In Summary
  • Maathai believed that her divorce was tied to the politics surrounding the 1975 disappearance and murder of vocal Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki.
  • Born on August 15, 1935 in Njoro, Mathai had started his career as a sales representative with Colgate Palmolive (East Africa) Limited before later plunging into Nairobi politics.
  • He had first run for the Lang’ata seat in 1969 and lost to Yunis Ali, who received 3,591 votes against Mathai’s 3,030, only to win the seat later in the 1974 elections.

By the time he died last week, Andrew Mwangi Mathai had been forgotten.

His only remaining claim to fame was being the ex-husband of Nobel laureate, the late Wangari Maathai. The rest of his story, to many people, is just but a blank book.

For those who have been following Meru Senator Mithika Linturi and Marianne Kitany’s divorce case, the case between Mathai and Maathai was as fascinating in late 1970s.

Mathai had gone through this well-publicised divorce, heard by Justice Zaccheaus Chesoni, in which he had accused his wife of adultery with Nyeri politician Waruru Kanja – a close family friend – and which also launched Wangari’s fight with the judiciary and the political system.

Unknown to many, Mathai was once a powerful politico of the Jomo Kenyatta era.

He was also as ruthless as they came and hobnobbed with figures such as Ignatius Nderi, the powerful director of criminal investigations, police commissioner Ben Gethi and director of intelligence James Kanyotu.

JM KARIUKI SAGA

By playing within such circles, power, ego, hubris develops. Actually, Maathai believed that her divorce was tied to the politics surrounding the 1975 disappearance and murder of vocal Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki – in which her husband had sided with the security chiefs.

She told the court: “My husband and Mr Kanja had had a split over the JM Kariuki issue (and) I was sympathetic to the (Elijah Mwangale) Probe Committee. Even when they voted in Parliament, they voted in opposite camps.

"The discussion and split continued even at home. Later, my husband told me that he had been warned by the director of CID, Mr Nderi, about any further association with Mr Kanja. The split started in 1975 when JM Kariuki died.”

But was Mathai trying to soil Kanja’s name because of the JM issue – and were the likes of Nderi involved in the divorce?

Kanja also believed that it was the JM issue that saw him included as a co-respondent in the case.

“As of today,” he told the court, “Mr Mathai and I do not see eye to eye, let alone our political groupings. We no longer consult each other. He is still in the opposite camp. In 1974, we were running for an election and in 1975 we had this crisis, which nearly wrecked this country after JM’s death. And after the voting, even Parliament itself was split.

"I was in the opposite camp and Mathai was in the other, and we voted likewise, and this has continued insofar as the two of us are concerned.”

SHOCKING RULING

Asked why Mathai, who was also an MP, would involve his name in a domestic matter, Mr Kanja said: “So as to satisfy his ego, whatever reason he has, they are his own. And he would apply any method to achieve what he wants to achieve.”

It was an immensely political divorce – and the truth lies in between.

Shortly after the divorce, Maathai told Salim Lone’s Viva magazine that she was shocked by the “court’s acceptance of the divorce on the grounds of adultery. That charge was never proved in court, and I will say without fear that there can only be two reasons for the court to have said that I committed adultery: corruption or incompetence.”

Asked to apologise, Maathai twisted the knife: “It has been suggested to me that I should, in the face of the confusion which has ensued, apologise even if I think I am right. In my school days, they taught me to some effect think that honesty is the best policy. I would be dishonest if I were to say that my divorce case was handled competently and honestly.”

For that, Maathai landed in trouble with Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who took her and Mr Lone to court for contempt.

Mr Njonjo asked the court to commit Maathai and Mr Lone to prison “and for such further or other orders as may seem just to the court, for their several contempts” of the court in publishing the article in question.

MILTON OBOTE

It was a peculiar case and it was the first time a person had been charged with “scandalising the court” – a type of criminal contempt for which no specific provision existed in the laws because it was a rare offence, then.

Besides the divorce, Mathai earned his name in any sector in which he worked.

In the days when Uganda had plunged into turmoil as post-Obote II coups led by Tito Lutwa Okello and Bazilio Olara-Okello became an avenue of sleaze and highway robberies, it was members of Mathai’s Kenya Transporters Association who bore the brunt of the mayhem.

