Gitobu Imanyara is obsessed with words. He loves weaving alphabets and watching them spring to life on blank paper.
Ever since he was a boy, he had an insatiable desire to scribble his thoughts and make stories out of them.
This obsession won him several journalism awards and also landed him in prison several times when he was barely 30.
“My life was disrupted early. I’m still rebuilding things from my past and catching up on a lot,” he says during an interview at his office in Nairobi.
He was such a thorn in the flesh that in 1980s and early 90s, he was making headlines locally and abroad: “Health of Kenya political prisoner seen as perilous,” screamed New York Times of May 5, 1991.
The fairly recent scuffle with former First Lady, the late Lucy Kibaki, in 2008 is perhaps the last but not the least of his dramatic public life spectacles. It was reported that Lucy slapped him across the face for representing a journalist who had filed a battery of cases against her.
Gitobu has a different version of the much reported incident. He says former President Kibaki had invited leaders from small parties to State House in 2007 to discuss politics. He was with Chama Cha Mwananchi (CCM). When he got to the gate, he was stopped by security.
“They said they had to consult whether I should be in the meeting. They allowed me in after a while,” he says.
Before he could settle in, he heard a shrill scream followed by a thumping of feet. He says she was yelling:
“Why is he here? Who allowed him into my house?”
He did not know it was about him.
Someone beckoned him and when he stepped out, he came face-to-face with a livid Lucy, dressed in her night gown, literally breathing fire.
“She started raining blows at me. She grabbed my shirt and called me names. I tried disengaging but she held on. I slapped her hard and she fell hard on the floor,” he says.
What followed, he says, was intense silence from people at the meeting, with Lucy’s screams and frantic struggles to break loose from the security team whisking her away. He walked out in a daze without glancing behind.
“I thought someone would grab me and lock me up. They let me drive out and I sighed with relief,” he says.
Paul Muite, a lawyer, recalls Gitobu calling him almost immediately to confess that he had hit the First Lady. He says Gitobu said he had felt attacked and was acting in self-defence.
“There is no way he would have made that up within the short duration. I believed him,” he says.
But Kibaki’s former security aide Esau Kioni says while it is true Imayara pushed Lucy to make way for his exit, there is no way he would have slapped her. “We would have dealt with him if he dared do such a thing. Lucy was like his mother,” says Kioni.
Whatever the circumstance, that fight will form part of the stories Gitobu is penning in his memoir.
Gitobu developed an interest in writing when he was still in high school. When he confided in his father that he wanted to be a journalist, his old man breathed deeply and asked if he was crazy. Journalism, at least for his dad, was a career for losers. No university offered it.
“I said I would rather not go to university. I wanted to find ways to get into media,” he says.
His father blatantly refused. When he was listed to join the University of Nairobi to study law, he surrendered to his father’s demands.
However, the dying embers of his journalistic dream were awakened when he was elected a student leader.
He became founding editor of UoN’s law journal in 1978 under the guidance of former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga who was his lecturer. Gitobu wrote scathing editorials that annoyed the powers that be.
Even though the publication was small, the possibilities that the things they were writing about could erupt were enormous. By the time he was graduating, his name had already started causing discomfort in government.
After graduation, he came up with Nairobi Law Monthly and landed in trouble after churning out a few editions. His attacks on government, coupled with the fact that he gave legal representation to those who were perceived enemies of the system landed him in solitary confinement at Kamiti Prison.
“The lights in my cell never went off. I did not know day or night. I remember the hallucination, the screams around me, the coldness, the mosquitoes…” he says.
His voice trails off as he talks about the many times he looked around him to see if there was a way he could end his life.
Upon his release after two years, he continued writing. He was arrested many more times with accusation of running a seditious publication. His body is riddled with scars from the beatings he got in prison. He never thought of stopping.
Willy Mutunga says whenever Imanyara’s story is told, he is reminded of his courage.
“He was part of the team that defended me in court before I was detained without trial for 16 months,” says Mutunga, giving a brief peak of the fights they took for democracy.
Gitobu says in all that happened, he sees lessons. The most important one being that bitterness can kill. He remembers some of his friends who walked with him on the path of liberation, under the Young Turks movement, who bore grudges and it burned them inside till they died nursing pains of a past they could not change.
His debut in elective politics at the dawn of pluralism in 1992 was a flop. It however came with a consolation, for in the same year he was elected the Secretary General of Ford Kenya, enabling him to fully participate in national politics.
Later in 1997, he was elected to Parliament for an epic five-year term characterised by high octane political melodrama featuring himself, James Orengo, the late Kijana Wamalwa, Mwai Kibaki, Kiraitu Murungi, among others.
“I forgave a lot. When I was elected, I had to work with some of my oppressors, so I put everything behind me,” he says.
In 2002, his attempts – together with Orengo and others – to chart a middle course under the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was swept under by the Narc wave. Together with Orengo, they would remain in political cold for five years until 2007 when they bounced back, Orengo with ODM and Imanyara with little known CCM.
Due to the events that ensued after the 2007 elections, including the small parties’ State House meeting (Kibaki needed their support to politically insulate himself), some of his accomplices felt he had turned out a sell-out.
That when promise of rising as a politician was dangled to him, he swallowed the bait and went to bed with the people who had humiliated him.
“Everyone has a price. I guess they knew he was young and broke and would easily fall for it,” says one of the people who worked closely with him, hinting that he received money to let go of the issues.
Gitobu calls it utter nonsense. He says he could not have been bought when he remained in the Opposition throughout the 10 years he served in Parliament.
He says had his life not been interrupted early, he would have probably fathered more than two children.
His biggest regret is joining politics; and he vowed to never vie again.
After his fourth political defeat in 2017, he went back to publishing and is now managing ‘The Platform’ publication; a magazine on law. On the side, he scribbles his memoirs. His life has gone the full circle.
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