• Irũngũ Houghton

Kenneth Matiba was a Man of Conscience

First published Saturday Standard, April 21, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group. My Sunday column has now moved to the Saturday Standard

Ken Matiba died last week. The legacy associated with this man’s life as a businessperson, a government minister and a political detainee has dramatically expanded with his passing. His contribution and sacrifice has earned a chapter in our national history. He also leaves us with a few lessons in public service.

A year ago, I wrote that all leaders cannot be separated from the context of their time. Kenya was its darkest in the 1980s and 1990s. The state was incapable of protecting its own public resources. The Presidency operated with neither public or legal accountability. The judiciary cannibalized laws at the whim of the Executive. Most State Officers remain tainted to this day by their silence or complicity with human rights abuses.

Hundreds chose not to confront the violence, suffering and destruction that came with the one-party system. Dissent and acting in the public interest therefore was a dangerous path to take. Only the few that stood up against this tyranny will be completely absolved by this history. The family of Matiba can be proud today that he will be remembered as one of them.

The open discussion and preparations for a state funeral this coming week is remarkable given his history. Matiba had been a guest of the state before. The last time, it almost killed him. Digging into Amnesty International’s archives, it is possible to recreate what it was like for him and other prisoners of conscience in 1991.

Matiba was a privileged part of the inner political elite in the 1980s. The disastrous 1988 “mololongo” queue voting experiment fueled his disillusionment and abrupt resignation from President Moi’s cabinet. It is hard to understand today the fury this caused, but in a context where our laws gave the Presidency absolute power over the criminal justice system and courts, politicians served at the pleasure of one individual.

At the time, President Moi, Internal Security Ministry Minister Wilson Ndolo and the late PS Hezekiah Oyugi were primarily responsible for state security interests. Matiba was at the center of a growing public dissatisfaction with the one-party state and the emergence of a formidable call for our second liberation. He soon became the focus of their state attacks.

After a couple of vicious mysterious attacks, one that left his childhood sweetheart and loyal wife Edith with a cracked skull, Matiba was arrested, detained without trial and placed in solitary confinement. On May 26 1991, he suffered a stroke in maximum security Kamiti prison. Denied medical treatment by prison staff under the management of Commissioner of Prisons J. Mareka and Dr. Mwongera of the Prison Medical Service, his condition deteriorated. He never recovered.


For a man that loved adventure, actively played football and squash and had climbed Mt. Kenya 18 times, the physical cost was great. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. According the judgment in his favour, Justice Isaac Lenaola noted the Matiba family had lost more than Kshs 4 billion in commercial real estate and company stocks and shares.

Amnesty International declared Kenneth Matiba a Prisoner of Conscience in 1991. He was merely expressing his fundamental right to a non-violent political opinion. Hundreds of human rights defenders globally wrote letters calling for his immediate and unconditional release that year.

In his memoirs “Aiming High: The Story of My Life” Matiba makes the distinction between a politician and a person in politics. The former join politics for their own interests, the latter maintains their political principles regardless of the personal cost. After seeing the political rot in the leadership, he chose the road less travelled and more dangerous. Reflecting on isolation and economic sacrifice, his wise wife Edith noted that money is like a flock of birds that land and fly off together. Human decency and humility has kept them sane over the years.

Amnesty adopted over hundred men and women as prisoners of conscience in Kenya and globally over the same period. The late Winnie MadikizelaMandela was also one of them. Many of them were even more daring than the late Matiba. Most sacrificed their studies, careers and some, their lives. Most of them are unknown to today’s generation. In celebrating the contribution and resilience of Matiba, we must celebrate them also. Their powerful choices earned them the status of prisoners of conscience. Collectively, they sought to create a country of conscience. We owe our gratitude to them and today’s BRAVE activists, for the freedoms and rights that we currently enjoy.

Errata: An earlier version of this article perpetuated an online error, Kenneth Matiba’s widow is Edith not Edna. Apologies to Edith Matiba and family. I salute your courage over the years.


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