The Metamorphosis of JB Muturi
Justin Bedan Njoka Muturi believes the big ideas have always been there, and will always be there. To Muturi, what’s lacking in Kenya’s governance is discipline and order. Yes, I know. The Speaker wants to bring order! In this deep-dive on Muturi’s life and times, journalist and Debunk Media’s Editor-in-Chief Isaac Otidi Amuke revisits his two hour conversation with Muturi, reliving the make-believe chase of the Speaker’s motorcade around town and other James Bond-esque moments, and explores the implications of a Muturi candidature and presidency.
By Isaac Otidi Amuke
Part 1: Once Upon a Shufﬂer
From an early age, National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi got accustomed to the idea of people getting dumbfounded whenever they discovered what he was or had been up to. Like that time his father, Bedan Njoka – whose two names Muturi inherited to become Justin Bedan Njoka Muturi – took him back to Kangaru High School in Embu in 1976 to try get him an A Level admission, only to learn that his son had earned suspensions during his O Levels at the same institution, suspensions which the senior Njoka, an administration policeman, had heard nothing about. When the father expressed disbelief, the son attempted a shrug.
‘‘I told him it was true I had been suspended on occasion, but that that was now water under the bridge,’’ Muturi says, chuckling mildly when we speak at his ofﬁcial residence in Nairobi’s Thigiri suburb, a mansion set atop a hill overlooking a stream. ‘‘I gave him my word that now that I had been readmitted, I would behave myself and deliver good results.’’
This is vintage Muturi, radiating tranquility while a lot more simmers underneath.
In the history of independent Kenya, no individual has ever transitioned fro leading one arm of government and moved on swiftly into the apogee of another arm of government. But for Muturi, the fact that this phenomenon is hitherto unheard of doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and be made to happen now, by him, as he seeks to become Kenya’s 5th president.
And just as his suspensions left his father lost for words, Muturi’s presidential bid has caught both friend and foe by utter surprise. The expectation was that after serving as Speaker of the National Assembly for two consecutive ﬁve-year terms, Muturi would quietly retreat and either enjoy his pension or play some fringe ceremonial statemanly role, since running for any other political ofﬁce would seem like a demotion – this considering no one had imagined Muturi would want to takeover from President Uhuru Kenyatta, a longtime compadre of his.
Yet to Muturi, the presidency was always fair game, and this is just another day in the life of.
To begin understanding Muturi’s stealth, maybe one ﬁrst needs to know the reason why he earned suspensions while studying for his O Levels at Kangaru High School. And yet you may not believe me if I told you the cause of Muturi’s suspensions. But if I told you their genesis, and if you connected the dots backwards – looking at Muturi’s not-so-easy-to-read demeanor; retracing his life in politics and as a magistrate and seeing how instinctive he is; and understanding that he is a man who is always holding his cards close to his chest even when he is opening up to you – then maybe you will believe me and stand a chance at grasping Muturi’s modus operandi.
Poker. That’s what. Poker for money. Call it gambling.
After joining Kangaru High School in 1972, Muturi and his cohort experienced a serious bout of bullying, so much so that when Sundays came, Muturi and his mates feigned a love for Christ and rushed off to teach Sunday school in the neighbouring villages, when in fact all they needed was a break from the marauding bullies. Luckily for Muturi, he could wing-it teaching Sunday school considering he was the third born in a Bible-wielding Anglican family of nine. By the time they became sophomores, Muturi and his boys were so hardcore, so that choosing to pass revenge on the new form ones came naturally to them. It was rough.
This was around the time Muturi discovered poker.
At ﬁrst, it was all harmless leisure. Then it became an obsession when Muturi and his chums started playing for money. Instead of studying, the fellas played poker almost nonstop, often till the wee hours of the morning. The outcome of this unlikely school-night bustle was the group either missing lessons as they slept-in after long nights of money-making, or simply skipping classes altogether as they played and made, and lost, and made, and lost dough. And even when the school administration raided the poker dens and conﬁscated the cards, Muturi and his co-conspirators always found ways of sneaking in new sets of cards and kept their shufﬂing enterprise going. In the end, the group’s notoriety made them a marked lot, but nothing was stopping Muturi and his homeboys. This was around the time Muturi’s suspensions came in fast and furious. However, unbeknownst to Muturi and his abettors, much as they camouﬂaged their transgressions from their parents, Kangaru had resolved not to readmit any of them for their A Levels no matter how well they excelled in their O Levels.
They were personas non grata.
‘‘When I look back,’’ Muturi says in retrospect, ‘‘I realize just how much we were misleading each other. A number of us were almost stopped from sitting for our O Levels by the school on grounds that we hadn’t attended enough classes, because we were busy playing cards.’’ Muturi may look back in regret, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. As fate would have it – and as you’ll keep learning, with Muturi you can’t be too quick to pass judgment because there’s always that one card stuck under the playing table – Muturi pulled a fast one on skeptics by acing his O Levels impressively enough as to be invited to the then ﬂourishing Chesamis Boys High School in Bungoma. But staying true to his gimmicks, Muturi turned down the offer on grounds that Bungoma was too far away from Embu. At that juncture, Muturi was unaware of just how closely interwoven Bungoma was with his destiny.
