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Matiba pleads to kill a story in his own newspaper

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap] was already a great fan of Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba long before I met him in person. And for the many times I was to meet the Second Liberation icon, I was not disappointed in him even once. KSN, as his friends fondly call him, is a very frank and unassuming gentleman. His word and deed are consistently in tandem.

It is not quite often in the media industry that you have your employer walking into office, accompanied by His Grace the Archbishop, not to offer prayers for you, sack or order you around but literally plead with you not to write or publish a news story. That happened to me on one hot Thursday evening. I was then the Deputy News Editor of The People Weekly (the precursor to the current People Daily).

Our offices were based in Nairobi’s Westlands suburb then. On that day, the chain-smoking Editor-in-Chief George Mbugguss, with a cigarette in right hand fingers popped into the newsroom and shouted: “Mwana, (for that is how he usually called me), can you come over to my office please?” without elaborating and turned to go back.

As I entered Mbugguss’ office, I noticed that on one side of the long table in the vast room sat Matiba, a household name in Kenya who was at that time the proprietor of The People Weekly newspaper, a vigorously fierce and unapologetic pro-democracy publication. He is not an ordinary name: Apart from owning the paper, Matiba had contested the presidency in 1992 and came second to incumbent Daniel Moi in a race his followers still believe was rigged in favour of the former president. Matiba had also served in senior public and private positions, including as a Cabinet Minister in the Moi administration, Chairman of Kenya Football Federation and Managing Director of East African Breweries Limited.

On the other side of the table was a sheepishly smiling primate of the Anglican Church in Kenya (known as the Church of the Province of Kenya – CPK – in those days), the Most Reverend David Gitari who passed away in retirement a few years ago.

Their presence immediately shattered me. I quickly discerned what they were up to and concluded that my job was on the line. I lazily trudged towards the two prominent Kenyans and cursed myself for having elected to remain alone in the office long past 5pm when my colleagues had already left and were certainly ‘enjoying’ themselves in their respective Speak-Easies that evening.

Jackson Kibor

I had remained in office to wait for two North Rift politicians, Jackson Kibor from Uasin Gishu and the then Marakwet East MP, the late Freddie Cheserek, both who had called separately early afternoon from Eldoret saying that they had a story to give.

None of them had arrived by 5.52 pm when Mbugguss came to summon me from loneliness in the newsroom. So as I fearfully struggled to greet Matiba and Gitari, Mbugguss introduced me in a most bizarre manner. “This is the big man. He is the one in charge. He is the one we have to talk to and convince.”

He told them my name and title and asked me to sit down. Though he had said I was the News Editor, I actually deputised Mr Samson Mwenda Njoka, currently the Communications Adviser in the Ministry of Interior and Co-ordination of National Government.

Sweating profusely

Sitting down I did. But by that time I was already sweating profusely. I could easily guess what this evening summon was all about and was sure I would not be having my job by the time I leave that room. The archbishop must have realised that I was greatly troubled by their presence and I was not at peace with myself. For he smiled at me and, as was characteristic of him, looked me directly in the eye and intoned: “Be not afraid my son, I come in peace. I only seek your audience.”

To which Matiba responded, pointing at me: “Sisi hatuna neno lolote mbaya. Wewe ndiye tumekuja kuona. Tunataka kuongea na wewe tuone kama tunaweza kuelewana kama wakenya (We have no ill motive. We have come to see you. We want to have a chat and see if we can come to an agreement as Kenyans).” My heartbeat slowed down. I took out my handkerchief and started wiping out the rivers of sweat flowing down my cheeks and spine.

Matiba too seemed to notice that they had turned my evening into a nightmare and made me very uncomfortable. He immediately added a rider: “Boss, none of us here should worry you. Usijali, sisi ni wageni wako. Hatuna lolote la kukushutua (Don’t worry, we are your guests. Nothing should scare you).” And with that assurance, I sat with my chin in the palms and patiently listened to Mbuguss explain why the two ‘larger-than-life’ Kenyans had come knocking that evening.

I had spoken to Gitari in the afternoon of that day, at 2 pm to be precise. I had called and got him on his Kirinyaga home telephone number. I told him why I was looking for him and he promised that he would come to Nairobi the following Monday and call me so that he could talk to me about what I wanted.

