To walk with Joseph Martin Oluhanya Shikuku was a heart-warming experience. Wherever we went people stepped forward to speak to him. ‘Hujambo Mzee!’ ‘Jambo Shikuku!’ Outstretched hands reached out to him and he never ignored even one.
2009-2010, a small team of us walked with him capturing his recollections in a video documentary. A retired permanent secretary we met on a Nairobi street said: ‘Whenever we had an issue that needed to be aired we would take it to Shikuku. We knew no-one as fearless as Shikuku.
Born on Christmas day in 1932, he was named Oluhanya after his maternal grandfather. His father adopted the Kiswahili name for Christmas day – ‘siku-ku’ - and called him ‘Shikuku’.
The walks were a privileged glimpse into a very private corner of Shikuku's access to the most sensitive information in Kenya. From the time of independence in 1963 to his political ouster in the 1989 elections, Shikuku was the politician to whom both the powerful and the lowly brought their issues. Invariably he would raise them in Parliament; and he keenly protected his sources to the grave.
In 1983, Charles Njonjo was forced to resign from the powerful position of Minister of Constitutional Affairs. It was Shikuku who tabled the incriminating evidence that included international money transfers through Njonjo's private bank accounts that were used to finance an attempt to change the constitution and remove President Moi from office. More than 25 years later, when asked where he got the crucial evidence Shikuku responded with a cheeky smile: ‘Aah, I picked it from the dustbin.’ There was no malice in his actions and to the end he spoke well of Njonjo. ‘I respect Njonjo as a thinker,’ he said.
Shikuku was exceptionally proud of his parliamentary record. There was almost no motion that came before the house which he did not contribute to. He knew parliamentary procedure by rote and enjoyed showing off this knowledge using the rules, procedure and parliamentary privileges. In his latter years he railed against the level of legislative debate in 21st century Kenya; and blamed it on the MPs’ selfishness, failure to read and to take a serious interest in law-making. His conclusion: ‘They are not interested in the welfare of the mwananchi.’
Shikuku spoke his mind and had a brazen approach that earned him friends, but also irritated many. As a 20 year-old train guard, he ferried guns for the Mau Mau freedom fighters; in 2010, he was physically present when Mau Mau veterans gathered in England to file their case for reparations in an English court. ‘Shikuku has always helped us,’ affirmed Shujaa Gitu wa Kahengeri.
The youngest member of the group which negotiated Kenya’s constitution at Independence; he campaigned for a federal system of government in order to secure the rights of the minority communities.
In the early 70s when Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda, Shikuku (who was then an Assistant Minister in the Office of the Vice-President and Home Affairs) called for a repeat in Kenya. ‘I'm not going to pretend I didn't say it. I cannot unsay what I said,’ he said in a 2011 interview. At that time he associated corruption with Asian businessmen but admits that he later realised that Kenyans at all levels were capable of corruption, and ceased his condemnation.
His criticism of mini-skirts and women with red lipstick ‘as if they had been drinking blood’ angered women. ‘Even my own daughters are choma-ing (straightening) their hair....... African women just don't know how beautiful they are,’ he protested, dismissing western approaches to beauty with disdain.
Right up to the end of his life Shikuku could recall dates, names, places and incidents from the fifties and sixties as if they were yesterday. A captivating story-teller, he would with humour weave together the facts gathered from his life's journey. He spoke of the drama in 1965 when he sat alone on the opposition side of Parliament - all the members of KADU, his party, had joined the ruling party, KANU. He did later join KANU but warned that without an opposition there could be no democracy. The same year he tried to move a motion to investigate the assassination of Pio Gama Pinto, then Tom Mboya in 1969. He believed the presidential ambitions of Tom Mboya led to his assasination. In 1975, his good friend, Hon. J M Kariuki, was assassinated. He narrated how, while the Speaker was out on a coffee break, they tricked the House and passed the motion to set up a commission of enquiry. Sadly the findings were never made public.
Not one to be seduced by empty offerings of titles and positions, he broke ranks with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and was increasingly vocal in his opposition to the amassing of power in the presidency. He famously announced that ‘KANU is dead’ at a political rally in 1975. As a result, he lost his position as Assistant Minister to which he had been appointed in 1969, and wound up in detention.
When President Moi came to power after Kenyatta's death he released Shikuku from detention and appointed him Minister for Livestock Development. But Shikuku was soon disillusioned and his constant criticism resulted in his being booted out of cabinet, and out of Parliament.
Shikuku did not need an official portfolio. He went on to form the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) to oppose Moi's single party dictatorship. FORD eventually turned itself into a political party and splintered, but Shikuku remained a steadfast member of the original FORD. He joined street demonstrations that eventually forced Moi to concede to multiparty politics and political reform; and was back in the limelight when President Kibaki delayed the Constitution Review process started under Moi.
‘He likes order in his things,’ his youngest son, Jacob Shikuku, said of his father; whether it was time to plough the farm, or service the car, or just being punctual - order was key and Shikuku often got aggravated with the lawlessness on Kenyan roads quipping, ‘A nation without order cannot go anywhere.’
He read voraciously, a valuable habit when, as a delegate to the constitutional talks 2002-2005, he steered the debates on the structure of the Executive arm of government. But, as before, it was devolution of power that interested him most. He was one of the very few leaders who bothered to read and understand the nuances of changes made to every draft version of the new constitution before it was finally passed at the referendum in 2010. ‘What we want is the distribution of power, finances and resources to every part of the country so that it reaches the mwananchi,’ he insisted.
For over 50 years, Shikuku walked his own personal journey and left his mark on the political history of Kenya; earning himself the title of ‘The People's Watchman’ as he strove to secure social and economic justice for the masses.