Their word is law, you cross their path at your own peril and risk. They fear nobody and hold no one in high regard, except the appointing authority.
The Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Interior Karanja Kibicho is easily the most powerful State official in Kenya today, after President Uhuru Kenyatta and Dr Kibicho’s boss, Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i.
Every so often, you hear members of Deputy President William Ruto’s unofficial Tangatanga political team crying foul.
They talk about State officials whom, they say, are “abusing power, disobeying court orders and frustrating the deputy president”.
On a number of occasions, they have come out openly, to mention Kibicho and Dr Matiang’i. At one point, last year, they alleged there was a plot to physically eliminate the deputy president.
The DP himself is believed to have written a complaint to the police. Ironically, when arrests were made, it was his Tangatanga side that was hit. Matters remain before the courts, with officials from his office facing the law.
That is how power behaves. The complainant easily becomes the villain.
Matiang’i makes no bones about his clout generally and scorn for the deputy president in particular. He openly tells public gatherings that he only recognises one boss – President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Today Matiang’i is, of course, a super Cabinet secretary. He was always rather special from the start of the Jubilee regime. In April 2013, he was the first CS to be appointed, even as Uhuru and Dr Ruto haggled over who else they should bring on board and where.
Then, Uhuru and Ruto were regarded as equal shareholders in the Jubilee Coalition Government of 2013. Uhuru was only the first among equals.
Their appointees dared not disdain either of the two principals. With Uhuru now securely in his second term, things have changed. In January last year, he gave Matiang’i sweeping powers through Executive Order No 1 of 2019.
The order gave the Interior CS the mandate to co-ordinate development matters in the Cabinet. The appointment signalled the start of the DP’s declining fortunes. Conversely, it also made Matiang’i the most powerful person in government, after the president.
According to the arrangement, which is still in place, he reports directly to the president. The DP is a non-entity, as far as Matiang’i is concerned.
Safely barricaded behind the president, there is nothing the DP can do about Matiang’i, except to complain. Both Matiang’i and his PS enjoy not only the exercising of power but also displaying it.
They especially enjoy the opportunity to taunt the DP and the circle around him. In this comportment, they represent a phenomenon that Kenyans have lived with since independence.
Throughout the life of the republic, there have come to the centre of power men who call the shots beyond their official square. They are an untouchable breed of leaders whom everyone in Government, and sometimes outside, is afraid of.
Their word is law unto itself. You cross their path at your own peril and risk. With impunity, they can ignore court orders and summonses by Parliament. They fear nobody and hold no one in high regard, except the appointing authority.
Once in a while, there has been the extreme maverick who forgot to honour even the appointing authority. He went on to pay the price.
Where did it all begin, and will it always be like that?
Kenyans of age will recall the ‘Expatriate Leaving’ era. It was the grand season of Africanisation of the public service in a newly independent African country. The African was taking over from the foreigner (often a white) expatriate, in a country that was being marketed to the outside world as the Eldorado of East Africa.
The great irony was that while it was branded as the place to go, the white community that had so far rod roughshod through it was leaving.
The departing expats were selling off their personal effects. Accordingly, they placed notices in newspapers, inviting buyers for their presumed quality stuff. This passing on of their domestic and, especially, motorised items signified more than just the passing on of symbols of social status. It also signified the handing over of power to the next set of leaders.
Africanisation of personnel was government policy and programme. It came as a mixed package of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The legacy of that age (1960-1982) lives on. It has retained many of the old trappings. In the selfsame package, Africanisation brought to the public space and office competence and merit.
In the same bundle was also packaged cronyism, mediocrity and incompetence. In either case, it often converted the public office into a powerful and dreaded personal tool. The people privileged to occupy that space have run an almost parallel system of government to the established constitutional Executive arm of government.
Because of their might and style, they have been loved and dreaded in almost equal measure. Through the decades, they have ranged from permanent secretaries to provincial administrators. Flowing in the same stream with them have been functionaries with no known specific office, or authority, around the centre of power.