‘‘I told my father that if I wasn’t going back to Kangaru for my form ﬁve and six then I’d rather forget about the A Levels and join the Kenya Air Force,’’ Muturi recollects. And he wasn’t joking.
At the time, the practice was for form ﬁves to report to their respective schools at the start of second term, but an adamant Muturi dilly-dallied and let the term ﬂy past as he waited on his father’s move. In the end, the senior Njoka capitulated and went to plead with Kangaru.
Luckily for Muturi, his father’s prayers were heard. This is the time the senior Njoka, to his sheer disbelief, learnt of his son’s suspensions, and in turn Muturi made a pact that his delinquent card-playing ways were now a thing of the past.
What Muturi was unaware of was that this was also goodbye.
‘‘Unfortunately in December 1976, just as I had settled into my form ﬁve, we lost my father,’’ Muturi remembers, a distant sombreness in his eyes. ‘‘We buried him in January of 1977.’’
The demise of the senior Njoka shook up Muturi’s life and that of his eight siblings. Throughout Muturi’s upbringing – he was born on 28 April 1956 in Kanywambora village in Embu, where he attended Kanywambora Primary School, from where he did his Certiﬁcate of Primary Education in 1971 to qualify for O Level admission at Kangaru in 1972 – the Njoka family solely relied on their father’s income as a policeman, underwritten with earnings from tobacco farming. Now the economic and other burdens befell Virginia Njoka, Muturi’s mother who lived until 2018.
‘‘My mother was your typical rural woman,’’ Muturi says, ‘‘but she now had to fend for us.’’
It was possibly out of this change of circumstance in the home front, and the promise to stick to the straight and narrow Muturi made to his father before his departure, that the lanky Muturi fully redirected his energies to the basketball court, where as captain he led Kangaru up to the national championships. And whenever he wasn’t throwing hoops, Muturi moonlit as a table tennis player, a sport in which he didn’t fare badly either, representing Kangaru provincially.
But Muturi’s secret and possibly truest love lay in theatre, but then there was a problem. During his reckless O Level years, Muturi and the drama club patron had fallen out after Muturi bullied some youngsters known to the patron. The patron swore never to cast Muturi for any role ever.
‘‘Those days, every province produced two plays which came to the National Drama Festivals,’’ Muturi narrates, ‘‘and so because I wasn’t allowed to act in the English play due to my differences with the drama club patron, I decided to present my own play, done in Kiswahili. When we got to the provincial knock-out stage, Kangaru’s English play came second while my Kiswahili play, still attributed to Kangaru, came third.’’
Muturi breaks into his characteristic coy laugh, a signal that there’s a plot twist looming.
‘‘Seeing that my Kiswahili play had come to the end of the road,’’ Muturi carries on, ‘‘I secretly conspired with the cast of the English play without the patron’s knowledge, and landed a major role during the National Drama Festivals. And so when Kangaru’s time to go on stage came, the patron was shocked to see me as a cast member in his English play. But seeing the kind of spirited showcase I put up, the patron decided to let bygones be bygones and didn’t raise any queries after the performance. We buried the hatchet, and remain very close friends to date.’’
Muturi may have quit playing poker, but the poker player in him was still alive and well.
Part 2: The (Mis)Adventures of a Young Magistrate
Few cohorts boast of feats in public service equivalent to those attained by the University of Nairobi’s Law School’s Class of 1981. There’s Justice Mohammed Ibrahim at the Supreme Court, Justices Fatuma Sichale and Jessie Lessit sitting at the Court of Appeal, while presiding at the High Court are Justices Boaz Olago, Aggrey Muchelule, Fred Ochieng, Joseph Karanja, Roselyn Wendo, Martin Muya (facing disciplinary action) and Kaburu Bauni (deceased). Then there’s Dorothy Angote, former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Lands and Jacqueline Mugo, Executive Director of the Federation of Kenya Employers, alongside two former High Court registrars, Jacob ole Kipury and Charles Njai (deceased). And the list goes on (including a senior advocate and sitting Senator whom you’ll encounter later on in this piece). Then there’s Muturi.
To date, this group that started out with 45 classmates in 1981 – with Mangu, Kangaru, Alliance Boys, Alliance Girls and one other school (which Muturi can’t seem to remember) contributing at least six students each to the class – remains tightly knit and enjoys a detectable camaraderie.
‘‘Before the pandemic,’’ Muturi tells me, ‘‘we used to have a ritual of meeting at least twice a year. The penultimate gathering happened in early 2019 at Justice Muchelule’s home, while I hosted the last get-together here before Covid-19 happened and we had to put off meetings.’’
Muturi has a huge gazebo at his residence, which must’ve been ideal for the merrymaking. For now, interactions are limited to their alumni WhatsApp group, which Muturi tells me can get lit and ratchet, but the Speaker won’t share the juice pertaining to the WhatsApp shenanigans.
After convincingly acing his A Levels at Kangaru, Muturi secured a coveted place at the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law, where he made his debut in 1978. But before setting off for university, Muturi went back to where it all began, his village at Kanywambora, where he taught at the local high school for a few months before Nairobi beckoned. It was in this same village where Muturi grew up herding goats, eating randomly-growing mangoes in the wild and spending his early mornings and evenings watering the family’s tobacco seedbeds that Muturi first entertained the idea of working in the justice sector, even if he didn’t comprehend it fully.
