Kenneth Matiba: Salaam and adieu

Before changing their name to the current Super Eagles, the Nigerian national football team was known as the Green Eagles. In 1985, Harambee Stars travelled to Lagos for another of their regular encounters with the giants of West Africa. Notable members of the team were stopper Bobby Ogolla (far right), right back Hussein Kheri (second from right), sweeper Josephat Murila (fourth from right), winger Ambrose Ayoyi (fifth from right), midfielder Douglas Mutua (third from left) and striker Joe Masiga (sixth from left). Veteran KBC radio commentator Leonard Mambo Mbotela, accompanied the team. He is at far left of the picture.

The most illustrative episode about Kenneth Matiba’s attitude towards the players managed by his federation was the afternoon pep talk one day in March 1975 at the Jacaranda Hotel in Nairobi. The team was camped there in preparation for an African Nations qualifying game against Sudan. Matiba gathered the players in a room to counsel them:

“Gentlemen, the cost of a ticket to Sudan with East African Airways is Kshs4,000. We are ready to buy the tickets. However, I have an alternative for you that I want you to consider. I can speak to His Excellency the President and request him to give us a Kenya Air Force Caribou plane. It’s a troop transporter; not exactly as comfortable as an East African Airways Super VC10, but it will get you there just as well and it will come free of charge. Each one of you can then pocket the Kshs4,000 we would have used to buy your tickets. Which option do you prefer – the Caribou or EAA?”

To a man, the players voted to fly with the Air Force. There wasn’t a single dissent. Allan Thigo, a vital member of that team who told me this story, disclosed that he used part of that bounty to pay the deposit for his house in Nairobi. With great excitement, he said: “Matiba!

He spoilt us! He loved the players and was ready to do anything to make us happy. Many times he spent his own money on us, usually just to boost our morale or as a reward for good performance… when he quit in 1978, I followed him out of the national team. I couldn’t imagine playing for Kenya under Dan Owino who had succeeded him.”

Matiba was the hands-on manager who so completely dominated the affairs of the Kenya Football Federation that when he announced that he would not be defending his seat as chairman during that year’s elections, the football fraternity was stunned. After only four years, it had become almost impossible to imagine a Kenya football scene without its whirlwind of a boss, a man of seemingly inexhaustible energy who turned up everywhere and whose head always seemed to be bursting with fresh ideas. Nobody had seen his announcement coming. And to add to the consternation, his entire executive committee opted out with him.

In his departing statement, he said: “I have served the game of soccer to the best of my ability and I have spared no energies to ensure its progress. But I must leave it to the Kenya public to judge the degree of my success… I will ensure proper handover of all KFF assets and books of accounts to the incoming executive committee.”

Wilberforce Mulamba (right) was one of Kenya most gifted midfielders. He played for Maragoli, AFC Leopards and Kenya. An attacking midfielder with great speed, dribbling ability and shooting power, Mulamba was nicknamed Maradona by adoring fans. He was a self-effacing man but he always quickly imposed himself on a game and could produce bursts of genius out of the blue and score some extra ordinary goals. Even on the days when he was in poor form, he had a strong presence on the pitch, reinforced by his superb athletic build. In this picture, Mulamba contests the ball with Meshack Onderi, the Kenya Breweries right winger during a league match the Nairobi City Stadium.

The incoming executive was led by his arch-enemy, Dan Owino. I covered the press conference in which Owino made a disparaging remark about Matiba, which would later become the subject of the court case that lawyer Paul Muite says formed the start of their life-long friendship.

I did not repeat Owino’s clearly actionable words and my paper and myself avoided joining Owino in his loss as it turned out to be. It is all of 40 years since Matiba left football administration and Kenya’s demographics show that only a small minority of its people have any personal recollection of his time at the helm. But his death in April 2018, closing the chapter of the life of one the country’s giants in politics, business, farming and sports and recreation, gave Kenyans an involuntary chance to take him up at his invitation and render judgment on the degree of his success at the KFF.

When he was chairman, and I was a reporter, I had interactions with him in press conferences and in one-on-one interviews. After he suddenly quit, I never got to ask him the reason why but I remained intrigued. The very first income I ever earned from writing – Kshs40 – was from an opinion piece I published while in high school in a magazine called Africa Sports. It was a piece praising him for his campaign against witchcraft in football and launching a national youth development initiative called the Olympic Youth Centres programme.

