William Ronkorua ole Ntimama: The foremost defender of Maasai interests
The stock adjectives oozing out of the eulogies of disparate mourners offered a living testimony to William ole Ntimama’s legacy.
They celebrated his daring. They recalled a man who took on the high and mighty without a flinch and with a missionary zeal. His blunt, bold speak on powder keg issues was hailed as evidence of unparalleled courage.
There was unity in conviction that Ntimama inspiration stemmed from a consuming love for and loyalty to his Maasai community. The interests of the community were a personal crusade whose redemption was in the ring-fencing of its vast lands straddling Kenya and Tanzania.
That required keeping at bay rapacious land vultures circling the Maa community ancestral kingdom. Nestled close to Nairobi and the heavily populated central Kenya, the Maasai land inevitably whetted the appetite of “foreigners” in search of title deeds and solid wealth.
The problem with such forays, in Ntimama’s eyes, was that they threatened the Maasai cultural rubric. An entrenched attachment to land as the primary measure of private wealth saw many Kikuyus seeking a slice of the Maasai land pie. In theory, it was the classic convergence of the market forces of willing buyer and willing seller.
Ntimama saw it differently. He perceived in the widespread illiteracy and the Maasai cultural approach to land vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation by the visitors. The relationship between buyer and seller, he claimed, skewed heavily in favour of the former.
As the trickle of land buyers swelled to a torrent of speculators, large-scale farmers and squatters, Ntimama’s anger boiled over the “invasion.” The “visitors” tendency to erect fences on their land parcels effectively blocking the Maasai livestock from pastures that were hitherto accessible under communal land ownership compounded his wrath.
Yet even his most ardent critic found it difficult to off-handily dismiss Ntimama’s gripe. As large swathes of land changed hands, the Maasai community found itself increasingly hemmed in. Money from land sale upset its social-economic order. Alcoholism, HIV/Aids and other “sins of indulgence” ravaged a community that had until then found insurance in a pristine lifestyle.
What his many critics disagreed with was his protest diction. His outbursts and railings against “outsiders” encroaching on Maasai land were often couched in inflammatory language. He got away with what would have been big trouble for ordinary mortals.
His legion of haters found it difficult to blackout the crude genius underlying some of Ntimama’s controversial remarks. He once lectured the country on the difference between a “native” and an “indigenous” Kenyan and the dangers of “majoritarian tyranny” to a fledgling democracy.
He had a gift for colourful insults. At a rally in Sakutiek, Narok in 1996, Ntimama warned the Kikuyu community to “lie low like envelopes.” He dismissed the community as comprising of “short, diminutive people with dirty brown teeth, protruding stomachs and jigger-infested feet.”
That was shorthand warning to the community whose numbers had grown significantly in his native Narok district to keep off elective politics. In later years, and as age mellowed his temperament, Ntimama attempted to mitigate the ethnic slur by claiming he was misquoted. He had meant, he insisted, “antelope” and not “envelop.”
To stake his claims to Maasai leadership, Ntimama who had privately studied for a paralegal diploma from the Oxford University quit his teaching job for politics. John Keen, his childhood friend and primary school classmate served as his political incubator.
For a decade beginning 1974, Ntimama chaired the resource-rich Narok County Council. The spell was interrupted for 102 days when, in 1983, President Moi ordered his detention on familiar grounds – incitement!
In later years, Ntimama would in his trademark roar, laugh about his lucky freedom delivered by happenstance. After the failure of the 1982 coup attempt in Kenya, the plotters led by Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka sought asylum in Tanzania. When Kenya sought their extradition, the then Prime Minister Edward Sokoine, saw an opportunity to rescue a fellow Maasai across the border. In a quid pro quo, Moi agreed to release Ntimama for Ochuka.
The detention stint did little to tame Ntimama’s fiery tongue. He found a bigger political platform to articulate the Maasai interests when, in 1988, he took on and vanquished his political nemesis Justus ole Tipis for the Narok North constituency. His subsequent appointment to the Cabinet served to embolden him.
Ntimama got away with regular antagonism. As a powerful Cabinet Minister, he was part of a cabal of sacred political cows close to President Moi. In the herd were, among others, Shariff Nassir, Philemon Chelagat, Kariuki Chotara and Mulu Mutisya.
His egregious pronouncements triggered furore and, in some cases, bloodshed. But as long as he was convinced they were supportive of the Maasai community interests, Ntimama scarcely cared about the collateral damage.
That “collateral” occasionally involved human life. In 1993, at least 35 people were killed in Enosupukia when Maasai morans evicted over 10,000 people Ntimama had accused of encroaching on a water catchment area. Five years later, the Akiwumi report indicted him for ethnic clashes that rocked the Rift Valley in electoral cycles beginning in 1991.
Ntimama wielded undeniable political clout that he dangled for immunity from his actions. Besides Narok, his political writ extended to the Maasai-dominated lands of modern-day Kajiado County and to an extent, the cousin counties of Samburu, Marsabit, Isiolo and Turkana.
By skillfully hawking these numbers to competing suitors, Ntimama effectively made himself politically untouchable. He was not averse to rallying his community to his defence even for very personal instances of friction with the law.
In 1995, for instance, Ntimama was due to appear at the high court in Nairobi on charges of incitement to violence. But in a show of political might, he bussed 4,000 shuka-clad Maasais supporters who overran the court’s precincts. Such was their force of numbers that they even took over the judge’s seat! It was not the only time the law blinked first in a confrontation with Ntimama!
And with the immunity, his grip on the political pulse of the Maasai tightened. His backing became a much-sought-after swing vote. Well aware of his real value, the kingpin deftly auctioned the numbers to secure a vast personal fortune and political immortality.
His ability to sail with the political winds of his community made him an attractive asset. For instance, his decision to stick with Kanu when other communities were running away from the ruling party like rats escaping a burning store helped Moi to a surprise re-election in 1992 and 1997.
But his loyalties lay first and foremost with his community and himself. Thus when a political death appeared to be beckoning Kanu in the last year of Moi’s rein, Ntimama abandoned it and joined the party stalwarts heading for Raila Odinga’s LDP.
Odinga and Ntimama would remain unlikely allies first as lieutenants of President Kibaki 2002 government and later as the renegades within. The duo found itself politically bonded even stronger when they joined hands to defeat the draft constitution in 2005.
In 2007 by-election, Ntimama successfully defended his parliamentary seat under ODM, a party formed to consolidate the rebellion against Kibaki and his government. Odinga rewarded his loyalty by appointing him the Culture Minister under the coalition government forced on Kibaki after the post-election violence.
Immobilised by ill-health and age, Ntimama lost his bid to retain the Narok North seat to TNA’s to Moitalel ole Kenta. He soon declared his retirement from active politics. But the key word was “active” because even in his political pension years, Ntimama arguably remained the single most important Maasai political figure.