Africanisation was in the early 1960s spurred by an almost desperate move to bring African professionals into government. The pace was painfully slow, however. The famous Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965 on African Socialism and its Application to Development lamented the shortage of Kenyan African professionals, not just in the public service, but everywhere else.
Some of the citizens arriving in these positions, therefore, went on to consolidate their presence. They become exceptionally powerful and untouchable. They got to know best how government works. They knew how to pull strings and to get everyone do their bidding. Even politicians newly arrived at the centre of power after a successful election cycle learned that they would depend on them to run government.
Among the first Africans to occupy these powerful offices was Geoffrey Kariithi, who served as head of the civil service from 1967 to 1979, having grown in the system.
Ahead of him was Duncan Ndegwa, who served from independence to 1967, when he went to work for the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) as the governor.
The CBK governor remained a close confidant of President Jomo Kenyatta’s to the very end of Jomo’s life. He was part of the power axis in the Kenyatta years, as is made manifest in his biographical writing, Walking Through the Kenyatta Struggles. The real centre of power in the public service, however, was Kariithi.
Virtually everything in government gravitated around Kariithi. The migration of the legal system from a white-dominated entity was undertaken under his watch, with the visible hand of Attorney General Charles Njonjo. Mr Njonjo often resisted the effort, however, preferring instead to have white judges.
Kariithi was, through most of the journey, the kingpin in the Africanisation process. The Duncan Ndegwa Commission Report of 1970-71 was made under his watch. It opened up strategic business opportunities for politically-correct individuals with the government. New African millionaires were made overnight.
An Alliance High School alumnus, Kariithi was both powerful and very highly respected. His record was almost impeccable, with the exception of the recurrent complaint that the public service was top heavy with one tribe – a matter that has remained the curse of the nation to date.
He was, however, more respected than dreaded. Some of the later occupants of the office of Head of the Civil Service would be more feared than respected.
Kariithi belonged to a category of Kenyans whom the British had deliberately groomed as an alternative elite to the dominant white.
Others were individuals like Charles Njonjo, John Michuki, Jeremiah Kiereini, Robert Ouko, Charles Koinange, Matere Keriri, Kenneth Matiba, Simeon Nyachae and Paul Boit. They became the first generation of African technocrats and power wielders in government.
It is also instructive that all of these people became leading investors and successful entrepreneurs in finance, money and banking.
They also developed vast interests in industrialisation, agriculture and farming, health, education and in many other sectors. Much of this happened under Kariithi’s watch. Initially, they each led beautiful lives away from direct political limelight, while also influencing the direction and shape of things in the country. With the exception of Ouko and Koinange, the rest also went into politics, with differing fortunes.
Daniel arap Moi’s ascendance to power came with the concurrent retirement of Kariithi from the public service and his replacement with Jeremiah Kiereini. Kiereini had already occupied powerful and sometimes even dreaded and controversial positions, right from the colonial times.
During the Mau Mau years (1947 to 1960) he served as a rehabilitation officer. He was a member of the dreaded home guard fraternity. He later worked in provincial administration, rising to the position of provincial commissioner, before becoming permanent secretary and later head of the public service. He was remarkably close to the powerful Attorney General Njonjo.
He is reputed to have been the other hand of the all-powerful Njonjo tenure in the AG’s office. Instructively, he was caught up in the 1983-84 ‘traitor’ drama that saw Njonjo fall from grace to grass. Kiereini, however, went into management of his vast business empire, while Njonjo retreated into the shadows.
Earlier, Kiereini had been one of the key people in State security services in the Kenyatta regime. Together with the police bigwigs that were Bernard Hinga and Ben Gethi, as well as head of intelligence, James Kanyotu, Kiereini was one of Jomo’s principal advisers on security matters. He served in the Defence ministry at the time.
