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Death of a statesman

Kenya was plunged into mourning following the death last month of Vice President Michael Wamalwa.
Zachary Ochieng

Death seems to stalk the eight-month old National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government. Vice President and Minister for Regional Development Michael Wamalwa who died of cardiac arrest last month at London s Royal Free Hospital became the third cabinet minister and the fifth NARC MP to die since the ruling coalition wrestled power from the Kenya African National Union (KANU).

The first cabinet minister to go was Ahmed Khalif, who held the labour portfolio. He was killed in a January plane crash in which several other ministers were injured. And in February, Naivasha MP Paul Kihara died in a South African hospital after a long illness.

He was to be followed by his Yatta counterpart James Mutiso who perished in raging floods in April. Come June and Geoffrey Parpai, the former Office of the president minister who started ailing soon after being sworn in passed on.

The late Wamalwa,60, had been admitted at the hospital for nearly three months. However, he began ailing sometime last year prior to the general election, during which time he was in and out of hospital. His condition began to worsen late November 2002 and was admitted to both London s Wellington and Royal Free hospitals suffering from what sources said were kidney complications.

Wamalwa happened to be in the same hospital with President Mwai Kibaki following injuries sustained in a road accident. Wamalwa returned to the country only to leave again in January for medical checkups in London. But he had to cut short his stay and return to the country following President Kibaki s admission to Nairobi Hospital.

Upon his return, a jovial Wamalwa said: I had gone for a checkup on a nasty attack of gout, which had affected my kidneys as a result of a build up of uric acid in my body .

Early June, Wamalwa left the country for Geneva, Switzerland to represent the country at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), where he was elected president. He was in the Geneva for three weeks afterwhich he flew to London for treatment, never to return alive.

Following his death, President Kibaki declared two weeks of mourning, during which period all public functions, including the National Constitutional Conference were suspended. Wamalwa was independent Kenya s eighth Vice president and the only one to die in office.

Born Michael Christopher Simiyu to the late senator William Wamalwa and Esther Nekesa, he attended St joseph s Primary School in western Kenya then proceeded to Rift Valley s Chewoyet High School. In 1962, he joined Nairobi s Strathmore College, where he scored straight A s in Economics, History and English.

Wamalwa then joined London s Kings College, Cambridge University, graduating Summa Cum laude with a Bachelor of Law degree in 1968. To crown his success, he also studied for an intercollegiate Diploma in Comparative Religions, earning himself the title of Associate of Kings College (AKC).

In 1969, he joined the prestigious London School of Economics for a Master s degree in law and was called to the bar the same year. He later returned to Kenya and joined the University of Nairobi s law faculty as a lecturer.

Wamalwa made his debut in politics in 1974 when he contested the then Kitale West constituency (Now Saboti) and lost to Wafula Wabuge. But through the influence of his political godfather the late Masinde Muliro, his second attempt paid dividends in 1979 when he trounced Wabuge.

In the advent to multiparty politics in 1991, he joined the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD). When the party split into two in 1992, he joined Jaramogi Oginga Odinga s FORD-Kenya and became its chairman upon Odinga s death in 1994.

He contested the 1997 presidential elections and came fourth after Daniel arap Moi, Kibaki and Raila Odinga. Come 2002, Wamalwa was one of the opposition leaders who gave up their presidential ambitions ostensibly to field one strong candidate to challenge Moi.

Following memoranda of understanding signed between various opposition parties, Kibaki named him his running mate and appointed him Vice President early January.

Wamalwa s death is no doubt a big blow to the ruling coalition. He died at a time when the parties that form the coalition were embroiled in bitter rivalry over the creation of an executive Prime minister s post in the constitution. Wamalwa was a unifying factor, always appealing to his colleagues not to be drunk with power.

During a retreat held at the Mount Kenya Safari Club in April to iron out differences among various member parties of the coalition, Wamalwa said: If elections were called today, we would not excite the passion of Kenyans as we did last year .

He was a gentlemen who would have unified NARC. Those of us who stood by his principles should forget our individual interests for the sake of the country , said Najib Balala, Gender, Culture and sports minister, in reference to wrangles that almost brought the government down on the eve of Wamalwa s death.

Information and Tourism minister Raphael Tuju paid glowing tribute to the departed Vice President: His care and love for Kenyans was unequalled and I can remember when he sent me to Budalangi during the floods. Such kind of concern and humility are rare to come across , he observed.

The late Vice-President was envied for his mastery of the Queen s English. Among his memorable quotes; Holidays are a vital component of life and reduce stress, which is a major killer..Even people like Tony Blair, the British Prime minister , take a break and do different things like swimming , he said from his hospital bed in London, to dismiss claims that his health had deteriorated.

NARC is enforcing good governance. We listen to criticism so that we can do better , he told a group of foreign investors in London, prior to his hospitalization.

Wamalwa s first marriage was in the early 1970s. He married Gathoni Mungai but the marriage collapsed after the death of their only son Christopher Majani Wamalwa. In 1997, he met Yvonne Nambia and later formalised the marriage at a colourful wedding ceremony in May 2003. Upon his death, he left behind five children, all born of different mothers.

Wamalwa s death added to the widely held belief in Kenya that August is a jinxed month. The nation s founding president Jomo Kenyatta died in his sleep in August 22,1978. On August 14, 1990 outspoken Anglican cleric Bishop Alexander Muge died in a mysterious road accident upon his return from the western town of Busia.

On 14 August 1992, veteran politician Muliro, who was Wamalwa s mentor died at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in mysterious circumstances upon returning from a London trip. And on August 14 2000, a catholic priest Fr Anthony Kaiser was found murdered along the Nairobi Naivasha highway.

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