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John Keen, the politician whose life was full of drama

While making arrangements for the late politician John Keen funereal early last week, the funeral committee had to scratch their heads on one issue: Where do they take his body for requiem service? The man had never been to any church or identified with one!

As the writer of his yet to be published biography, I had asked him why he never believed in religion and never went to church. He had answered in a story. At his first school, the then Narok African Government School, in the 1930s, Jesus Christ and the angels appeared in pictures looking like white men while the devil was put in black to look like an African.

“The impression was that Heaven was for the white people while the devil and Africans belonged in hell,” Mr Keen had told me in disgust. “That is what made me vow never to identify with any religion or church.”

Thus on Wednesday, his requiem service had to be held at his Karen home in Nairobi and conducted by priests from the various churches attended by members of his large family.

Keen’s other name could as well have been “Mr Rebellion”. While in Form Two at the Alliance High School in 1946, he had annoyed Carey Francis, the famous headmaster, by repainting the map of Africa fully in black and not in the five colours that represented the colonising powers: Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Angered by the act, the headmaster called Keen to his office and asked: “Young man, what do you mean by re-painting the map of Africa in black?”

Without batting an eyelid, the student responded: “I did that because Africa belongs to the black people!”

The head teacher reportedly told him to “stop dreaming”: We have just defeated the mighty German army (that was a year after World War II). What makes you think Africans can ever defeat the British?”

AFRICA SHALL BE FREE

“Just wait and you will see it happen,” the young student said, “Africa shall be free one day not far away!”

Shortly after Kenya’s Independence in 1963, Keen bumped unto his old headmaster in the streets of Nairobi and couldn’t help reminding him of the conversation.

At Alliance, like in some secondary schools then and now, Form One students were usually subjected to bullying on the first day of admission by their counterparts in Form Two and other classes.

But that did not happen to young Keen who carried a big rungu to school and dared anybody to touch him. Dawson Mwanyumba, one of the Form Two boys who intended to harass Keen, later became a Cabinet minister. He and Keen would jokingly refer to one another as Bwana Rungu.

From Alliance, Keen was recruited to join the British Army. He didn’t last long before he was fired. Why? He demanded to use the ablution block reserved for the Whites-only in those days of racial discrimination.

On being kicked out, Keen found good company in the protest media that was agitating for independence. It didn’t take long before colonialists banned the protest media and sent some journalists to prison.

Consequently, the independence movement went underground and Mau Mau rebellion was born. It was during this period that Keen narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose for being in illegal possession of six bullets.

“Just one illegal bullet was enough for you to be sent to the gallows. I was hiding six of them in my tiny room in Eastlands. Luckily, somebody tipped me that there was going to be a search and I hid them where they could not be found before my contacts passed them over to Mau Mau fighters. I would have been hanged six times over!” he recalled.

As the Mau Mau freedom war escalated, the British Labour Party dispatched to Kenya two members of Parliament, Fenner Brockway and Leslie Hale, to investigate and report back on the situation.

TRAVELLED TO LONDON

Keen was among the people the two British MPs secretly met. The colonial police intelligence got wind of it and arrested him. Asked what he had discussed with the two, he had blurted out: “We discussed independence for Kenya and nothing else!” Not knowing what else to ask him, he was told to go back home.

At the Lancaster House Conference on Kenya independence in early 1960s, Keen travelled to London armed with a memorandum demanding compensation for the Maasai for the land forcibly taken away from them by the British colonialists.

When his document was trashed away at the conference, he walked out in protest and boarded an airplane for home. He later flew out to Moscow to send the message to colonialists that Russians were there “for us if you don’t want us!”

Come Independence and Keen didn’t cool down. Elected to be one of the Kenyan MPs at the East African Legislative Assembly in Arusha, Tanzania, he passionately campaigned for federation of the three East African states: Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Frustrated that his efforts were not bearing fruit, one day an angry Keen shouted in the Kenyan Parliament that the only way to have the three East African states become one nation was to first overthrow the governments.

The day after his remark, he was picked by police and placed in detention without trial for nine months.

For sometime John Keen choose to “behave well” and watch his caustic tongue. So “reformed” he became that he was appointed assistant minister.
But all that changed when a fiery Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki was assassinated in 1975.

On the day his decomposed body was discovered at the City Mortuary and the matter reached Parliament, MPs went into a rage, forcing cabinet ministers, including then Vice President Daniel Moi, to flee Parliament Buildings with flags removed from their official cars. Keen was among the enraged MPs.

Fearing that he could be arrested for the words he uttered on the floor of the House, the following day he went to Parliament with a pistol concealed in his breast-pocket!

“I carried my gun with me just in case somebody wanted me to disappear JM way. Should that happen, I thought I should go down fighting!” he recalled.

When a parliamentary committee tabled its report on the JM murder, the government side wanted it just “noted” but not adopted by the House.

Keen, though a member of government, voted against this together with Cabinet minister Masinde Muliro and assistant minister Peter Kibisu.

Keen would later say: “There’s no collective responsibility in murder!”

VOICE OF REASON
When Moi became President in 1978, Keen was appointed assistant minister in the Office of the President.

He says in his unpublished memoirs: “Somehow, Moi trusted me. Though hot-headed, I was honest with him. I was one of the very few people who could tell him to his face what he didn’t want to hear.”

It is Keen who convinced Moi that it wasn’t good to leave the country on the weekend the attempted military coup took place in August 1982.

Other presidential advisers, under-estimating the gravity of the matter, saw nothing wrong with Moi leaving the country for Libya to attend the annual Organisation of African Unity (African Union) conference.

Keen was also the only voice of reason in the Moi court in the countdown to the introduction of a multi-party political system.

“On analysing the whole situation, I knew multi-party was an idea whose time had come and nobody could stop it. The sad thing at the time was that Moi and his trusted advisers were in a state of denial. I kept telling the President that the tide was so strong it would sweep him away if he stood on the way,” he says in the memoirs.

He remembers advising Moi that multiparty agitators, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, shouldn’t be detained because that could only add fuel to the raging flames. His advice fell on deaf ears. Eventually Moi had to eat the humble pie and allow a multi-party system in 1991.

At around that time, a section of Moi kitchen cabinet led by then all-feared Nicholas Biwott held a public rally in Narok town to condemn multi-party campaigners. Keen went purposely to tell off his colleagues. When Biwott made to threaten Kenyans who were supportive of the multi-party system, Keen grabbed the microphone from him and thundered: “If Biwott wants to threaten other Kenyans, he should do so in his Kerio home not in Narok. Maasai people aren’t going to be used as dogs of war!”

When Moi caved in to pressure and allowed formation of other political parties besides Kanu, Keen was among the first to resign from government and join the opposition.

He remembers in his unpublished memoirs: “The very day we voted in Parliament to delete Section 2A of the Constitution and allow a multi-party system, I walked to where Njenga Karume was seated and whispered to him: We must form an opposition party to eject Kanu from power. Come to my house for supper tonight we discuss how to go about it.”

That evening they talked late into midnight and agreed to call the new party the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP). They also decided to invite Mwai Kibaki to be their chairman.

Kibaki at first was hesitant, even making the famous statement that “Kanu was so strong that removing it from power would be like cutting a mugumo (fig) tree with a razor blade.” It is Keen who apparently came up with a plot on how they would ambush Kibaki during the Christmas of 1991 and not leave him until he announced his resignation from Kanu government.

Twenty-five years later, on December 25, the Grim Reaper finally came for the rebel and warrior. As he used to say, he had lived his life to the full – and with lots of drama.

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