‘‘As an active kid,’’ Muturi lays his case, ‘‘you are either bound to run into trouble or be a witness to certain things. And so as a young boy, I saw a lot of miscarriage of justice in cases where the police would either arrest the wrong person or twist evidence to the detriment of whoever they were arresting. I always tried to make interventions by arguing with the police, but it mostly didn’t amount to much. I wondered how I could be more useful in this regard.’’
There had also been land adjudication sittings in Muturi’s village, deliberations which captured the imagination of the curious boy whose mother dispatched to school at a very early age, to prevent him from getting into more mischief at home than he was already embroiled in.
Arriving at the University of Nairobi, Muturi’s first year roommate and classmate was a young man from Bungoma named Moses Masika Wetangula, the senior advocate mentioned earlier and current Senator of Bungoma County – with whom Muturi ran against in their second year for the seat of secretary general of the Kenya Law Students Society (KLSS), and with whom Muturi is running against today for the presidency of Kenya. This is how Bungoma, the place Muturi had refused to go to for his A Levels citing distance, started snaking its way into Muturi’s heart as his longtime friendship and near-brotherhood with the Wetangulas blossomed.
‘‘Being roommates and classmates,’’ Muturi remembers, ‘‘whenever Moses’s father Mzee Dominic Wetangula visited him, he would almost always find us hanging out together, and having lost my father, the fact that he always referred to me as mtoto wangu meant a lot.’’
Later on, Muturi grew even closer to the Wetangulas.
At Parklands Campus, which is where the Faculty of Law remains domiciled, Muturi made use of his towering frame and took to playing basketball, becoming a regular for The Terrorists, the university’s basketball team which retains the name todate. Muturi then made his foray into elective politics by beating Wetangula and others to become secretary general of the Kenya Law Students Society (KLSS), through which he earned a seat at the newly formed Students Representative Council (SRC), a replacement of the Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU). SONU had been banned in 1979 following protests which led to the expulsion of a group of student leaders, among them two future Cabinet Ministers, the late Gerald Otieno Kajwang who was a year ahead of Muturi at the Faculty of Law and Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi from the Faculty of Arts, who today is Muturi’s friend and neighbour in Thigiri and is similarly running to become Kenya’s 5th president. It so happened that at Parklands, Kajwang was classmates with Martha Karua and Amb. Robinson Njeru Githae, yet another pair of future Cabinet Ministers.
And yet other than what Muturi terms ‘‘the normal things university students do’’ – which I later establish is a euphemism for debauchery and other sins of commission – Muturi’s university life was eventful in an uneventful way. Unlike in Kangaru, he treaded carefully, never ruffling any feathers. But no matter how safe he played, Muturi faced his Damascene moment after leaving the Faculty of Law and joining the then Kenya School of Law (KSL) on Valley Road in 1981, where he tells me he stopped doing things just because he could get away with them but learnt how to be a proper person, to think about the greater good and not just of himself. At the time, KSL was under the tutelage of infamous British barrister Tudor Jackson, a disciplinarian who established a strict set of rules. Suddenly, the laissez faire lifestyle Muturi led had to face instant extinction.
‘‘The Kenya School of Law was a complete opposite of the sorts of freedoms we had gotten accustomed to while at the university,’’ Muturi narrates. ‘‘We suddenly realized that what we had been doing at the university hadn’t yet prepared us to become the advocates we hoped to become. We were now being taught all manner of things, and not just about the law but also how to be proper, things such as etiquette, including how to make our own beds.’’
And it didn’t stop there.
Seeing that the pupils were either attached to Commissioners of Oaths or the Attorney General’s Chambers, every morning they were all picked up by a school bus from the KSL on Valley Road and dropped at a designated spot within the Central Business District, which is where the AG’s Chambers and most law firms were located. The pupils would then be picked up every evening at the close of business. There was little or no room for any monkey business.
Muturi survived KSL, passing his exams at first attempt.
‘‘The practice was that for those who passed all their papers during the first sitting,’’ Muturi remembers, ‘‘they would apply to either become magistrates or join the State Law Office. However, during our year, we weren’t really keen on these positions until an announcement was made that even those who had a resit of one paper were eligible for the positions. We who had passed panicked and rushed to apply, lest those with resits take up all the positions.’’
That is how Muturi found himself in Bungoma in 1982, his first station as a magistrate.
For Muturi, Bungoma was bearable for two reasons. The first one was the proximity to the Wetangula family. By this time, Muturi had become friends with the Wetangula siblings – Muturi recalls that Tim Wetangula, the MP for Westlands, was much younger. Tied to this was the fact that Wetangula had been posted to Nakuru as a magistrate, and had made it a habit to frequent Bungoma as much as he could. The other reason was that Aggrey Muchelule, their other classmate, had been posted as a magistrate to nearby Kitale. This meant Muturi wasn’t isolated.
As Muturi moved around Bungoma to courtrooms in places such as Kimilili, Chwele, Sirisia and Webuye, it was one particular incident at the Busia Law Courts in 1983 that stuck with him.