He had singlehandedly started it after roping in the Government of the then West Germany. Out of its products, the epoch we consider as the golden era of Kenya football was born. It died a slow death after his departure and when those products retired, our attainable dreams of continental success became pipe dreams which they remain to this day.

I remained in the dark until decades later when I read his book, Aiming High, published in 2000. And there it all was. He wrote: “I announced my intention to introduce professional football in Kenya. For some reasons, still not very clear to me, my suggestion was vigorously opposed even by those who had previously supported me strongly.

Because this idea was important to me, I decided not to offer myself for re-election when the elections came. For me, it was either professionalism or no involvement.” Here was a man who was 30 years ahead of his time. When professionalism finally started making baby steps in the country, the train had long left station and the rest of the continent was playing in the FIFA World Cup as respectable competitors and countries like Cameroon were defeating world champions Argentina. Enough people have wondered whether it is possible to do business with public institutions in Kenya without being corrupt. Kenneth Matiba ran a corrupt-free KFF. That is why he handed over all the books of accounts and assets of the federation to his successors. He was ready to answer any queries.

What happened afterwards?

As before him, corruption as a way of life returned with a vengeance and there was no bottom below which we could not fall. It is difficult to know where to even begin were you to attempt to do a Kenya football catalogue of graft.

The list will range from the pettiest, the most brazen to the most bizarre. For example, the five-acre property known as FIFA House in Jamhuri Park Matiba left behind simply evaporated. And to KFF, clubs were just cash cows to be milked unto death – which in fact is the fate that befell many of them.

Facing court charges of stealing Kshs55 million in 2004, officials of the federation defended themselves with the strange argument that it was not government or KFF money but FIFA’s. To them, stealing from FIFA was fine.

Earlier, in January 2002, top players of the league beamed before press and television cameras with the glittering trophies KFF had awarded them. But while making for the hotel door at the end of the ceremony, they were accosted by an anxious and evidently desperate young man who asked them to hand back the trophies. He explained to the disbelieving footballers that KFF officials had only borrowed them from his shop that morning for the purposes of posing before the media. The whole farce had all been about hoodwinking the country.

Matiba has rightly been lauded as a hero of Kenya’s so-called second liberation. He has also been widely admired for his astuteness in business and farming, even as his involvement in Kenya’s volatile politics destroyed much of what he had built. What surprises me is the little attention, if any, paid to his zealous commitment to integrity.

I don’t know what this says about the character of the country he suffered so much for but I have not heard of a billionaire in Kenya, especially one who served in government, who opened himself up to so much public scrutiny.

In Aiming High, he has given a detailed account of how he made his money, thereby inviting whoever among us has evidence to the contrary to come forward and challenge him. It is a book about loans from banks followed by strategic and sometimes impulsive investments, trial and error, long, long working hours, juggling many balls in the air, falling and rising, and eventually enjoying that lucky break that he left no choice but to come his way because of his persistence. He made his money after leaving the civil service.

Today, some people join it to pursue a scorched earth policy of looting for which they mysteriously earn of a lot of respect and get rewarded with career upward mobility by the very people who claim corruption is bad. But this much I can say: in the years that I first read about and then covered Matiba, the controversies were about policy, tragicomic duels about witchcraft in football but never about stolen money.

Before the start of the 1975 Norwich City FC tour of Kenya, he invited their designated local opponents – Nairobi’s AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia and Mombasa’s Mwenge and Champion FCs – to defeat the English professionals using witchcraft. If the Kenyans succeeded, Matiba declared, he would accept that witchcraft indeed worked and his federation would pay the clubs’ witchdoctors’ fees for the next two seasons. In other words, the federation would officially fund witchcraft – probably a world first. There was also to be an immediate bonus of Kshs10,000/-.

Matiba said: “Let them use the best witchdoctors they have. If they win, we are prepared to accept that witchcraft is a useful component in Kenya soccer. If not, we want them to admit that they have been victims of get-rich-quick quacks all these years.”

But there was a catch. Whoever was going to tackle Norwich using witchcraft had to declare so publicly before match day. It wouldn’t do to keep quiet and only afterwards claim it was the sheikh’s charms that did it. Clubs were required to transparently say that their strategy and game tactics were designed and implemented in whole or even in part by their witchdoctors; this was only fair to everybody, not least to Norwich, Matiba said.

