Rise and rise of poker king Justin Muturi

Justin Bedan Njoka Muturi believes the big ideas have always been there, and will always be there. To Muturi, what’s lacking in Kenya’s governance is discipline and order. Yes, I know. The Speaker wants to bring order!
In this deep-dive on Muturi’s life and times, the Star and Debunk Media revisits his two-hour conversation, reliving the make-believe chase of the Speaker’s motorcade around town and other James Bond-esque moments, and explores the implications of a Muturi candidature and presidency.

PART 1: Once Upon a Shuffler

From an early age, National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi got accustomed to people becoming dumbfounded whenever they discovered who he was or what had been up to. Like the time his father, Bedan Njoka — whose two names Muturi inherited to become Justin Bedan Njoka Muturi — took him back to Kangaru High School in Embu in 1976 to get him an A-Level admission.

But he learnt his son had earned suspensions during his O Levels at the same institution, suspensions the senior Njoka, an administration policeman, had heard nothing about. When the father expressed disbelief, his son shrugged.

"I told him it was true I had been suspended on occasion, but that was now water under the bridge," Muturi says, chuckling when we speak at his official residence in Nairobi’s Thigiri suburb. It's a mansion atop a hill overlooking a stream. "I gave him my word that since I had been readmitted, I would behave myself and deliver good results."

This is vintage Muturi, radiating confidence while a lot more simmers underneath.

In the history of independent Kenya, no individual has ever transitioned from leading one arm of government and moved swiftly onto the launching pad for the heights of another arm. But for Muturi, the fact that this is hitherto unheard of doesn't mean it can’t happen by the man who seeks to become Kenya's fifth president.

And just as his suspensions left his father lost for words, Muturi’s presidential bid has caught both friend and foe by surprise. The expectation was that after serving as Speaker of the National Assembly for two consecutive five-year terms, Muturi would quietly retreat. then he would enjoy his pension or play some fringe ceremonial statesmanly role. Running for any other political office would seem like a demotion —  considering no one had imagined Muturi would want to take over from President Uhuru Kenyatta, a longtime compadre. 

Yet to Muturi, the presidency was always fair game, and this is just another day in the life of.

Poker for money!

To begin understanding Muturi’s stealth, maybe one first needs to know why he earned suspensions while studying for his O Levels at Kangaru High School. You may not believe me if I told you the cause of Muturi’s suspensions. But if I told you their genesis, and if you connected the dots going backwards.

If you looked at Muturi’s not-so-easy-to-read demeanour, retracing his life in politics and as a magistrate. If you saw how instinctive he is and understood he is a man who is always holding his cards close to his chest, even when he is opening up to you, then maybe you will believe me and stand a chance at grasping Muturi’s modus operandi. 

Poker. That’s what it is. Poker for money. Gambling.  

After joining Kangaru High School in 1972, Muturi and his cohort experienced a serious bout of bullying, so much so that when Sundays came, Muturi and his mates feigned love for Christ and rushed off to teach Sunday school in the neighbouring villages. In fact, all they needed was a break from marauding bullies.

Luckily for Muturi, he could wing-it teaching Sunday school considering he was the third born in a Bible-wielding Anglican family of nine. By the time they became sophomores, Muturi and his boys were so hardcore that choosing to exact revenge on the Form 1s came naturally to them. It was rough.

This was around the time Muturi discovered poker.

At first, it was all harmless leisure. Then it became an obsession when Muturi and his chums started playing for money. Instead of studying, the fellas played poker almost nonstop, often till the wee hours of the morning. The outcome of this unlikely school-night bustle was the group either missed lessons as they slept-in after long nights of money-making, or simply skipped classes altogether as they played and made, and lost, and made and lost dough. 

And even when the school administration raided the poker dens and confiscated the cards, Muturi and his co-conspirators always found ways of sneaking in new sets of cards and kept their shuffling enterprise going. In the end, the group’s notoriety made them a marked lot, but nothing was stopping Muturi and his homeboys.

This was around the time Muturi’s suspensions came fast and furious. However, unbeknownst to Muturi and his abettors, much as they camouflaged their transgressions from their parents, Kangaru had resolved not to readmit any of them for their A-Level no matter how well they excelled in their O-Level.