‘‘Back in the day, the courtroom in Busia was located next to the mainroad,’’ Muturi’s nostalgia kicks in, ‘‘and so one day as I was presiding over some matters, I saw a lanky familiar-looking fellow standing next to the court’s entrance. After I was done with the matter and retreated to the chambers, I sent someone to go check if the tall fellow went by the name Gerald Otieno Kajwang. To my pleasant surprise, the answer came in the affirmative. I sent for Kajwang, and suffice it to say that I didn’t work for the remainder of that day. We painted the town red.’’
Muturi breaks into a boisterous laugh.
Gerald Otieno Kajwang, as Muturi calls him, had just graduated from Makerere University, where he, Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi and others had sought refuge after their 1979 expulsion from the University of Nairobi. Much as Muturi had been Kajwang’s junior by a year, Kajwang’s delay in gaining admission at Makerere had seen Muturi’s class graduate and get jobs ahead of him.
These were the perils of persecuted student leaders.
After four years in Bungoma, Muturi was sent to Kapsabet, but he declined the offer. Working in President Daniel arap Moi’s backyard wasn’t Muturi’s cup of tea. At the time, Moi had made it a habit to make commentary on rulings he didn’t agree with made by magistrates in the area. Muturi wasn’t ready for such heat. He was posted to Githunguri as acting resident magistrate.
‘‘Githunguri didn’t have proper courtrooms,’’ Muturi laments, ‘‘but I quickly cleared the backlog within six months. However, my superiors in Nairobi were jittery when they started hearing that I was always out and about in town in the afternoons. Whenever they asked me why I wasn’t at my work station, I always told them I was done with work for the day, but then they started sending people over secretly to confirm if what I was saying was true. And indeed they found I had cleared all the cases. A decision was made that I needed to be taken to a busier station.’’
Muturi had reported to Githunguri in February 1986, and exactly 365 days later, was dispatched to Thika as the resident magistrate in February 1987. Until Muturi’s arrival, Thika was headed by either an Asian or a European. But here he was, a 31 year old Black African brought in to cover a jurisdiction encompassing Gatundu in Kiambu, Kandara in Muranga, and Kithimani in larger Machakos, with a number of magistrates working under him.
Notably, it was while working in Thika in 1987 that Muturi first met Uhuru Kenyatta.
‘‘The Kenyatta family had business interests in Thika,’’ Muturi recalls, ‘‘and so it was while he took care of some of these interests in Thika that I first met my friend President Kenyatta.’’
It took at least another decade and counting for Muturi and Kenyatta to become buddy-buddy.
A lot seems to have happened in Thika, but Muturi side-steps it in the name of ‘‘I wouldn’t want to get into the specifics of it all.’’ One gets a sense that it wasn’t all smooth sailing, until a call came from Nairobi three years later asking Muturi to pack his bags and head over to Machakos.
‘‘This time round I protested strongly,’’ Muturi says. ‘‘I didn’t want to go to Machakos and so I made a case that I wanted to be transferred to Nairobi, so that I could be in close proximity to the university, and keep abreast with the latest developments in the Law.’’
Muturi says this with a mischievous smile, knowing this was a pretty defective argument.
And so off to Machakos Muturi went.
Here, Muturi’s three year stay was a wake up call on questions of access to justice.
‘‘People were having difficulties coming to the court in time,’’ Muturi says, ‘‘then I learnt from the policemen at the courtroom that some of the attendees had to start their journeys from far away places like Kibwezi as early as 3am to come to attend court in Machakos.’’
At the time, the Machakos court served a vast area including present day Kitui and Makueni, and so Muturi embarked on an experiment to see just how burdensome access to justice was.
‘‘One day I took my family on a drive to Mtito Andei,’’ Muturi recollects, ‘‘and the journey came to 226 Kilometers. Then three weeks later I drove my family to Waterbuck Hotel in Nakuru and it came to 221 Kilometers. I thereafter went to my superiors at the Judiciary and made the case that the people of Mtito Andei have no access to a court of law until they get to Machakos, yet they are taxpayers, while driving from Machakos to Nakuru – a shorter distance than that from Mtito Andei to Machakos – one finds courtrooms in Makadara, Nairobi, Kikuyu and Naivasha.’’
After a bit of a back and forth, a courthouse was established at Makindu.
As 1991 approached and the clamor for multipartyism reached a crescendo, Muturi found himself having nyama choma sessions in Nairobi with his first year roommate, Wetangula, who had quit the Judiciary back in 1983 and had since become a well known advocate. According to Muturi, by 1992, Wetangula was flirting with the idea of either joining or passively supporting the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), but Muturi’s heart was with Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP), much as he was still a serving magistrate.
‘‘I had always admired Mwai Kibaki’s style and candor,’’ Muturi says, ‘‘and the idea of a Democratic Party ideally modelled on the one in America seemed attractive to me.’’
To Muturi, the consequent wrangling within FORD which led to a split made him see Kibaki’s DP as representing stability. It is this seduction by DP that sent Muturi down a slippery slope. In 1992, Muturi’s cousin was running for MP back in Siakago, Muturi’s home constituency which Muturi would later represent in the 9th Parliament. And so wanting to campaign for Kibaki as well as his cousin who was running on a DP ticket, Muturi left his work station in Machakos and set base in Siakago, where the Special Branch – Moi’s secret police – photographed Muturi’s vehicle plastered with posters of both Kibaki and Muturi’s cousin. Once the election was over, Muturi was summoned to Nairobi, accused of partaking in active politics while serving as a magistrate.
