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Mwenje: Maverick MP who helped to bring down a vice-president

Publication Date: 3/22/2008

News of the incident at Parliament Buildings spread like a bush fire countrywide. There were many versions to the “fight” on January 20, 2000, but it was clear that Embakasi MP David Mwenje and his Mbita colleague Otieno Kajwang’ exchanged blows at the members’ lobby.

The following day, Mr Mwenje called journalists, removed his shirt and showed the shoulder “where Kajwang’ bit me”. The same day, about 100 supporters from the Dandora, Mukuru and Soweto slums converged on the precincts of Parliament to hunt down Mr Kajwang’.

According to one of the men who bayed for the Mbita MP’s blood, Mr Mwenje had instructed them to arm themselves but cause no damage. “I will hunt him like a rabbit. How can he bite a general?” the MP had told a cheering mob.

And the men lay in wait around Parliament Buildings to “teach Kajwang’ a lesson”. They left only when House Speaker Francis ole Kaparo ordered police to drive them away. Incidentally, it is not known if Mr Kajwang’s teeth actually dug into his colleague’s flesh.

That was Hon Dr David K.S. Mwenje at his best — combative, comical, intimidating and a rabble rouser. Also wrapped in the spirit of the man was opportunism, humour, humility and sympathy for the poor’s cause.

When the man finally succumbed to an illness on Friday, last week, both friend and foe agreed that a political giant had fallen.

In an incident in 1998, near the city’s Dandora estate, Mr Mwenje caused a scare when he led squatters to “share out some idle land”. In what seemed to be a demonstration against unutilised land, Baba wa Squatters (squatters’ father), as he was known to his supporters, joined them as they scrambled for “free” plots.

The land belonged to the Kiambu-Dandora Association, and several people were killed as the squatters resisted eviction. His famous restaurant at the city’s Umoja estate, Leaders’ Corner, was later razed in an arson attack linked to the saga.

“He knew how to hoodwink the landless into dangerous land deals,” recalls Mr Sammy Waire, a supporter. “He was keen to settle squatters even if it meant using the most illegal means.’’

In a raft of other acts of mischief, Mr Mwenje cut the figure of a man who could go to any length to be seen to align himself with the poor.  “He was simple and felt comfortable with the local voter,” says Ndung’u Njenga, one of his political campaigners. “It’s like he felt suffocated in the company of the rich.’’ Mr Mwenje rarely attended lavish political party retreats despite having been a staunch member of Kanu, the Democratic Party (DP),  Narc, Narc-Kenya and, lately, Party of National Unity (PNU). He always caught the eyes of the Press due to “juicy” statements.

To cement relations with his voters, the father of four built his main home at Mowlem at Dandora, where the bulk of his votes came from. The wooden house which his family occupied in 1990 (during his second term as MP) is a far cry from an MP’s home, however.

Though on a spacious compound and well fenced, it is easily accessible. Several old vehicles litter the compound, while people trickle in and out, as they have done in the past 18 years.

“He was accessible to us,” says Elizabeth Ndinda, a Kayole resident. “We never needed an appointment to see him, and he would actually address our issues even on the roadside.’’ And for this relationship with the lowly, Mr Mwenje entrenched himself in the fluid and violence-prone Embakasi politics for over three decades.

A former banker, Mr Mwenje served as a Dandora councillor in the late 1970s, and this is where he developed his political muscle. He perfected the art of using City Hall intrigues for political mileage.

A master of slum wheeler-dealing, Mr Mwenje’s tact would send shivers down the spines of political rivals. But his supporters, some believed to be Mungiki followers, were so fanatical that most of his them (rivals) would not dare to hold public meetings in areas regarded as his strongholds for fear of violent disruptions.

But this did not mean he never had formidable rivals. For instance, in 2002, businessman Irshad Sumra stood against him but was buried in a heap of votes when Mr Mwenje polled 46,782 (83 per cent of the votes cast).

After the elections, he never tired of reminding all and sundry that he deserved a cabinet post for giving President Kibaki the highest number of votes in the country (51,000). And his cries were heard somewhat in 2005 when he was appointed  Cooperatives assistant minister.

Perhaps his most energy-sapping electioneering was last year. Ill-health had started taking its toll and his campaigns are said to have been uncoordinated and ineffective.

A founder member of Narc Kenya, he lost the PNU nomination to former city mayor John Ndirangu. And although he shifted to Chama Cha Mwananchi, he polled a meagre 3,000 votes and came fourth.

Says former Nairobi deputy mayor Ferdinand Waititu,  his strongest opponent last year: “He was a tough man. I knew I was taking a bull by the horns. It was actually hard to hold a public meeting in the area.”

Although Mr Mwenje plunged into “serious politics” in 1983, it is during the controversial 1988 elections that his political mettle was tested — and proved. At the time, the sitting MP who would later be a long-time nemesis, Mr Muhuri Muchiri, beat him in the queue voting by 2,294 votes to 1,397.

After violent protests, the elections were repeated through the secret ballot, and Mr Mwenje garnered 4,610 votes against Muchiri’s 3,850.

Said to belong to a class of politicians bent on retaining power at whatever cost, he is said to have used illegal land allocations to solidify his base. And he had a coordinated “intelligence team” to boot.

“He knew who met where, the time and the topic,” says a local politician. “His ears were all over, including dark slum alleyways.” This explains why he was available during riots, the retrieval of bodies of people drowned in open water masses and matatu strikes.

But for all the years he spent in Parliament,  Mr Mwenje is not credited with initiating any legislation.

He was a constant discipline case in the House and his contributions always bordered on the absurd, sending members into laughter. But perhaps his most memorable House business was using being used by powerful forces to bring a no-confidence motion against Kenya’s shortest serving Vice-President, Dr Josephat Karanja, in 1989.

The war against Dr Karanja was started (without naming him) by the then Limuru MP, Mr Kuria Kanyingi, and five other Kiambu MPs to discredit the VP at a series of public rallies on the accusation that the former Nairobi University vice-chancellor was building a political empire in the district at President Moi’s expense.

It was Mr Mwenje (who did not come from Kiambu) who ended the two-month countrywide speculation when he identified Dr Karanja as the subject of the rallies. Addressing Parliament — and apparently Mr Mwenje — Dr Karanja termed the day “sad for Kenya”, arguing that some politicians had lost “a sense of common decency and embraced political thuggery and vindictiveness”.

 The VP was forced to resign in May 1989. For his troubles, Mr Mwenje was appointed assistant minister for Supplies and Marketing, an office in which he is said to have not spent a full day.

He was a caring father. His “first family” comprised wife Isabella Njeri who died in 1999 and children Maureen Waithera, Mark Mureithi, Eric Kamau and June Watetu. Ms Waithera is currently a procurement officer at Kenya Pipeline, while Mr Mureithi is a law student at Leeds University in the UK. Mr Kamau is an accountant at KenGen and Ms Watetu a secondary school student.

Mr Kamau has fond memories of his father’s illustrious career in the muddle of the city politics. “We have never lived a private life,” he says. “But we understood he loved people and we got used to visitors.”

The 26-year-old says his father rarely dished out cash, and that his principle was to always give a fishing rod and not fish, so to speak. The children always feared for their father’s life. “There were many threats, but these never perturbed him or us,” Mr Kamau recalls. “We got used to them.”

Mr Mwenje’s burial at his Kamahuha home in Maragua district on Thursday marks the end of an era for a man who is believed to be one of the most charismatic politicians in Kenya in recent times.

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About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.



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