The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Waruru Kanja - the Seasoned Speaker of Truth to Power

"Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come."

? William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

When Shakespeare's "necessary end" came to one-time freedom fighter, Cabinet minister and veteran MP for Nyeri Town Waruru Kanja, on Tuesday at age 83, he died the death of the valiant.

Mzee Kanja's valour was a lifelong trait - a rebel with nary a pause and many a cause.

In the infamous annals of high-profile political assassinations in Kenya at the height of the power of the imperial presidency and Kanu's one-party hegemony, Kanja was the only incumbent minister ever to question, aloud, the disappearance and butchering of a fellow minister.

Even when it had long ago become clear that Cabinet ministers and other high-profile public figures were being eliminated as a matter of deep politics and national security, state intrigues and infighting, members of successive Cabinets and other top officials maintained an extraordinary "silence-of-the-lambs" reticence about the unfolding horror.

This strange silence had been the case since February 1965, when the first high-profile political assassination in independent Kenya, that of Kanu nominated MP Pio Gama Pinto, took place.

It took Waruru Kanja to break this bizarre silence of the decades and ask some very hard and high-risk questions indeed, in 1990.

When the government announced in February 1990 that Dr Robert Ouko, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation had disappeared, Kanja, the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, declared that "A Foreign Affairs minister cannot just disappear".

When it turned out that Dr Ouko had been brutally and messily murdered the same week that, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was walking to freedom from 27 years in prison, Kanja made it clear that he was convinced the government was behind the assassination.

The then Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, Joseph arap Leting, summoned the fuming Kanja and cautioned him about his utterances. Five years ago in a media interview, Kanja informed his interlocutor that he had a straightforward message for Leting to take back to his masters. Threatened with the sack, Kanja told Leting point-blank:

"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 their flag [the ministerial pennant]. It was not a blanket whose warmth I would miss any sleep over. I told him to tell the bosses so)".

Back at his Jogoo House offices, Kanja swiftly packed his personal effects and then awaited the inevitable sack order. In true Kanu era fashion, it came on the lunchtime news on State Broadcaster KBC.

Kanja's chutzpah and in-your-face defiance did not start with the shock of Ouko's murder. Few people, to this day, know that he was a survivor of the Mau Mau State of Emergency Death Row and then, for years on end, jailed for life, on both counts by the British Crown, long before he would become the fiery politician, MP, assistant minister and Cabinet minister.

The landmark study Mau Mau & Nationhood: Arms, Authority & Narration, edited by E.S. Atieno Odhiambo and John Lonsdale (James Currey/East African Educational Publishers, 2003), discloses that Kanja was among many Mau Mau Emergency clients of the late C.M.G Argwings Kodhek, one of Kenya's pioneer African barristers, politicians and Cabinet ministers.

Mau Mau & Nationhood reports: "Among the Mau Mau fighters who benefited from his erudite legal knowledge were Kiriri Wakihoto, who became a councillor in Nyeri in independent Kenya, and the former MP for Nyeri and former Cabinet minister, Waruru Kanja, who had been arrested and detained by the colonial administration for supplying arms to Mau Mau nationalists. He was sentenced to death and spent several months on death row, but because of the stiff defence Argwings Kodhek offered, he was instead committed to life imprisonment and was finally released at the end of the State of Emergency".

Fifteen years before Dr Ouko's death, Kanja had shocked another presidential administration by reacting with not dissimilar finger-pointing distress and fury upon the disappearance of populist politician Josiah Mwangi (JM) Kariuki.

Kariuki was found horrifically murdered and mutilated, his eyes gouged out, fingernails pulled out, private parts dismembered and with sulfuric acid poured liberally on his face, an attempt to make the remains unidentifiable. And there were gunshot wounds on top of all this.

Again, Kanja left no doubt anywhere that he believed the then powers-that-be were responsible.

He soon became a marked man. When the deep-politics national security state edifice finally got Kanja, it struck with a rude show of omniscience and force. He was an Assistant Minister for Local Government when, one early morning in 1981, the police arrived at his house in force, searched it and found US$2,000. The foreign exchange laws then in force required that he ought to have converted this hard currency into Kenya shillings upon arrival at JKIA from a UN conference the previous year. He had forgotten to do so and held on to the cash.

Kanja was quickly jailed for three years, reduced to one year on appeal. What he found both suspicious and ridiculous in the extreme was that it took armed police officers deployed strategically throughout his compound, some of whom "were manning doors and windows" to make the arrest. This raiding force had arrived in six Land Rovers and three Peugeot 999 patrol cars - to pick up an assistant minister!

Someone, somewhere, very high up on the power and politics totem pole, was clearly communicating something to Kanja. And so he went back behind bars for the first time since the British had left Kenya.

However, by the end of the 1980s, Kanja's would-be nemesis in 1981 was no longer in power and President Daniel arap Moi appointed him Minister for Information and Broadcasting after the 1988 General Election, the last national electoral event under the one-party rule book.

When he died at Tumu Tumu Hospital earlier in the week, Kanja was fulsomely eulogized by a new generation of leaders. President Uhuru Kenyatta said: "He was one of the towering politicians to have emerged from Central Kenya, but who was a true nationalist at heart and in action".

Kenyatta concluded: "His quest for inclusive growth and equitable development are some of the hallmarks of his life that we must continue to abide by."

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga saluted Kanja's "speaking truth to power", saying:

"We have this morning lost another great son of our nation, a great fighter who stood up for the truth no matter the consequences. The death of Waruru Kanja ends an era. It is the era of the politics of principle and ideals that his demise moves to a close. The Son of Wairimu was among the venerable political leaders who guided Kenya through its early years of tumult by speaking truth to power and insisting that, as a nation, we must stick to the ideals of the Founding Fathers. I was with Mr Kanja in hospital about a month ago, and I can testify that he did well as a leader and he remained true to his beliefs and must have died a free man, at peace with his conscience because he did and said all the right things that Kenya needed in its formative years.

"It is sad that even the seemingly indestructible Kanja has had to depart from us. It is a handing over of sorts with Kenya marking its 50 years of independence. We mourn with his family and friends and celebrate his life and times."

Waruru Kanja made a mark across three presidential administrations in Kenya. He rarely discussed Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in public, but occasionally hailed Moi as a gentleman and berated Mwai Kibaki as lacking the common touch.

Kanja said in one of the last interviews that he granted a media outlet:

"Moi is a true gentleman. Despite our differences, he would still visit me here [Kiganjo, Nyeri] on his way to the Sagana State Lodge, where he would invite me for a chat".

Kanja was father to, among others, the Royal Media Services Group Managing Director, Wachira Waruru.

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