They called him “Mugogo, wa pwani” Mijikenda for “Big Man for the Coast.”
Upcountry, he was referred to as “Hurricane” –the man who liked things done fast and efficiently. And he was sociable and likeable. Karisa Maitha is dead and buried, but his legacy still lingers over a decade later.
Those who knew him talk about a man who was generous, a politician who put the interests of Coast people first. He was sociable and likeable–a politician unlike others.
Nyonga wa Makemba, a longtime Personal Assistant to the late Maitha, remembers him very well. “He helped people deal with many issues affecting them,” says Nyonga. “He fed the hungry, bought books and desks for schools and helped resolve land matters.”
In Mombasa’s Kisauni area, where Maitha was MP, he helped people get title deeds in places like Mwembe Legeza and Kilimanjaro,” Nyonga says.
In political life, Maitha appeared to be an opponent of ODM leader Raila Odinga. “He urged Mijikenda and Coast people not to support Raila in his quest for the presidency,” says Nyonga.
Maitha’s rise to the position of Coast kingpin was not to be expected. It was not until his election as MP for Kisauni in 2002 and appointed by President Kibaki as Minister for Local Government in 2003 that his political star began to shine. He defeated his closest rival, Said Hemed with 25,000 votes against Hemed’s 5000, according to Nyonga.
A short while after his appointment as Minister, Maitha saw the political gap that had existed since Ronald Ngala’s death in 1972 and worked had to fill it. He did this at two political levels—among the Mijikenda and Coast people and at the national level.
Motion on Mnazi
In the Coast region, and especially among the Mijikenda people, Maitha won the hearts and minds of the communities when he successfully introduced a Motion in Parliament, which legalized the tapping, distribution, sale and consumption of mnazi alcoholic drink.
For decades, mnazi stakeholders had been victims of harassments and extortion from local administrators who had categorized the drink as an illicit brew. Efforts by successive elected leaders to reverse this perception had fallen in deaf ears.
The legalization and liberalization of the drink was therefore a big relief to stakeholders. Many people had tapped, distributed and sold mnazi to put food on the table and to educate their children. Through the legalization of the drink, Maitha had become an instant hero—the Mugogo!
In many ways, Karisa Maitha had castigated his own community for what he perceived to be cowardly in responding to their rights under the law. He often criticized the ineptness of the Mijikenda people and encouraged them to speak up on issues affecting them, such as marginalization, land grabbing and politics of exclusion. Maitha detested political cowardice.
Charo Jefa, 60, remembers Maitha’s actions well. He says at one time Maitha challenged anyone with a degree to stand up so that he or she could be given a job. “A lady stood up and said she had one,” remembers Charo, and Maitha responded, “From now, count yourself a D.O.”–District Officer.
True to Maitha’s word, the lady got the job and she is still in service to this day.
If Maitha is credited locally for liberalizing the drinking of mnazi, among other things, he also earned kudos for his hard work at the national level. For decades, hawkers and street urchins were a menace in Kenya’s major urban centers. They obstructed motor and human traffic each day of the week. People had complained to no avail
When Maitha was appointed minister in 2003, the “Hurricane” took it upon himself to enforce the law about hawking. At a large rally in Nairobi’s neighborhood, Maitha convinced the adamant hawkers to follow the law and accept designated areas for their wares.
He did the same to street children who were relocated to designate areas not only for shelter but also to be trained in certain job skills.
Who shall fill his shoes?
After accomplishing so much within a short time, Maitha died suddenly in Germany in 2004 during an official visit where he was representing the country in his capacity as tourism minister. Since then the leadership gap among the Mijikenda and Coast people has been conspicuous. Who can fit in Maitha’s shoes?
To be sure, no one can fill neither Maitha nor Ngala’s shoes. Every politician has his or her own way of influencing change. Among the Mijikenda community and the Coast we have potential leaders who could easily take up the mantles of our departed politicians and be able to achieve even more under the present circumstances.
Within the Mijikenda people, we have the choices of politicians like Amason Kingi, Gideon Mung’aro, Salim Mvurya, Kazungu Kambi and Owen Baya. These politicians have already tested the waters of big politics and one of them holds the potential of rising to fill the existing leadership gap in the Mijikenda and Coast politics.
Elsewhere in this region, regional minority leaders like Hassan Joho in Mombasa County, could as well be in the league of potential Coast kingpins. However, all these politicians have a lot of work to do to earn the title of Mijikenda or coastal kingpin. One of these huge tasks is to unify coastal communities.
Karisa Maitha is long dead and buried, but some of his enthusiasts have refused to accept this reality.