‘‘I argued that considering I was stationed in Machakos,’’ Muturi remakes his case, laughing with guilt, ‘‘the fact that I was campaigning in Siakago meant that my political activity had no correlation to my work. I knew I was wrong but as a trained lawyer, I had to defend myself.’’
Muturi, who had once led the Judges and Magistrates Association, further argued to little success that being a magistrate did not limit his political rights. The verdict, which Muturi was elated about, was that he needed to be transferred to Nairobi for closer supervision.
And so in 1993, Muturi reported to work as a principal magistrate in Nairobi, unaware that this was the beginning of the end for his judicial career.
Fresh from Machakos, Muturi was issued with a government house, the present day Visa Place in Upper Hill, a residence which some hawk-eyed operatives within the judiciary had trained their eyes on. At the time, President Moi had powers to allot land, and so two senior judicial officers put in a bid to the President for the property, using their names and that of Muturi, without Muturi’s direct or indirect knowledge or consent.
As this was underway, yet another senior in the profession, a Court of Appeal judge, approached Muturi with the same proposition; to petition the President so that the prime piece of real estate could go to Muturi and the judge. Muturi obliged, the judge put in the bid, only to learn that the earlier application bearing Muturi’s name had been granted, without Muturi being aware that his name had been used secretly. The Court of Appeal judge got furious, labelling Muturi a liar. Muturi in turn confronted the other two officials, and made enemies.
This is a story Muturi rarely speaks about, unless he really has to.
It is against this backdrop, Muturi believes, that what he considers to be a fabricated bribery case against him was manufactured. Muturi was accused of soliciting for a one million shillings buy-off from a medical doctor appearing before him, accused of obtaining 145,000 shillings fraudulently from the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF). As the case against Muturi got underway, Muturi’s photo was splashed on the front page of a local daily, an image which has since resurfaced online after Muturi announced his presidential bid.
Luckily for Muturi, as the case against him unravelled, the prosecution’s key witness produced a diary with dates and notes written under them, implying that he had met and spoken to Muturi on the said days, and that he had kept a meticulous record of their interactions. Using his passport as his alibi, Muturi demonstrated that he had been out of the country on official judicial duty on the material days in which he was supposed to have met with his accusers.
The case collapsed spectacularly.
Dejected and humiliated, a 41 year old Muturi opted to leave the Judiciary, knowing someone had tested his blood and would only come after him for more. Considering he was facing what he deemed persecution from higher-ups within the ruling party KANU’s establishment – at the time even judges sang to the ruling party’s tune and wielded political and other power – Muturi knew he needed political protection.
As insane as this may sound, to run from KANU, Muturi ran to and with KANU. Afterall, the poker player in Muturi was still alive and well.
Part 3: From Boys to Men, to Speakers and Presidents
This is not what this story is about. But once upon a time, Justin Muturi and Uhuru Kenyatta used to catch pints together, often. Maybe they still do. Maybe they don’t. Or if they still do, maybe they don’t share a drink as often as they used to. Muturi doesn’t tell me any of this. He really says little about his well-known conviviality with President Kenyatta, even when I try to prode harder. I hear this from a former Member of Parliament who had occasion to hang out with the boys back in the good old carefree days of their first and second terms in Parliament.
After opting out of the Judiciary in 1997, Muturi went back home to Kanywambora, from where he launched his parliamentary bid for Siakago Constituency on a KANU ticket. Silas M’Njamiu Ita – a man who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps and who Muturi admired greatly and even campaigned for previously (he’s also the man whose name keeps popping up in the Tob Cohen murder case, since he was business partners with Cohen) – won the seat. The backstory is that Ita had originally wanted to run on KANU, but Muturi defeated him during the party primaries.
Ita then defected to DP, the party after Muturi’s own heart (Muturi’s choice of KANU was purely to seek protection). Under these circumstances – and Muturi tells me this is in no way an excuse – Muturi says he found it difficult to de-campaign DP and Kibaki, and only went after Ita, which was an ineffective way to seek votes. But then Ita died in 1999, and Muturi won the by-election.
Once in the National Assembly, Muturi went straight to the ruling party’s backbench.
‘‘Coming to parliament was quite exciting,’’ Muturi recalls. ‘‘I met my role model Mwai Kibaki, who was leader of the Official Opposition, and the likes of Wamalwa Kijana, Paul Muite, Raila Odinga, George Anyona, and my good friend and neighbour Mukhisa Kituyi.’’ Clearly, Muturi’s heart was in the opposition seeing that all those he mentions were opposition MPs.
On the KANU side, Muturi made friends with Uhuru Kenyatta, who just like Muturi had had an unsuccessful run for MP in 1997. As Muturi got to parliament through a by-election, Kenyatta came in through a 2001 nomination, after which he was made a Cabinet Minister and later on picked as one of four KANU vice chairmen. Then in 2002, President Moi handpicked Kenyatta as his successor, a move which made Muturi opt to stay in KANU in 2002, out of his own volition.
