Political Jesters, Sloganeers and Acrobats among the Abaluyia
By Maurice N. Amutabi
The Abaluyia political class has had a fair share of its court jesters, cheer leaders, jokers, sloganeers and political acrobatics. From Joseph Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro, Elijah Mwangale, Moody Awuor to Sylvester Wekoli, the arena has been reverberating with political wisdom, great political jokes, creative laughter lines and serious political engineering. Joseph Martin Shikuku is perhaps one of the most famous politicians from Western Kenya, and best known political entertainers. He is the only remaining politician to have participated in the Lancaster Conference independent talks in London and never misses an opportunity today so. On Lancaster Conference, Shikuku has always boasted about his role, saying that people like former President Daniel Moi were briefcase carriers for the real big boys, of whom Shikuku was one.
Although they both seem to have used comedy to great effect, Martin Shikuku and Sylvester Wekoli are miles apart. Shikuku was serious and more purposeful in his jokes, whereas Wekoli’s antics sometimes border on the absurd, because of their simplicity and imprudence. Take for instance Wekoli’s waling at parliamentary grounds, with hands on his head, “Woi, Moody Awori is a dictator.” It was obviously great humour and jesting and on the part of Wekoli and earned him a place in the headlines, but Martin Shikuku would still make the same point and appear in the headlines by calling those he disagreed with bad names. This is because Shikuku was tactical as he was witty and scheming. All the same, the two seem to get their message across, although differently.
Martin Shikuku was a political maverick and gadfly, with a difference. This is a position he shared with Peter Kibisu, Masinde Muliro, Lawrence Sifuna, Francis Obongita, and younger Elijah Mwangale among the Abaluyia politicians. All other Abaluyia politicians have been conformists, of some sort. Shikuku was made famous in Western Kenya largely due to his political creativity in parliament where he was a master of the standing orders. Presiding speakers always referred to him as an authority on any misunderstanding on standing order issues, because of his experience. Many young politicians were always keen to learn from the master, Shikuku. In various places and interviews, the ‘seven bearded sisters’ have confessed that they always tried to emulate Martin Shikuku, because he was the master debater and the standard of what it meant to be an effective MP.
Former President Jomo Kenyatta feared Martin Shikuku and many times tried to befriend him, by appointing him an assistant minister in his government. In 1975, they disagreed with Kenyatta’s regime. The deputy speaker Jean-Marie Seroney and Butere MP Joseph Martin Shikuku were both detained in 1975, after Shikuku announced to the National Assembly that KANU was ‘dead’ as a political party because it had failed to abide by the ideals that brought it to power at independence and had been hijacked by people who did not even fight for independence. This is a remark that Martin Shikuku made in reference to armchair politicians who were not popular in their constituencies and who were in parliament because of the support of the establishment.
In the 1975 case, the deputy speaker Jean-Marie Seroney, then in the speaker’s seat of the House, agreed with the Member for Butere and replied to demands for substantiation by Kenyatta’s cronies by stating that Martin Shikuku’s remarks did not need to be substantiated as the point was “obvious.” Vice President and leader of Government Business in the House, Daniel Moi protested these comments. He led a walkout from the chamber supported by Kenyatta loyalists on the front bench and a considerable number of ordinary MPs.
In subsequent parliamentary debates, Kenyatta’s loyalists attended the business of the house only when substantive Speaker Fred Mate was in the speaker’s chair but walked out as soon as the deputy speaker Jean-Marie Seroney took up the seat. Because of Martin Shikuku, parliament was divided down the middle and most of the legislations made in the absence of the Speaker Fred Mate were not even covered in the parliamentary record, the Hansard.
Seroney and Shikuku and their supporters were ignored while they carried ahead with their debates. The continued division in parliament appeared to embarrass the government and might have been the reason why the government moved into parliament and arrested the deputy speaker Jean-Marie Seroney and MP Martin Shikuku and took them to detention. The two were arrested in the precincts of parliament under the pretext of national security, for accusing Kenyatta’s regime of covering up the assassination of the popular Member of Parliament for Nyandarua North, J.M Kariuki. Jean-Marie Seroney was detained for going along with MP Martin Shikuku.
Martin Shikuku was the father to radical parliamentary debating, always getting the ministers in trouble. He served in parliament during the Golden Age of Kenya’s parliament. This age has been associated with “the seven bearded sisters,” who included Mathew Onyango Midika (Nyando), Koigi Wamwere (Nakuro North, now Subukia), Chibule wa Tsuma (Kaloleni), Mashengu wa Mwachofi (Wundanyi), and Chelagat Mutai (Eldoret North), Lawrence Sifuna (Bumula) and Abuya Abuya and George Anyona (Kitutu East). These so-called radicals (who included Martin Shikuku) rejected politics of patronage which President Moi’s regime perfected and used effectively to divide MPs.
Self styled as ‘peoples’ watchman’ Martin Shikuku always lived to the title. He asked questions on behalf of ‘faceless’ people and interrogated ministers to the point of almost always getting want he wanted. He was made an assistant minister by the Moi regime in order to be silenced but the son of Oyondi refused to be silenced. In order to tame Martin Shikuku, President Moi made him an assistant minister in his government, from 1979 to 1985 when he could not tolerate Shikuku’s opposition inside and outside parliament anymore, when this could not work, he ordered for his detention
There is no politician in Kenya who has mastered the art of public speaking better than Shikuku. Shikuku fitted on political platforms like a fish in water. He was at home with crowds. He was only rivalled by perhaps Peter Kibisu, Francis Obongita and Masinde Muliro in the mastery of the public political platform in Western Kenya. Shikuku was famous for his capacity to arouse interest in crowds on political platforms. His antics on using sticks (ebisala) to make his political points were well-known. he would make a point, and throw down a stick, saying ‘eshisal shiesio’ which was a traditional way of negotiating which the Abaluyia used in the past, because there was no writing. The person making a rebuttal needed to return the sticks as counter arguments. Whenever there was a political rally involving all politicians, Shikuku always spoke last because after he spoke, everyone walked away. More recently, Martin Shikiku courted more controversy by preparing his own grave and buying his coffin.
Elijah Mwangale always made jokes using animals such as hyenas and rabbits for illustration, something that Prime Minister Raila Odinga seems to have perfected in the recent past. his boomeranging voice was always heard and noticeable whenever former president Moi visited Western Kenya. Francis Obongita, who represented Mumias constituency between 1975-1979, always joked about his diminutive frame, saying that parliament was not a heavyweight boxing contest. Ellon Wameyo joked about his disability, to great effect.
Sylvester Wekoli has recently joked about his ugliness which will not make him attract a homosexual suitor. Moody Awuor has been famous for his slogan, ‘Lelo, Luno, ni Moody’ (translates as ‘today and now, it is Moody’). Bonny Khalwale has recently emerged as an interesting politician in the region with this trademark bullfighting antics. He roused crowds and caused a stir in Kitale town during the funeral of late Vice President Michael Wamalwa Kijana when he arrived in wearing a skin of a colubus monkey (indivisi) and a spear in hand, having brought a troupe of traditional funeral celebrants from his constituency in Kakamega, replete with bulls. Abaluyia politicians have always had a litany of good jokes and slogans which have kept the crowds entertained and informed.
Prof. Amutabi teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. Amutabi@yahoo.com