The first time I met Kivutha Kibwana he was at Mama Mutinda’s, an assemblage of tin roofed, concrete floored structures dotted with blue plastic chairs and low tables.
Almost everyone at Mama Mutinda’s, including the professor had a chapatti on one hand and a cup of tea either on the table, their laps or lips. Some patrons preferred fried eggs with steaming Ugali, others a bowl of scalding hot bone soup. It was only 8am.
Over the past five years, Makueni, the county Kivutha represents as a governor for the second term, started off on unsure footing. At some point, it looked like Kivutha would be among the first governors to be impeached over seemingly insurmountable differences between his office and the County Assembly.
“Somehow we managed,” he says. “We lost almost three years of work, but we made the remaining one and a half years count.”
Some say his leadership is like that of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He does things the way he wants them done, and is a stickler for processes, which he says got him in trouble in the initial stages of his tenure.
Kivutha cuts the image of a self-effacing man ashamed of both the power his office commands as well as the trappings some of his peers surround themselves with. He rides only with his driver and body guard, a provision of the state. There are no visible chase cars and no battery of hangers on.
“When you come to the county government, you come into direct contact with the ordinary people. They will stop you anywhere. They will come to your house. If you move around with your car window rolled up, they will have a grievance against you,” he says. “It is important that you have a relationship with the people who gave you the job. If you do wrong things, they can come and even tell your mother.”
Wote town, like many of the other county headquarters, tell a story of triumph.
The triumph of the people succeeding in their own little ways while trying to catch up with the rest of the country.
Direct investment is moving from traditional destinations towards the now five-year-old county headquarters. Young businesses are breaking even. Employment opportunities, though small scale are cropping up. Slowly, once sleepy towns are transforming into active commercial hubs.
“This is a countrywide phenomenon. Devolution is and should work for the people,” he says.
However, he admits to not knowing the full extent that devolution would have on lives of individuals to the village level.
“I never thought devolution would make this kind of difference this soon,” Kivutha, a professor of electoral law says. He was among the proponents of devolution during Kenya’s tumultuous constitution-making process.
Away from the glossy image of prosperity represented by the shiny Junction Mall in the middle of town or the ascension of new and refurbished hotels, the growth of the retail sector with the setting up of supermarkets such as Ngooni, Makueni’s story is not skin deep. Currently, residents of the county enjoy year round medical cover at all public institutions for a subsidised cost of Sh500 per household, a cost that covers them on every step of the way.
Apart from what county executives excitedly refer to as MakueniCare, a fruit processing plant too has been set up to tap into the mango-rich region. A milk processing plant too, packaging produce from the farmers and selling it to outlets in Wote and nearby towns is operational.
“We set out to try and give every household a chance at succeeding,” Kivutha says. “Whether they had a cow or mangoes we found a way to monetise whatever resources they have.”
The devolution journey was not easy. First the unwarranted competition between county and national governments. “There was distrust between the two levels that made us work at cross purposes,” he says, a distrust that meant that governors could not directly approach donor agencies for partnerships or funding opportunities.
Second, the transition from academia and social activism into the rough and tumble world of bare knuckle politics almost knocked him out in the first round.
“I should have handled the matter differently. I now know the stance I took was necessarily the right one. The losers in the impasse were the people who lost time that could have been used for development,” he says.
In September 2014, Members of Makueni County Assembly (MCAs) successfully passed an impeachment motion. Some 35 MCAs largely from the Wiper Party voted for the impeachment while 10 members drawn from Muungano Party voted against, putting into motion a series of unfortunate events that included a near fatal shooting at the county assembly offices.
“Many counties got off the wrong footing. People came into leadership believing that it was their turn to eat,” he says. “But when we asked the people to make a decision and they decided to disband the county for being dysfunctional everybody decided to work.”
Only one of the MCAs behind the impeachment move was reelected. Perhaps pointing to his brand of politics that might once in a while include a sleight of hand; feigning a soft naivety to cover a hardened unforgiving core.
Every time he talks, the teacher in him creeps out. His gestures, choice of words, complete sentences, all reminiscent of an instructor careful not to make his students take down erroneous notes.
Lessons from the village
Does he miss the classroom?
“Absolutely,” he says. “But I have discovered that the village has lessons too.”
The biggest of which, he says, has been witnessing the devastating effect of poverty. “You can’t hide from it. You can’t run from it. You can only be helped out of it,” he says.
And as he finishes his second and final term as governor, poverty eats at his mind.
“I would like to be remembered as one who joined hands with the rest of the people in reducing poverty,” he says.
He has a long way to go though. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) puts the current poverty level in Makueni at 60 per cent, four per cent lower than what it was in 2013 but still a massive 16 per cent above the national average. He is optimistic though that significant gains can be made in his lifetime.
At his age and at the beginning of the end of his public service life, Kivutha often finds himself thinking about his legacy and how he would like to be remembered post 2022.
“Sometimes I worry about my legacy, but mostly about the legacy of Makueni as a whole. I ask myself whether I have helped create a foundation for a successful future. Whether I have created opportunity for every household.”
Although he says his legacy ends after his term, some say there might be yet another chapter to his story and that Kivutha Kibwana’s book is not done yet. As the current Wiper Party chairperson, does the professor see himself playing a bigger role in national politics?
“I have worked since I was 23 years old. It will take something extraordinary to get me to work past 68 years after serving my term,” he says in another self-effacing moment. “I need rest. I need to spend more time with my wife and children and grandchildren.”
Those around him say he has part of his gaze fixed on national politics. He has been there before, serving in Mwai Kibaki’s cabinet both as advisor and minister. He however thinks that the ongoing push and pull among the top political class needs to come to an end.
“All these guys have always worked together at one point or another. They cannot tell us they can’t agree on a few simple issues,” he says. “There are things that are about political competition, but some issues demand a bipartsan approach.
“In Kenya we only close ranks when the country goes to the dogs.”
The professor says politicians, such as himself, need to develop to the point where they can differentiate between things they need to fight for and when a common stand needs to be taken.
The Paulo Coelho fan also wants to read more and write more. Not just write on devolution and law but also finish up a thriller novel he has had on the back burner for years. He hopes to write more plays, create more time for speaking engagements.
Before all that though, he has a job to finish. As the interview draws to a close, an aide walks in with some paper work for signing. He gives the leaf a quick look through and says to the aide: “Please talk to those friends of yours and tell them to bring a good letter with proper grammar,” Kivutha, the teacher rearing his head again.
The last time I met the governor he was dressed down in a flowered shirt and khaki pants and thinly soled loafers.
He was at his second floor offices in the old District Commissioner’s office in Wote Town. It was late afternoon and he had just finished looking at a concept paper from county education executives. He looked tired.
A golden glow from the sun hastily retreating behind the hills threw long shadows on his walls. A cup of coffee he had requested from his secretary was taking too long to arrive. He was getting fidgety and kept looking at his watch.
“Did you know Makueni farmers grow coffee?” he asked.
It was almost 6pm and his next assignment, condoling with a friend who had lost a dear one, was due.