Beware the ides of August

Published: 28-SEP-04

By Patrick Mwangi

With the death of Kenya’s minister for tourism and wildlife, Mr Karisa Maitha, the ill wind that has followed the Narc government since it was inaugurated almost one and a half years ago has shown that it is yet to blow over.

Mr Maitha was his usual hale and hearty self when he left the country for a promotional tour of Europe in August. He proceeded to Frankfurt in Germany for a series of media interviews, and was on the telephone to a Kenyan journalist working for Radio Duetsche Welle when he suffered a heart attack. All attempts to revive him by paramedics were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced dead on arrival at a Frankfurt hospital. He practically died while working, something which struck a strong chord of empathy with Kenyans.

The death was not only because of its sudden nature, but because Mr Maitha led a very public, active and energetic lifestyle. The nation went into mourning, and there were heart-rending scenes as the minister’s body was flown into the country, laid in state for public viewing, and later interred at his home in the country’s Coast Province. With his death, the country lost a dynamic and hard-working minister, and an aggressive (cynics might say crude) politician.

Mr Maitha is the fourth Narc minister to die in office. The ill wind started with the death of the minister for labour, Mr Ahmed Khalif, in January 2003. Mr Khalif died when the plane ferrying him and three other ministers crashed while attempting to take off. The other ministers survived and were soon back to their duties after being released from hospital.

Mr Khalif, unfortunately, hardly got the opportunity to demonstrate his capacities, unlike Mr Maitha, who had come to command considerable respect for his work.

The next minister to die in office was Mr Geoffrey Parpai, who was a minister in the Office of the President. Mr Parpai died in August 2003 after a prolonged illness and hospitalisation in an American hospital. As with Mr Khalif, Mr Parpai never got an opportunity to demonstrate his skills in running a ministry to Kenyans.

Shortly thereafter, vice president Micheal Wamalwa died in a London hospital, where he had been hospitalised for several months. The vice president’s death brought a national outpouring of grief. A popular man, charming with an easy manner, his command of the English language and his gentlemanly mien in politics endeared him to many.

And in January this year, Mr Job Omino, an assistant minister for foreign affairs, died after a long illness.

All these deaths have been a major source of internal instability within the ruling party. Some, like the former vice-president’s, have resulted in major re-alignments within the ruling party, whose partners have never settled down and have been perpetually quarreling over the sharing of the spoils of their electoral victory.

Interestingly, in previous elections, defections and petitions have been the major cause of by-elections. But this time round, deaths have caused most of the by-elections. And by-elections are normally causes for a lot of political anxiety, because they provide an opportunity for political forces to engage afresh in never ending battles for supremacy. And there are no guarantees.

In Maitha’s case, it is even more so. Maitha was a kingpin of the Coast, President Mwai Kibaki’s pointman in that region. The President demonstrated some of this anxiety during Maitha’s burial when he asked the residents of his constituency to vote for somebody who will continue the late minister’s legacy (read: a fiercely loyal person with whom I can work closely). Obviously, he is looking for someone who will continue carrying the torch. It cannot be a comfortable situation, wondering when this will end or whether you are doomed to continue burying your ministers with all the hard decisions about cabinet reshuffles and new ministerial appointments that inevitably come with the death of a member of the cabinet.

With Maitha’s death, the morbidity associated with the month of August has now become a set feature of the country’s body politic. Kenyans are now sure that the month of August bodes ill for the nation. Too much trauma is associated with the month.

This angst over the month of August seems to have been kicked off by the death of the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who died in August 1978. Kenyatta died peacefully in his sleep.

Another traumatic event occurred in August 1998, when 200 Kenyans lost their lives in a bomb blast in Nairobi. The bomb, targeted at the American embassy in Nairobi, actually brought down a neighbouring building, and extensively damaged others nearby. The effects of that bombing are still with Kenyans today through painful memories and many maimed individuals struggling to piece together their lives again.

So for many Kenyans, August is a month best seen the last of. For the President and his inner circle, it might be time to visit the medicine man.

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