They were personae non-gratae.

‘‘When I look back, I realise just how much we were misleading each other. A number of us were almost stopped from sitting for our O Levels by the school on grounds that we hadn’t attended enough classes, because we were busy playing cards."
Speaker Justin Muturi

Muturi may look back in regret, but as they say, hindsight is 20-20.

Bungoma was too far

As fate would have it — and as you’ll keep learning, with Muturi you can’t be too quick to pass judgement because there’s always that one card stuck under the playing table — Muturi pulled a fast one on skeptics by acing his O Levels impressively enough as to be invited to the then flourishing Chesamis Boys High School in Bungoma.

But staying true to his gimmicks, Muturi turned down the offer on grounds that Bungoma was too far away from Embu. At that juncture, Muturi was unaware of just how closely interwoven Bungoma was with his destiny.

"I told my father that if I wasn’t going back to Kangaru for my Forms 5 and 6, then I’d rather forget about the A Levels and join the Kenya Air Force,’’ Muturi recollects. 

And he wasn’t joking.  

At the time, the practice was for Form 5s to report to their schools at the start of second term, but an adamant Muturi dilly-dallied and let the term fly past as he waited on his father’s move. In the end, the senior Njoka capitulated and went to plead with Kangaru. 

Luckily for Muturi, his father’s prayers were heard. This is the time the senior Njoka, to his sheer disbelief, learnt of his son’s suspensions, and in turn Muturi made a pact that his delinquent card-playing ways were now a thing of the past. 

What Muturi was unaware of was that this was also goodbye.

‘‘Unfortunately in December 1976, just as I had settled into my Form 5, we lost my father,’’ Muturi remembers, a distant sombreness in his eyes. ‘‘We buried him in January of 1977.’’

Retired poker player

Muturi was born on April 28, 1956, in Kanywambora village in Embu where he attended Kanywambora Primary School, from where he did his Certificate of Primary Education in 1971 to qualify for O Level admission at Kangaru in 1972.

The demise of the senior Njoka shook up Muturi’s life and that of his eight siblings. 

Throughout Muturi’s upbringing, the Njoka family solely relied on their father’s income as a policeman, underwritten by earnings from tobacco farming. Now the economic and other burdens were borne by Muturi's mother Virginia Njoka who died in 2018.  

"My mother was your typical rural woman," Muturi says, "but she now had to fend for us.’’

Possibly from this change of circumstance at the home front and the promise to his father to stick to the straight and now eIt was possibly out of this change of circumstance in the home front, and the promise to stick to the straight and narrow Muturi made to his father before his departure, that the lanky Muturi fully redirected his energies to the basketball court, where as captain he led Kangaru up to the national championships. And whenever he wasn’t throwing hoops, Muturi moonlit as a table tennis player, a sport in which he didn’t fare badly either, representing Kangaru provincially. 

But Muturi’s secret and possibly truest love lay in theatre, but then there was a problem. During his reckless O Level years, Muturi and the drama club patron had fallen out after Muturi bullied some youngsters known to the patron. The patron swore never to cast Muturi for any role ever.

‘‘Those days, every province produced two plays which came to the National Drama Festivals,’’ Muturi narrates, ‘‘and so because I wasn’t allowed to act in the English play due to my differences with the drama club patron, I decided to present my own play, done in Kiswahili. When we got to the provincial knock-out stage, Kangaru’s English play came second while my Kiswahili play, still attributed to Kangaru, came third.’’

Muturi breaks into his characteristic coy laugh, a signal that there’s a plot twist looming.

‘‘Seeing that my Kiswahili play had come to the end of the road,’’ Muturi carries on, ‘‘I secretly conspired with the cast of the English play without the patron’s knowledge and landed a major role during the National Drama Festivals. And so when Kangaru’s time to go on stage came, the patron was shocked to see me as a cast member in his English play. But seeing the kind of spirited showcase I put up, the patron decided to let bygones be bygones and didn’t raise any queries after the performance. We buried the hatchet, and remain very close friends to date.’’   

Muturi may have quit playing poker, but the poker player in him was still alive and well.

The Star collaborated with Isaac Otidi, the Editor-In-Chief of Debunk Media in writing this article.


Click below to read the full article in the Star epaper on Mgazeti