‘‘My friend had been groomed and brought in as a presidential candidate,’’ Muturi says of Kenyatta. ‘‘I couldn’t leave him.’’
Choosing to stick with his friend was one thing, getting elected in Siakago was another. In Muturi’s recollection, the 2002 general election was a herculean task for him, considering the NARC wave was sweeping the Mount Kenya region, with Kibaki as the favorite. When the dust settled, only Muturi and Maoka Maore made it back to Parliament on a KANU ticket from their region. To Muturi, he and Maore survived because voters considered them on their merits and ignored the party on which they were seeking re-election. Muturi survived. Kenyatta lost, and the independence party KANU found itself in the unfamiliar territory of opposition politics.
It was around this time, Muturi aged 46 and Kenyatta 41, that the duo’s friendship grew even closer. With Kenyatta as leader of the Official Opposition, Muturi came in handy as Chief Whip, chaperoning KANU’s 64 elected and four nominated legislators, among other members of the opposition. Muturi’s and Kenyatta’s closeness and usefulness also materialized in Kenyatta chairing the Public Accounts Committee while Muturi was dispatched to chair the Public Investments Committee (PIC). In a sense, the dynamic duo were KANU’s parliamentary engine.
However, for Kenyatta, the opposition benches weren’t his natural habitat. And so as 2007 beckoned, KANU absconded its opposition role and endorsed President Mwai Kibaki for a second term. Unfortunately for Muturi, he lost the 2007 election, but still hanged out with Uhuru Kenyatta’s KANU crew, where he became organizing secretary in 2009. By this time, factionalism was taking root within KANU, with Uhuru Kenyatta being targeted for ouster since his action of endorsing Kibaki threatened KANU’s electoral survival in the long run. Once again, Muturi stuck with Kenyatta, a move which almost cost Muturi his ascendency to the helm of the Center for Multiparty Democracy (CMD), a non-partisan agency strengthening political parties.
It was while serving as chairman of CMD for three years that Muturi regrouped politically.
‘‘I worked very closely with the President, who was a Deputy Prime Minister at the time, at a place called the UK Center, which was located next to Parliament,’’ Muturi says. ‘‘We were together with people like David Murathe, and my role was to handle all legislative affairs.’’
The initials UK stood for Uhuru Kenyatta.
That is how Muturi was in the mix as Kenyatta set up The National Alliance (TNA) party, through which Muturi unsuccessfully sought reelection in 2013. Luckily for Muturi, his friend became president, and was leading the coalition with the highest number of MPs. Using his connections at CMD, Muturi managed to find resources to whisk away MPs from the President’s coalition to Naivasha, where his bid for Speaker was consolidated. Unlike in the previous constitution where MPs could run for Speaker, the Constitution of Kenya 2010 sought individuals who qualified to be an MP but were not an MP to be Speaker. Muturi fit the bill and had pretty solid connections.
This is how the once-upon-a-time hangout buddies came to lead two arms of government.
For Kenyatta, being president came with little room for error. On the other hand, for Muturi, coming to lead a National Assembly which had transitioned from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government allowed some leg room for mistakes. And so in the early days of his speakership, Muturi was perceived as an impatient and forceful umpire. When I ask him whether this was a fair assessment, the man owns up. It was all new and a little chaotic.
‘‘Previously, we used to have ministers and their assistants in the house,’’ Muturi reasons, ‘‘and I must say, in a way, that used to bring a level of decorum. Those houses had 222 MPs, but today we have 349 MPs under a totally new system with no local precedents. We had to borrow dork places like America, Brazil and the Philippines. And so you have 349 members from all manner of backgrounds, some shouting each other down, some shouting at you and asking you who you think you are, and so on.’’
Muturi says at this point, his only saving grace was that he had been a magistrate, and knew how to take charge of situations. Otherwise, he opines, things could have collapsed very fast, and he wasn’t the only one who was of this opinion. MPs who had served in previous houses were similarly awestriken by the state of affairs in the new set up.
‘‘There was no alternative other than being firm,’’ he says. ‘‘But things have since improved.’’
It was while listening to various needs from MPs and making interventions that Muturi had a light-bulb moment and realized he could ably lead Kenya. This is because to him, the biggest gap in Kenya’s governance was the lack of implementation, which prompted Muturi to establish the Committee of Implementation in Parliament, whose work is to follow-up on whatever the house passes and see if government meets its end of the bargain. A lot of times, and regrettably so, there are always more misses than hits, because a committee of the house can only push the Executive so much. To rectify this, Muturi is singing a chorus of order, discipline and integrity.
On the day I am to interview Muturi, veteran media man turned Muturi confidante David Makali tells me Muturi has a breakfast meeting at the Serena, and that it would be nice if my colleagues and I passed by and started our day with the Speaker. We arrive at the Serena expecting an intimate gathering, only to find Muturi has locked down two ballrooms at the hotel – Frangipani and Allamanda – and social-distance-ly packed them with 100 Nairobi County politicos.
Until that moment, Muturi hadn’t explicitly pronounced that he is running for president, even after Gikuyu, Embu and Meru elders had taken turns subjecting him to mountain-climbing, hide-wearing and forest-isolating liturgies which culminated in his being crowned Spokesman of the Mount Kenya belt. Muturi considers the rituals sacred, and won’t delve into specifics. All he volunteers is that these were life-changing rites, which readied him for whatever eventuality.
