He towers above six feet and stands straight as a ramrod at 88. His stout physical look, a neat mind and undiluted memory are amazing.
The spontaneity of his laughter, his articulateness, grasp of issues and natty dressing are remarkably discordant with his age. Meet one of Kenya’s pioneer technocrats, Mr Titus Mbathi.
When many of his living peers have slowed down to indolence, Mbathi remains active as chairman of Athi River Mining Company, a shrewd businessman and commercial farmer supplying supermarkets with fresh produce. He says keeping busy and laughing are ingredients for long life.
“A chat of any length is tasteless without laughter,” he says capping the witty remark with a hearty laugh. “I keep myself busy, but I also relax because the contrary is recipe for an early grave,” he says as our conversation picks momentum.
Mbathi was among Kenya’s pioneer technocrats at independence together with the likes of Kenneth Matiba (Permanent Secretary) Duncan Ndegwa (Central Bank Governor) and others. He served as PS and later a Cabinet minister. How has he seen the country evolve?
Mbathi quickly conjures up the past, his chin dug into clenched fists. “I was a technocrat before independence. I served in the secretariat of the East African Common Services Organisation (EACSO) forerunner to East African Community as an undersecretary in its Treasury in 1962 and part of 1963. I had just returned from a two year Fulbright Scholarship at New York State University with a Master’s Degree in Economics.
“With independence came my promotion to Director of Personnel Management in the Office of the President, a post equivalent to that of PS followed by stints as PS in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development under Tom Mboya and Labour under Eliud Ngala Mwendwa.” Call it triumvirate of alumni if you like. The 1964 trio of minister Tom Mboya, Assistant minister Mwai Kibaki and I as PS in the Economic Planning and Development Ministry was a unique re-ensemble of Mang’u High School old boys. I was two years ahead of them. Aged 34 at independence, Mbathi says he has seen the bright and dark of it all from a leadership perspective. He notes that Kenya is among the most developed and free countries in Africa, citing the popular reference to President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere asking Tanzanians to come to Nairobi for a glimpse of modernity.
“That was in the 1980s. We host the only United Nations office in the third world. Our unrivalled freedom of speech is huge in the official and social media. We are leaders in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) acknowledged worldwide for our pioneering role in mobile banking epitomised by M-Pesa. I can go on and on.”
“All that could disappear overnight as almost happened in 2007/2008 if our corruption and negative ethnicity continues,” he says unhappily. “The two villains were virtually absent at independence have grown into monsters,” he adds.
Mbathi peels off his spectacles to expose a sad pair of eyes. His next words depict a nation in decline. “People of my generation wherever they are believe we are moving backwards in unifying our nation. It is high time leaders from the President downwards took the issue of unifying the nation seriously. Unity is the only assurance we have for continued development and freedom.”
He says patriotism and love for the country espoused by founding President Jomo Kenyatta and Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, both true patriots albeit with differing ideologies, have dissipated.
“Whatever people say about Jaramogi, only a true patriot could sacrifice power for the sake of the nation. He declined the offer to lead the country when Kenyatta was still in prison to uphold unity,” he says.
Mbathi, whose career in civil service saw him rise to the position of Labour PS, resigned in 1969 at age 40 to dabble in business. He took advantage of a provision then for civil servants to retire on attaining age 40 or after working for 10 years. He joined politics in 1980 when Daniel Mutinda lost an election petition. He won and was appointed Minister for Labour by then President Moi.
He served until 1983 when he lost to John Mutinda, Daniel’s elder brother when President Moi called snap elections after the 1982 abortive coup. He concentrated on business until the idea of removing Kanu from power won him over with the formation of original FORD under Jaramogi in 1991. He became FORD Kitui District Branch chairman and Jaramogi even spent a night in his house while campaigning in Kitui and Mwingi. On FORD’s split into FORD Kenya and Matiba’s FORD Asili in 1992, Mbathi went with FORD Asili and worked with Matiba.
An ardent campaigner for change, Mbathi joined Narc in 2002 and became its committee chairman.
On Narc seizing power, President Kibaki appointed him KenGen chairman, a post he held until three years ago. He served in many other capacities as director, including the Central Bank, University of Nairobi Council among others. He chairs the Athi River Mining Company and is a prominent commercial farmer. He walks The Standard on Sunday down the memory lane to an incident in 1983 that cost him a Cabinet post and threw his political career into a spin. “I joined other ministers at a social function graced by President Moi when out of the blues, he demanded publicly that Kenya Civil Servants Union (KCSU) and the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) be deregistered with immediate effect for not not serving the interest of the country,” he recalls.
“Miffed, I sought clarification from then Head of Civil Service Jeremiah Kiereini as to why my Ministry had been overlooked in such a momentous decision with serious repercussion on labour issues. He was in a daze too.
“My conscience could not let go. I drew the President’s attention to the issue after a Cabinet meeting a few days later, striving to impress upon him that as members of the International Labour Organisation we were duty bound to liaise with the world body.
“He looked me straight in the eye and wondered if I did not know that Kenya was a sovereign state. Staggered, I braved an answer that we were tied to covenants of ILO and other international bodies where we were members,” he says. The President’s next words were numbing. “Are you the same person I appointed a cabinet minister?”
Mbathi says he knew his goose was cooked when someone in the intelligence casually alluded to his political career being on the edge. “I was not sacked, but lost my Kitui Central parliamentary seat in hazy circumstances to George Ndoto in the next elections,” he recounts. On the current political situation, Mbathi says Kenya is going through a difficult time with early campaigns accompanied by lots of acrimony.
He says the climate is similar to that of 2002 with the country yearning for change. He is optimistic that NASA will form the next government if its leaders remain united. He says if given a chance to serve in government, he would make uniting Kenyans his top agenda. He says he is nostalgic about the time he served in the civil service when tribalism and corruption were insignificant.