Dominic Odipo: History has a lesson for us on ethnicity and Cabinet

The announcement of a new grand coalition Government gives us a good opportunity to look back into the past so that we can understand where we are and where we ought to be going. That is the main reason we teach and study history.

If we don’t understand where we came from, it is very difficult to determine where we ought to be going.

Let us flip back 34 years to April 1974 and take a brief look at how the highest echelons of Government and the Civil Service were constituted. As we all know, facts speak louder than mere words.

On this day, exactly 34 years ago, and just three years after an abortive coup d’Ètat led by Major-General Joseph Ndolo, the President was Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. He was also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and MP for Gatundu in what was then Kiambu District.

The five most important Cabinet portfolios at that time were Provincial Administration, Defence, Finance, Foreign Affairs and that of the Attorney General. On April 14, 1974 these offices were held as follows:

Peter Mbiyu Koinange, the MP for Kiambaa, was the head of the Provincial Administration and National Security. James Gichuru, the MP for Limuru, was the Minister for Defence. Mwai Kibaki, who was then the MP for Bahati in Nairobi, was the Finance minister. Dr Njoroge Mungai, the MP for Dagoretti, was the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Charles Njonjo, the ‘Duke of Kabeteshire’, was the AG.

They all hailed from the southern slopes of Mount Kenya. With the exception of Kibaki, who comes from Nyeri, the rest came from a single district, Kiambu.

On this day, 34 years ago, the Head of the Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet was Geoffrey Kariithi. The Permanent Secretary in charge of the Ministry of Defence was Jeremiah Kiereini. The Commissioner of Police was Bernard Hinga. The Commandant of the General Service Unit was Ben Gethi.

The head of the Special Branch, the intelligence service, was James Kanyotu and the Director of the Criminal Investigations Department was Ignatius Nderi. Again, all these men were from the slopes of Mount Kenya.

What was the situation like in Kibaki’s Ministry of Finance? Nicholas Ng’ang’a was the permanent secretary. The Governor of the Central Bank was Duncan Ndegwa. The executive chairman of the Kenya Commercial Bank was John Michuki. The executive chairman of the National Bank of Kenya was Stanley Munga Githunguri while the boss of the Income Tax Department was a Mr Ihiga. Again, all these men were from the slopes of the great mountain.

As students at the University of Nairobi in those heady days, we were reasonably well-placed to note who was where and who was doing what. For those of us from western Kenya, this seemed to be an unvarnished and unapologetic Government of all communities by one community and for that community.

How was it like at the University, which, incidentally, was the only public university in the country at the time? The pattern at the national level was neatly replicated: Kenyatta was the Chancellor. The chairman of the board was Mareka Gecaga. The Vice-Chancellor was Josephat Karanja. The deputy vice-chancellor was Joseph Mungai, while the registrar was Solomon Karanja.

In fact, the top ten positions at the university were all occupied by members of one community, including those of finance officer, deputy registrar, chief librarian and chief catering officer.

At the university library and bookshop, the more bookish among us could find and read some of the greatest books ever written. By the time of our graduation, we already knew there was something very wrong about the manner in which the country was being governed.

We could see that our best talent was being crushed and driven into the ground. We prayed and yearned for the day when the balance would be righted and the country set back again on the true path that had been envisioned by its Founding Fathers. That day is now at hand.

It is such historical vignettes that must have informed the selection of the new Cabinet and Government that was announced yesterday.

In the interests of the country, we must all agree never to go back to April 1974. That is the bottom line. Let our history, education and simple common sense combine and conspire to ensure that 1974 never returns to haunt us again.

The writer is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi

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