‘‘You are being given a heavy responsibility,’’ Muturi says of the ceremonies he partook in, mostly in seclusion before the press got glimpses of the goings on, “and so you must think very hard, do some serious soul searching, before accepting what the elders are asking of you.’’
Muturi opens up that before the public witnessed his cultural coronation – happenings which caught the country by surprise considering no sitting Speaker has ever subjected themselves to such – elders from the larger Mount Kenya region had quietly approached him, one question in mind; What happens after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s final term comes to an end? At the time Muturi was approached by his interlocutors, the Building Bridges Initiative was running on full steam (and was soon running out of steam), and there were jitters that with President Kenyatta out of the picture, the people inhabiting the slopes of Mount Kenya may not have a mature, grounded and experienced individual to play all-politics-is-local poker with frontrunners from other regions of the country. Muturi was given three months to think about that question.
These were the precursors to the public events, first in Muturi’s backyard in Embu, after which the Embu elders delivered him to the Nchuri Ncheke shrine in Nchiru, Meru, who later on passed Muturi to the Gikuyu who did their thing at Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga in Muranga.
Muturi had answered the elders’ call, and the elders were satisfied. He was crowned Spokesman, with the elders reiterating that the role was apolitical.
However, a sea of campaign merchandise is floating at the Serena; from branded face masks to caps to polo shirts to life-size banners. ‘‘JB 2022’’. The uniformed ushers are all donning polos with the line ‘‘hatutaki soda, tunataka order!’’ In his own Machavelian way, the Speaker has appropriated order!, the terminology associated with his current vocation, and weaved it into his campaign lexicon. And now the operatives at the Serena were declaring – whether for optics or not – that they didn’t want Muturi’s handouts but were only interested in his bringing order!
The cultural facade had finally fallen off, and Muturi was now openly running for president.
After digging in on Muturi’s generous English breakfast buffet at the Serena, the group comprising former Councillors, sitting and former MCAs, former Mayors of Nairobi and a former MP psyche themselves up as they await Muturi’s arrival, the excitement so palpable as if they were meeting a sitting president. And when Muturi arrives, he turns tables on his guests in his typical poker-playing ways, and refuses to come across as the standoff-ish head-of-the-table kind of guy his no nonsense mannerisms on the Speaker’s throne make him look like, and opts to instead move from one table to the next, offering as many smiles and fist bumps.
Towering above them all, a purposely subdued-looking Muturi’s coup on the crowd works the magic – you could see in people’s eyes their astonishment at just how accessible Muturi had made himself, a far cry from his regal-looking life-size images projected across the room. Muturi should pay (again) whoever choreographed that man-of-the-people move for him.
To the uninitiated, Muturi could have been wasting money hosting that breakfast. But to those who know Nairobi, political gatekeeping is an entire industry, and one needs to speak to certain power brokers to procure access, especially of informal settlements. A story is told of how in 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta had a preferred candidate for Nairobi Governor, but when the said individual attempted to hold a meeting in Dandora, his convoy was blocked miles away from the venue and his run for governor was stillborn out of that one incident. For Muturi, much as he kept telling me politics has no formula, he understood these sorts of protocols.
However, the biggest take-away from the Serena breakfast was that Muturi is purposefully avoiding critiquing President Uhuru Kenyatta directly for his administration’s failures. Rather, speaking in his way of saying without saying, Muturi laid blame on everyone else – svengalis surrounding the President and bureaucrats and apparatchiks working under Kenyatta – whom he blamed for subjecting the head of state to non-presidential chores of either having to shout himself hoarse repeating the same instructions over and over again like a broken record, or having to do supervisory roles in areas which should be competently handled by designated functionaries.
‘‘‘For me, the issues I am talking about are very dear to my heart,’’ Muturi tells me when we speak at his home, revisiting his Serena remarks earlier that morning. ‘‘The quality of service we give to our people is of concern to me. We have too many good ideas in this country. We talk about Vision 2030 and the Big Four Agenda, but why are we not achieving any of them?’’
To Muturi, Kenya’s public service is where the lethargy is at.
‘‘The entire public sector needs a rejig,’’ he says. ‘‘For me, if you’re unable to perform the job you’re given, then please take a walk. We have so many qualified young people. ’’
Muturi speaks with a firmness when he says these things, as if he could literally move from office to office enforcing. And yet he has to balance this with his admiration for Mwai Kibaki, who was a largely hands-off president. But maybe Muturi’s blessing, which is also his curse, is that he has watched from a vantage point as his friend has governed, and knows what’s possible and what isn’t. The curse is that he has to tread carefully as he seeks votes, not to paint his friend in bad light as an incompetent who couldn’t steady the ship. In fact, when I ask Muturi whether he’s had any conversations about his candidature with President Kenyatta, Muturi drops the matter like a hot potato. He adopts the ‘‘it wouldn’t be fair for me to go there,’’ but it’s clear Muturi is making his calculations, President Kenyatta is making his, and maybe they are both making certain calculations together, or not. It can be dicey, this friendship business.
