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How Nderitu Gachagua weathered major political storms

Nderitu Gachagua. (Photo: Kibata Kihu/Standard)

Nyeri Governor Nderitu Gachagua, who died Friday, can be said to have come full circle.

From a parliamentary backbencher, Gachagua rose to be an influential political player by capturing the coveted governor’s seat in the 2013 elections. He became the pioneer governor of Nyeri County.

His influence at the national level can be well illustrated by his nomination to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s re-election campaign team, despite his flailing health and long absence from the political scene.

And he was determined to continue with his political life, having agreed to fold his party and joined the Jubilee Party (JP).

In an interview with The Standard early this month, Gachagua insisted he would be in the ballot as he had already paid the nomination fee at JP, ready for the primaries.

Grassroots mobiliser

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Those who know Gachagua and worked closely with him describe him as an astute grassroots mobiliser with a capability of weathering any political storm.

In his lifetime, Gachagua was a suave politician, with a gift of the gab that enthralled even his rivals with his capability of articulating issues.

It is not lost to many that during his political life, Gachagua was involved in a supremacy battle with wealthy Mathira politician Ephraim Maina.

The two antagonists have been the face of Nyeri politics as they flexed their political muscles, having interchangeably represented Mathira Constituency as MP.

Maina replaced Gachagua as Mathira MP in 2007 and the two were separated in the 2013 elections when they went for different positions. Maina vied for the Senate seat, but lost to Mutahi Kagwe, a Gachagua ally. Despite being elected on a minority party – Grand National Union (GNU) – Gachagua survived two impeachment bids at the County Assembly populated by The National Alliance (TNA) members.

To compound his situation, the working relationship with local MPs was, to say the least, truculent as the legislators were always at loggerheads with him.

The full-blown antagonism was laid bare during his last impeachment bid in September last year when the MPs came out in the open to support the MCAs.

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During the much-publicised impeachment that ended up in the Senate, Gachagua had some unsavoury words about the MPs, dismissing some of them as semi-literate.

But generally, Gachagua was an allegory of resilience as he managed to nip in the bud any attempt to derail his government operations by the TNA-dominated assembly whose relationship can be summed up as adversarial.

Gachagua, who was the GNU secretary general, surprised many in the 2013 elections when he defied the TNA euphoria in Mt Kenya region to romp home with 136,985 votes.

His closest rival Dr Gakuru Wahome of TNA managed 126,449 votes.

Born in 1953, Gachagua holds a degree in Building Economics and a Bachelor of Law from the University of Nairobi.

After clinching the seat, Gachagua had to surmount another challenge in an election petition lodged by another contestant, Thuo Mathenge, who emerged third in the race.

With his government up and running after the initial hiccups, his ill-health was however to become the metaphor of his new regime.

For nearly three years, Gachagua was repeatedly admitted to different hospitals in Kenya and abroad after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And the end came Friday morning at 2.15am at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London where he was undergoing treatment.

From India to London, Gachagua was constantly on the plane, seeking medical attention as his health deteriorated.

His health problems started manifesting themselves after the Jamhuri Day of 2014, which was his last assignment that year before he flew out to seek medical attention.

His long absence threw the grapevine overdrive, with speculation over his health dominating the public sphere, as the family and the county government remained tight lipped.

Triumphant reception

On March 15, 2015, Gachagua seemed to have recovered and returned home to a triumphant reception in Nyeri town, where special thanksgiving prayers were held.

When he returned, Gachagua rebuked his adversaries for “spending too much talking about my health yet my government was still functioning in my absence”.

“I’m human and can get ill at any time. I have been in the United Kingdom for two months after being taken ill. While in the UK, several medical tests were undertaken and treatment given and I am now much better and ready to resume my mandate,” he told The Standard on returning from the UK.

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Just two months later, Gachagua returned to London for what the family described as “another check-up”, leading to widespread speculation that his health was worse than the family had been letting on.

The news about his health was kept under wraps by close family members, with only his wife, Margaret Karungaru, volunteering scanty details about his condition.

Anxiety was palpable in the agriculturally rich county, as Gachagua’s continued absence continued to confound both his foes and allies, with little information forthcoming.

His tenure has generally been plagued by his ill-health as he was in and out of hospital for checkups.

Once he was diagnosed with cancer and advised against too much public exposure, Gachagua was always accompanied by his second-born daughter, Dr Wanjira Gachagua, a medical doctor based in Australia.

During his tenure as governor, he was constantly at loggerheads with some leaders over his controversial pool marketing of coffee.

Coffee and tea marketing, which he identified as the hallmark of his government, was a double-edged sword for him.

While he launched the ambitious pool marketing of coffee by looking for direct markets abroad, many hailed it as a breakthrough in the sector. Gachagua was optimistic that coffee farmers would reap good prices from the pool marketing system that would make delayed payment to growers a thing of the past.

But when the strategy backfired when marketers became erratic and not able to pay, all leaders were on his case.

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