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Thursday was our weekly press day, that is the day the paper goes to print so as to be on the streets the following day. After speaking to the Archbishop, I went back to my duties and saw to it that we beat the deadline for the paper to go to press at 5.pm. That happened in time. Everyone else left to start their weekend as I waited for Kibor and Cheserek.

It so happened that a bitter family feud within the Gitari homestead had assumed some national dimensions within the Anglican Church and had split the top brass of the church into several factions with one calling for his resignation, another one calling for his immediate replacement , another one demanded for a truce while yet another one formed a committee to probe the matter and make recommendations from its findings.

Early in the week, some senior members of the church had come to our Westlands offices armed with massive documents seeking to have the Gitari family wrangles exposed in that week’s issue of the weekly publication, for – dubbed Fair, Frank and Fearless – it was the only paper in the country that could boldly publish such a story without an iota of hesitation or apologies. I have a bias for investigative journalism. So it was natural that Mbugguss and Njoka settled on me as the right person to listen to the grievances of the angry and bitter Anglicans and process a story thereafter.

They had all the relevant correspondence to satisfy the publication of the article. After they left, I went back to Mbugguss to brief him what I had got from them. “That’s okay. But Mwana, make sure that you speak to the archbishop. Let us have his side of the story.” At that point, he reached out for an aging small red notebook while asking me: “Do you have his number?” Of course ‘No’ was my answer. He gave me all the numbers that I should try. Gitari was not in Nairobi, so I learnt from the person who picked the call at his official residence in the capital city. I tried the Kirinyaga number and indeed I got him.

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ack in Mbugguss’ office. When he finished talking, the editor-in-chief asked the primate to take over while he himself rushed out, presumably to smoke. I listened to Gitari for a whole two hours. He then finished: “That’s what has brought me here this evening with my friend Matiba. It is not to ask you not to carry the story but to listen to my case and make your own decision. I have championed free expression for many years. I will continue to do so. I will not want to be counted among those who stand in the way of free expression.”

Matiba took over: “Mkubwa, tunaomba hivi tafadhali. Because I am involved in arbitration in this matter, I feel that blowing this matter into the limelight will minimise or even strangulate the chances of reconciliation. We are asking that in your kindness, you hold that story and give us a chance to dialogue. Should we fail to agree, of course you will be free to publish it. On the other hand, if we succeed we shall also let you know of the progress so that you decide what to do with it.”

With that, the two men rose to leave and thanked me for having given them my time. It was now 8.27 pm. But before they left the room, Matiba turned to address me: “Bwana Editor, please do not misunderstand us. I value the freedom of the press so much. It is for that reason that I started this newspaper. I will be the last person to dictate to a professional journalist on what to write and what not to write. I promise you, that this is the first and last time you will see me making this kind of request. I assure you. Please understand me.”

Even without such an assurance, only a fool can go ahead and publish the story. That was the end of it. The two men, however, kept their promise. Indeed, it was the last time. I met Matiba – and Gitari as well – many more times in the line of my duty but not on any of those occasions were they making similar pleas. They lived to their pledge.

I have never been dumbfounded that much in my 26 years of practising journalism. That remains my most memorable encounter in the profession. For, as it is wont to happen so regularly elsewhere, all that Gitari would have done was to talk to his friend Mbugguss and that would have been the end of the story. Or just for Matiba to make a direct call to Mbugguss from Mombasa and order him not to have that story carried.

SEE ALSO: Undercover journalist’s 200km treck in Moyale

That Matiba could burn his money to hire a chopper from Mombasa and Gitari come by road all the way from Kirinyaga to come and explain themselves and plead to some young man from Kabras was, and remains, a very humbling experience.

In those two individuals, I know for sure, their belief in and fight for democracy was genuine and unflinching. They meant every word they said. They are role models. Examples worth emulating.

Some years after the Westlands encounter, The People weekly would turn into a daily newspaper and relocate to the central business district. There, I would meet and become friends with a young man then working at the Kenya Television Network (KTN).

On occasions, because we were “waiting for the jam in the city to fizzle out,” we could stay late at a Speak-Easy called Tanager and chat for long hours about the transformation Kenya has gone through in the political, media and religious spheres. The young man is the son of the late Archbishop Gitari. His name is John Mwendwa who until a few years ago was the head of K24 television. This world!

The author is a Revise Editor with the People Daily newspaper. E-mail: [email protected]

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