Under the Kanu regime of deceased President Daniel Moi, a newspaper/magazine publishing an ‘alarming’ story, whatever definition they assigned to ‘alarming’, or an organisation such as a trade union electing officials who were not the preferred candidates of the ruling party could be de-registered in a matter of hours.
The job fell on Mbago, a long-serving registrar-general from the early 1990s to the end of the decade.
With the immense powers he exercised, he determined which association or union was registered. That depended on what Kanu and State House felt about the people who were fronting the registration.
As registrar-general, he declined the registrations of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu), the Kenya University Students Organisation (Kuso), the National Union of Students of Kenya (Nuske), the Kenya Civil Servants Union, the Kenya Dentists and Medical Practitioners Union and the University Academic Staff Union (Uasu).
“It is unfortunate that at a time the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, your office still considers the registration of a students’ body an issue that requires consideration. Your intransigence played a part in the riots last month at Nairobi, Kenyatta and Egerton universities,” then executive director of Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) Maina Kiai complained to Mr Mbago back in April 1998.
Alleged burial standoff
Mbago, who also served as Official Receiver and Liquidator during the Ruraka land scandal, died last week at Coptic Hospital in Nairobi. He was a lawyer who was admitted to the bar in 1974.
“It is true that Omondi Mbago died. Arrangements are being made for his burial,” a relative, Prof Peter Wanyande, told Sunday Nation.
Some reports have suggested a possible stand-off over his internment as it is claimed that he wanted to be cremated but the village elders have refused to honour the request.
Prof Wanyande refused to be drawn into the claimed standoff. Mbago was married to Mrs Janet Atieno Omondi and Rose Kavulani Omondi. His daughter, Maureen Omondi Rowland, died in the UK in 2016 and the body was brought back and buried at Lang’ata Cemetery. He was from West Ugenya in Siaya County.
In 1992, as the Martin Shikuku and Kenneth Matiba wing battled for control of Ford from the Oginga Odinga faction, there was the issue of which between Agip House, Nairobi city centre, and Muthithi House, Westlands was the rightful party headquarters.
According to the Shikuku-Matiba faction, the party headquarters had moved to Muthithi House. In a letter to now lawyer James Orengo who was allied to the Odinga faction, Agip House was still the Ford headquarters.
In July 1998, the registrar refused to register three publications namely ‘The Star’, ‘Post on Sunday’ and ‘Finance’ effectively banning them.The decision caused an uproar among rights activists, lawyers and opposition politicians.
A fourth publication,‘ The Kenya Confidential’ was dubbed “illegal” for not having applied for registration in the first place. Following Mbago’s order, police were deployed to impound copies of the publications that were on sale at various newspaper stands.
Mbago said that the three publications’ applications for registration were rejected under the provisions of the Books and Newspapers Act (Cap Ill) and nothing more.
“Yes, that is my press release alright, but just report what is in there and leave the explanations for a later date,” he told the Nation, according to a July 11, 1998 report.
Mr Kiai described Mbago as a “typical bureaucrat” during the Kanu days.
“For this group of bureaucrats, the law did not matter. What Moi and his terrible regime said became the law and he would simply go ahead to implement it no matter what the law said,” said Mr Kiai.
Battle for Cotu
In the battle to control Cotu in 1993, JJ Mugalla was in a bitter fight with Johnson Ogendo group. Mr Mugalla’s lawyer, Lee Muthoga, had accused Mbago of “taking a partisan position” and pleaded with the courts “to properly guide him.”
Alongside Ogendo, the registrar general had obtained orders staying a High Court order that had paved the way for the Mugalla group to take over Cotu. However, two days after this court hearing, the Mugalla group broke into Cotu offices and took over.
It was a quick change of heart for Mbago who quickly recognised the Mugalla group and cancelled the Ogendo group’s registration “in compliance with the ruling and decree of the High Court” which just two days earlier he was contesting.