President Milton Obote had returned to power in December 1980 with the support of the likes of Paulo Muwanga and Oyite Ojok, but had his authority challenged by a young guerrilla leader, Yoweri Museveni.

But President Obote’s soldiers, like those of Idi Amin before him, were ruthless, rudderless and would hijack lorries full of goods and vanish.

Kenyan traders were the main victims, and it was left to Mathai to lobby and give assurances to a frightened industry.

Some of the stolen Kenyan goods would end up in the hands of Mr Museveni’s Popular (later National) Resistance Army, which was then waging a bush war and looking for provisions.

COFFEE BUSINESS

Mr Museveni, for starters, had vied for the December 1980 elections and lost, thus kick-starting a propaganda blitz that Obote had stolen his votes – even in the Mbarara North constituency.

But Mathai also knew that members of KTA were also involved in magendo (corrupt) business and would often be used by Uganda buccaneers to transport coffee into the black market.

Whether he was involved, too, in this coffee racket is not clear, but what we know is that some of his members were doing underhand business with the Uganda Cooperative Transport Union, which was used to ferry Uganda coffee to powerful conduits in Kenya.

While Mathai wanted – at least in public - contracts for coffee transportation to be signed through the association, it is not clear how far he succeeded or how deeply he was involved in the vice too.

So vocal and powerful was Mathai that in late 1970s, he had been elected by Parliament to chair what became known as Mwangi Mathai Select Committee of Parliament on the Coastal Strip, which recommended that the absentee landlords in the Coast Province should stop receiving land rates from squatters. Among members of that committee was Ronald Ngala.

Had the recommendations of Mathai been implemented that early, the Coast land crisis would have been settled early enough.

Among the recommendations was that all landless people in the Coast province were to be registered and that all abandoned farms, state and trust land were to be identified for “mammoth” settlement programme in favour of the landless people in the region.

NAIROBI POLITICS

He had also cut his teeth in the insurance industry and had, in January 1971, been appointed by then-Finance minister Mwai Kibaki to the board of the State Reinsurance Corporation of Kenya – which later became the Kenya Re-Insurance and by 1980, when he retired, he was one of the longest-serving members of the immensely successful parastatal.

Before that, all of the reinsurance in the country was underwritten abroad.

Born on August 15, 1935 in Njoro, Mathai had started his career as a sales representative with Colgate Palmolive (East Africa) Limited before later plunging into Nairobi politics.

He had first run for the Lang’ata seat in 1969 and lost to Yunis Ali, who received 3,591 votes against Mathai’s 3,030, only to win the seat later in the 1974 elections.

In the 1969 polls, Ali had surprised everyone by beating veteran politician Eliud Mathu in a, at times, hilarious election.

In those days, all candidates would do joint meetings and Mathai would turn up with a better sound system.

In 1979, he lost the Lang’ata seat to Phillip Leakey – the only Kenyan of British origin to have won a parliamentary seat after independence – polling 6,680 votes against Leakey’s 8,559.

It was a sweet victory for Leakey, who had lost the 1974 race to Mathai and lost again in a court petition.

MATATU INDUSTRY

A man with interests in real estate and the transport sector, Mathai was once the chairman of the Automobile Association in the late 1980s after he ousted AAA Ekirapa in July 1987.

It was during his tenure that AAA, or rather Mathai, started pushing the government to regulate the matatu industry, arguing that it was turning into a rogue institution and would be hard to tame in the near future.

He was also the chairman of Kenya Transporters Association and lobbied hard for a free market system, arguing that most transporters were suffering due to high insurance premiums that were driving many companies out of business.

Transporters relied on Mathai’s lobbying within the government and in the corridors of power to shield them from unfavourable laws.

At best, Mr Mathai lobbied the minister for Transport to appoint a member of the KTA to sit in the Transport Licensing Board (TLB), but the smugglers continued to thrive, building commercial empires that still stand today.

LOW PROFILE

Like all other politicians of his time, Mathai was also a founder of a land-buying company, Langata Development Company, which had a 200-acre farm in Kasarani, among other properties.

That company was recently in the news after it was involved in a scandalous theft of a widow’s land in Thika.

But he managed to keep away from the limelight – and was eclipsed by the popularity of his ex-wife Wangari Maathai, who refused to drop the family surname, instead adding an extra “a” to the name Mathai.

Jkamau@ke.nationmedia.com @johnkamau1