This edict represented a monumental dilemma for the clubs. Mahmoud Abbas, Mwenge’s youthful star goalkeeper and future Harambee Stars captain, was sure there was more to it than what was being said publicly. Decades later, he would tell me, “Ilikuwa mtego,” (It was a trap). “Matiba wanted to use the Norwich trip to smoke out the practitioners of witchcraft in Kenya football and then hold them in public ridicule,” says Abbas. “People saw through him and didn’t come out.”

He barely had the breath and strength to wag an admonishing finger at Madoka: “You!” he barked softly as he gasped the thin air. “You were the one who was suggesting we go back?” A chastened Madoka smiled sheepishly and replied: “Well Sir, I did not want to lose my minister.

I once asked his long time personal assistant, Sammy Lui, to describe his boss for me. His first words were: “He is fair.” Maybe that is why I never heard anybody accuse him of favoring his beloved Kenya Breweries FC, which he founded in 1970 and which reached the Africa Champions League semi-finals in 1973 and the Cup Winners Cup final in 1994. Matiba’s greatest strength, an unbending commitment to principle and single-mindedness in pursuit of a goal once his mind was made up, was also his Achilles’ heel. In his book, he acknowledges this aspect of his character and has sought to explain himself. But he cedes no ground. Still, there are millions of his followers who desperately wished he would heed the advice of Jochanaan, the Second Temple era Jewish rabbi who counselled thus: “Unless there is a chance of winning, it is worse than useless – it is self-defeating – to react violently to whatever unbearable conditions an adversary imposes; it is suicidal to allow oneself to be provoked to violent reactions against an enemy, however insufferable his exactions, unless he can be defeated.”

Some of the deepest insights into a man’s character are sometimes revealed by the simplest stories. Years later, Maj. Marsden Madoka, once Matiba’s HR manager at Kenya Breweries and long serving chairman of the Amateur Boxing Association of Kenya, told me of an expedition he participated in up Mt Kilimanjaro. Matiba, then Minister for Culture and Social Services, was the expedition leader. Somewhere up the snows, the chief was stricken by a mixture of mountain sickness and exhaustion. A worried Madoka suggested they abort the expedition immediately. Matiba flatly refused. He said under no circumstances were they going back without scaling the summit. So the team inched its way up in excruciatingly slow steps, frequently stopping to allow Matiba some rest. Several times Madoka suggested they return. Always Matiba refused. After what seemed an eternity, the team scaled Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro’s highest, and Matiba collapsed in triumphant exhaustion on the snowy rocks.

He barely had the breath and strength to wag an admonishing finger at Madoka: “You!” he barked softly as he gasped the thin air. “You were the one who was suggesting we go back?” A chastened Madoka smiled sheepishly and replied: “Well Sir, I did not want to lose my minister.”

Matiba gathered sufficient breath to sternly warn him: “Never, never, never give up!” Madoka could only intone an “Amen!” to that. He told me: “I had never seen such determination in all my life. It was scary and, much later when it was all over, very inspirational. It was a life lesson.”

For most of 2013, the big story was Kenya at 50. At that time, in addition to this column, I was writing special reports for other pages in this newspaper. Matiba was long out of the limelight, living out his sunset years at his Safari Beach Hotel in Ukunda, South Coast. I called his daughter, Susan, and requested an interview with him and other family members. She listened carefully. “Let me circulate your request among the family and I will get back to you,” she said. Two days later, she called. “The family has accepted with one caveat,” she told me. “You won’t be able to speak to dad. But mama and the rest of us are available for you.” I wasn’t exactly surprised or even disappointed, just sad. I travelled to Ukunda and all afternoon, Mrs Edith Matiba, then turning 78, held back nothing as she told me about her 52-year life with “Ken.” And since that day, a portion of me still wonders how much a family can take because of a country.

But through the account of decades in strife and desolation, I was able to see what must probably rank as Matiba’s greatest achievement: he built a very solid family. “We closed ranks,” his amiable son, Raymond, told me of the family’s reaction to the destruction of its businesses. I understood better the reason behind the circuitous route of my request to Susan. Kenneth Matiba enabled me to speak without fearing that the wall is listening.

He inspired me to scale the summits of Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro to discover my inner strength. And I know that if ever he had become President, he would have been the most pro-sports chief executive Africa or the world has known.

But he is gone. With a deep bow of gratitude to the family that gave him to us, I return him to them and wish him peace and light in his travels henceforth.


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