After the Serena session, and after nearly everyone tries taking selfies with Muturi before he is whisked away to the waiting press, my colleagues and I are instructed to follow the Speaker’s motorcade to his home, where we are to have our sit down. There are only two instructions, first, ‘‘You have clearance,’’ and second, ‘‘Lose him in traffic at your own peril.’’ And so my colleagues and I pack up our cameras and line up right behind the Speaker’s convoy of three Mercedes Benzes, sleek S Class stretches. The whole chase-after-the-Speaker story has an you-shouldn’t-be-doing-this feel to it, but we need the interview, and we’d been given a brief.
Once Muturi is done speaking to journalists, he slides into the back left of his NA1-plated ride and off the sirens go. From Serena it is a quick rush into Nyerere Road, all the way up to the St. Paul’s Chapel junction, at which point the trail of Mercedes Benzes takes the wrong side of the road and speeds up to the University Way roundabout. An occupant of the lead car has a quick tete-a-tete with the traffic cop, before the vehicles are given the greenlight to take the wrong side of University Way. In a matter of seconds, they’re all rushing down Slip Road and into the Globe Cinema roundabout. From Globe it is up Kipande Road, followed by swift manoeuvres at the Ojijo Road roundabout, onto Taarifa Road, then Parklands Road speeding all the way up to the Sarit Center roundabout, where they take the third exit onto Ring Road Parklands, going up past The Oval, past Eldama Ravine Road, from where it’s a smooth ride up to the Speaker’s.
In our eagerness to not lose the Speaker, we have moments where we are driving too close to the chase car, so much so that it’s occupants beckon at us to take it easy. This entire time, as one of my colleagues sticks out his window holding a camera, I keep wondering if this is all a prank and we’re all about to get into some serious trouble. Eventually, we arrive at Thigiri.
Muturi’s residence is quite the spectacle.
At the bottom of his sloping compound sits a huge gazebo – bar, kitchen, indoor and outdoor dining areas, and a well landscaped garden rushing back up the hill to his house, with a covered pool. And yet Muturi seems unfazed, as if he’s just a passerby. We set up for the interview, have our long chat, and I have to stop with the questions because the Speaker is starting to show signs of exhaustion, much as he tells me he skips lunch on most occasions when working, a practice he perfected as a magistrate who wanted to avoid unnecessary adjournments when those appearing before him had traveled long distances to come dispense with a matter.
During the Serena event, I spot a conspicuous man dressed in a cut-to-fit pinstriped navy blue Kaunda suit, head clean shaven, donning dark eyeglasses and rarely speaking to anyone. He walks around a bit, no one asks him any questions. He looks like the sort of guy who would be running the show, but his sense of nonchalance makes one want to overlook him, yet you can’t.
Then it all becomes clear.
At the time we’re asked to trail Muturi’s motorcade, we get introduced to the guy, who had all along given me Mobutu-Sese-Seko-Kuku-Ngbendu-Wa-Za-Banga-swagger vibes, but it goes a notch higher when I see him standing next to an oldie but goldie red Mercedes Benz which is in a most pristine condition and whose engine, when it breathes, seems to have the firepower of a little nuclear warhead. When it raves, the ground seems to shake around it.
Sammy Njue Njiru. Muturi’s PA.
It is this man who I thought never talks who helps demystify Muturi for me.
In the early ‘90s, as Muturi worked as a magistrate in Machakos, Muturi was also serving as the chairman of the board of governors of a local school back in Siakago, a school which Sammy was attending. Whenever Muturi showed up with his Peugeot 504, Sammy and his schoolmates would always pose for photos next to the vehicle, aspiring to be like Muturi someday. It is from that setting, of Sammy looking up to Muturi, that the duo built a friendship spanning three decades, with Sammy volunteering to be Muturi’s personal driver in nearly all his campaigns.
It is Sammy who carries the memories of Muturi’s wins and losses, and shares with me his biggest heartbreak – him being by Muturi’s side while Muturi lost the 2007 elections, and receiving a call that his home in Eldoret (where he was working and had taken a two month leave to go campaign for Muturi) had been razed to the ground during the post-election violence. ‘‘My soul felt empty,’’ Sammy tells me. Both he and Muturi were out of work, but the friendship persisted, and now he treads carefully not to let their history interfere with work.
When we’re all done and dusted with the interview, Muturi invites my colleagues and I for lunch at his gazebo. He comes in after everyone has eaten and sits in a corner alone. After the Speaker is done with lunch, he has a quick word with Sammy, who then places a call to the motorcade which drives down the long sloping driveway to the bottom of the compound, turns around in formation and parks in front of the gazebo. Muturi says goodbye as he walks into the vehicle, dressed in one of his now familiar long sleeve navy blue Kaunda suits, as if matching with Sammy.
That moment of the Mercedes Benzes coming down the slope and Muturi taking the steps from the gazebo into the car and getting whisked away felt as if it was frozen in time, with Muturi moving as if no one else was present. Sammy turned to me, as we had our chit chat, and asked me – this coming after I had given him grief as to why he thought Muturi should be Kenya’s next president – and asked with all the sincerity he could muster, ‘‘Doesn’t he look presidential?’’
All I could offer was a grin.
Muturi had made his case. The Kenyan voter will decide.
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