Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders when they held an executive council meeting at Meru ASK showground in November 2018. [Phares Mutembei, Standard] It is revered by even the most powerful among the Ameru. Its word is law; not even the courts are feared and respected as the Njuri Ncheke Supreme Council of Ameru Elders. The fines they impose go unchallenged.When the elders issue a decree, mostly from their hallowed shrines of Nchiru, the message reverberates from Thuchi River, which marks the border of Embu and Tharaka Nithi counties, and which announces the entry point of the greater Meru, to Ntonyiri— the last point of the vast community land.For years, records say from as early as 17th Century, Njuri Ncheke has always dictated community issues in Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties; acted as the ‘judiciary’ of the Ameru, arbitrating and settling disputes while also imposing fines on those it considers to have gone against the grain.
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Imposed fineThe elders are no respecters of personalities. Retired President Mwai Kibaki attracted their wrath, albeit on behalf of his late wife Mama Lucy Kibaki, when the council imposed a fine on him.The Kibaki matter was referred to the council by former fiery MP Gitobu Imanyara.Mr Imanyara, one of Kenya’s most celebrated multi-party leaders, is a Njuri elder but run afoul of Mama Lucy.It took the intervention of the elders to settle the altercation between the First Lady and Imanyara. Lucy had allegedly physically confronted the then Central Imenti legislator after he announced that he would represent photojournalist Clifford Otieno against her in court for alleged assault.
Mrs Kibaki was not satisfied about how the media had treated some issues concerning the country.Imanyara claims Lucy slapped him, but the Njuri Ncheke intervened and the feud was settled amicably.He says he intended to sue the First Lady, but his fellow Njuri elders convinced him not to seek recourse in court.“They (Njuri) requested me to drop the case. The Njuri handled it very well and we settled the matter very well,” says Imanyara.“They brought me mbuzi (goat)!” he adds.
Imanyara says as an elder he was prevailed upon by his fellow elders to drop the matter and out of respect he did.He says out of respect and out of recognition of the Njuri’s ability to rest all manner of disputes, he was ready to forgive the slap from the First Lady.However, he says it is unfortunate that the Njuri has been politicised by some area leaders.Imanyara says the Njuri’s role to settle land and other disputes in the Ameru community was diluted when it was registered as a society.“The politicians tried to use it (Njuri) to isolate and fight me,” he says.
The Njuri as we knew it is dead, Imanyara avers.“The Njuri was converted into a society for the purpose of controlling it. It is completely inconvertible with the purpose of the Njuri, of mediating in land disputes, fighting female genital mutilation and uniting the community,” says Imanyara.To respect the Njuri Ncheke’s role in the community, High Court Judge Francis Gikonyo, in a bid to settle the dispute among the two factions, asked the registrar of societies to arbitrate.Justice Gikinyo appeared to embrace the opinion that the fight over leadership positions was best left to Njuri elders and the Registrar of Societies to settle.Paul Mugambi, a political and social analyst, says the Njuri is a powerful organ that has played the role of settling disputes and setting the pace for political and social development in various sectors in Meru for ages.That is until politicians keen to have their way succeeded to a degree in splitting the council.Now there are two factions which claim they are the bona fide officials of the council but it is common knowledge politicians are behind the division.“Clearly there are two factions. One is registered (at the Registrar of Societies) the other is not. The division of the elders started when politicians started to use it for political ends,” says Mr Mugambi.Allocated fundsHe says Governors Kiraitu Murungi (Meru), Muthomi Njuki (Tharaka Nithi), Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya and other area leaders should work to ensure the Njuri is allocated funds to discharge their mandate more effectively.“Njuri has always been used as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism and has played a supportive role to the Judiciary. We don’t have to clog the courts with all manner of cases that the elders can dispense of. They need support and to be freed of politics,” Mugambi adds.Njuri Ncheke assistant secretary general Benjamin Mugambi says Washington Muthamia (his boss) and Paul MÍthinkia (chairman) have the certificate of registration, thus are recognised by the national government.But Mugambi says they have no source of funds to do their work for the community.Regarding the split among elders, Njuri Ncheke patron Erastus Njoka says efforts are underway to restore unity among elders. Prof Njoka, who is also Chuka University vice chancellor, says politicians have infiltrated the council and are the reason for the split.“The unity of the Njuri is key. We are working to ensure that politics do not infiltrate the elders’ role in the community. We want the council to work with the Government for the benefit of the Meru community from Thuci to Ntonyiri,” says Njoka.