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June 2003

Kenya in diplomatic embarrassment

Zachary Ochieng

Kenya is reeling in diplomatic embarrassment since May 30 following the arrival into the country of a man many believed to be General Stanley Mathenge, a hero of Mau Mau Kenya s war of independence. In what appeared to be a clear case of mistaken identity, the man and five others in his entourage were booked as state guests at the four star Panafric Hotel, where each of them incurred a bill of more than US $ 5714. For a whole week, he was holed up in his room, and the press denied access to him.

It did not help matters that even his supposed immediate family was not involved in the preparations of his homecoming, let alone being allowed to see him. The man was initially slated to be a guest at the celebrations to mark Madaraka Day on June 1, a day that commemorates Kenya s internal self governance. But when it began to emerge that the whole affair could be a hoax, Ayanu was kept away from the fete.

At the centre of controversy was the man s identity, with some people claiming that he is the real general while others disputed the fact. Known in Ethiopia where he lives as Ato Lemma Ayanu, the frail looking 72 year-old man stunned many upon arrival at Nairobi s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Ayanu who was given a state welcome denied through an interpreter that he was Mathenge and that he was only invited to the country as Mathenge s relative. He maintains that he knows nothing about the freedom struggle in Kenya. But his handler journalist Joseph Karimi, who shielded journalists from interviewing the man, argued that the man just wanted to hide his Ethiopian identity.

Doubts immediately began to emerge over the man s identity, as he could neither speak English, Kiswahili or his supposed mother tongue Kikuyu. Mr Harkman Muiruri, the chairman of Kenya African Mau Mau Union who says he recruited mathenge and others to fight in the Aberdare forest said upon seeing Ayanu at the airport: He doesn t look like the Mathenge I knew. I have to meet him personally and talk to him before I can make a final judgement . Other Mau Mau veterans, however, maintain that he is the real Mathenge.

A psychiatrist Dr Fred Owiti contends that there is no way a grown up person could forget his mother tongue. Even if you went to New Zealand and spoke only Maori language for 50 years, you ll still remember words in your mother tongue , he asserts.

Doubts over the man s identity were exacerbated by the fact that the real General Mathenge left Kenya 47 years ago at the age of 37, meaning he would be 84 today. But Ayanu is only 72. At the time of his disappearance, Mathenge spoke English, Kiswahili and Kikuyu, none of which Ayanu speaks. He can only communicate in Amharic the major language spoken in Ethiopia.

One former general said they had secret codes in the forest, which they can remember to date and challenged Ayanu to reveal his code if he was the real Mathenge. Again, those who knew Mathenge well say that he was tall and had a gap in the upper teeth. Ayanu on the other hand is short and has no such gap in the teeth. One of Mathenge s sons also says he had a scar on the nape, a feature that Ayanu does not possess. The identity crisis was further compounded by Ayanu s social status in Ethiopia. He owns huge acres of land, yet if were the real Mathenge, he would only live as a refugee and therefore would not own such huge chunks of land.

The Mathenge circus was ignited in December 2000, when veteran journalist Karimi wrote an article in The Sunday Standard a sister publication to The East African standard a local daily, which postulated that General Mathenge could still be alive, contrary to a long held belief that he had died. Karimi claimed that the information he had gathered since 1967 indicated that Mathenge never died but was living somewhere in Ethiopia.

Karimi later established contacts with one George Milimo, a Kenyan living in Ethiopia, who claimed to know where Mathenge was. Last year, Karimi went to Ethiopia, accompanied by Mathenge s son Peter Mirugi. Although they both met Ayanu, Mirugi claims he never had the opportunity to interact with him and cannot prove whether he is his real father. Mirugi was only 7 years old when Mathenge went to the forest. When it became apparent that the identity crisis would not be solved easily, a DNA test was ordered so Ayanu s blood sample could be cross-checked against those of pupported Kenyan relatives.

The saga almost precipitated a diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia, with the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya Murad Mussa protesting that the embassy was never informed of Ayanu s trip to Kenya. He went further to complain that taking Ayanu s blood sample for a DNA test was a violation of his human rights. He ordered insisted that Ayanu was an Ethiopian farmer, holding an Ethiopian passport and ordered him to go back even before the results of the DNA test were made available.

As the saga over Ayanu s identity continued to gather momentum, the government was at pains to warn that if the DNA results confirm that the man is not Mathenge, those who broke the story and facilitated his visit to Kenya would have to be punished. The government also came under severe criticism for going at great lengths to fete a man of dubious identity when it has never honoured war veterans who are living in the country and are well known.

More embarrassment was to be witnessed when Ayanu was spirited away in a dawn operation, again with Karimi changing cars three times to evade his colleagues in the fourth estate. While the government suffered an irreparable embarrassment, Karimi, otherwise a reputable journalist has dented his carrier that spanned over decades.

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