President Moi's most loyal supporters. Nassir called him 'anti-government' and accused him of being in the pay of 'foreign masters'. Muliro countered by saying that parliamentary democracy was being eroded by the likes of Nassir who did not want members to 'speak out their minds and freely express their opinions'.

Although Muliro retained the support of the Luhya community and the respect of the nation, he had antagonised too many people by refusing to go along with the tide and he lost his parliamentary seat for the last time in a by-election in 1989.

He appeared to have dropped off the political landscape after this but bounced right back nearly three years later to become a founder member of FORD. His initial role as vice-chairman of FORD was that of a bridge-builder between the strong personalities who represented the largest ethnic groupings in the country. His own declaration of intent only came when the opposition party began to fragment and only after strong public pressure had forced his hand. Masinde Muliro always took the lonely road of honesty and plain-speaking in public affairs and it was perhaps this dedication to democratic principles that denied him higher office in government.

The purpose of Muliro's brief visit to London was to persuade the Foreign Office to keep faith with FORD. He also met a delegation from the UK branch of FORD who expressed their dismay at the personality clashes within the opposition group and told them categorically that he was willing to relinquish his bid for the presidency if that would enhance party unity.

The chairman of UK FORD, Joseph Gitari, who probably held the last formal discussion with Muliro, said that he, more than any other politician, had emphasised the defence of human rights above other political considerations. 'What he wanted above all,' said Gitari, 'was the restoration of true democracy and he told us quite emphatically that his, or anyone else's, personal ambitions mattered not the least in the interests of the national good.'