This team is credited with cracking a ring associated with a coup plot against the Kenyatta government in 1970-71. Together with Njonjo and Vice President Moi, they worked for the removal of Gen Ndolo as chief of military staff and Kitili Mwendwa as Chief Justice. The two were alleged to have been complicit in the coup plot.
Simeon Nyachae succeeded Kiereini as chief secretary and head of public service from November 1984. He was another power broker who visibly enjoyed the feel of power.
Mr Nyachae’s narrative in his autobiography, Walking through the Corridors of Service, gives an elaborate exposé of how the system worked. After his training in the United Kingdom, Nyachae returned to Kenya to take up a job with East African Breweries as a labour relations officer in 1959.
This did not go down well with his father, Senior Chief Musa Nyandusi, as well as other persons in the power brokerage of the time. He was literally blackmailed into giving up a lucrative position in the private sector to become a district commissioner (DC) in Kang’undo and, later, in Makueni. He worked both as a DC and a first-class district magistrate. It was the start of a journey that would eventually place him at the very top of the public service, domiciled in the Office of the President.
During his tenure in Harambee House, Nyachae was both respected and feared. A workaholic who did not know such a thing as a break, or working without clearly defined goals and processes; he was not the kind of person joyriders and hunters of fortune in government would be comfortable with. He is remarkably remembered for spearheading the District Focus for Rural Development programme of the mid-1980s.
He drove the policy and the public service with zeal. That he was very close to President Moi was never in doubt. Their closeness saw them get into business partnerships, apart from working together in government.
Nyachae’s temporary fall from grace (1987-1992) was sudden and shocking. When he retired from the service in February 1987, aged 55, the political guns from his own native Kisii focused on him. This was despite the perception that he had fixed Kisii professionals in prominent positions in government and opened up business opportunities for many more. As soon as he stepped out of power, however, the political class in Kisii District assembled in Keberigo in 1987 to make hostile pronouncements against him.
They wormed their way to the centre of power in the Kanu government. They made Nyachae an outlaw and a veritable outcast. From that moment, it was a downward spiral and loneliness for the next five years. He would only bounce back after the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1991. The great irony was that Nyachae had been one of the powerful hidden hands in the removal of multiparty democracy a decade earlier.
The Mwakenya incarcerations took place under his watch as the head of public service. The monster he had helped to create in these sunny days returned to haunt him after 1987.
Hezekiah Ogongo Oyugi, a man of small stature, sharp penetrating eyes and a shrill voice, easily remains the most dreaded individual at the centre of government in Kenya, after Nicholas Biwott and Njonjo.
Njonjo, who turned 100 years a few weeks ago, began exercising State power before he became attorney general. He worked in various positions in the colonial State Law Office before independence. He was popular with the colonial establishment and earmarked early for great things. The jury remains out on whether he did a good job or a bad one at the time and after.
Njonjo was reputed to have had a file on virtually every notable individual in the country. If you began going astray, they said, he would summon you to his office and give you time to peruse your file. He then allowed you to go and think things through.
Did you want to continue in the direction you were going, or did you have a change of heart? Yet Njonjo would himself fall from grace in the purge that was the ‘Msaliti Affair’ of the mid 1980s.
Back to Oyugi, the former provincial commissioner, turned permanent secretary, turned head of the public service, was a man who took no prisoners. He was the head of the service in 1990, when Dr Robert Ouko was killed in circumstances that remain a mystery to date.
He was arrested and arraigned in court for suspected complicity in the mysterious murder. Like about a dozen or so other people whose names were linked to the Ouko death, Oyugi died suddenly, before the matter could be determined.
In the golden era of his power and authority, senior public servants were said to always salute and speak to him while standing, even when the conversation was on the phone.
An excessively wealthy individual whose fortunes came from mysterious sources, Oyugi was said to have no regard for anybody. He splashed and flaunted his massive wealth when one of his daughters was married off at a lavish wedding at his home in Oyugis (named for his grandfather).
Oyugi was the proverbial bird that attempted to wrestle with his personal spirit at the end of a sumptuous meal. When he reached this point, even the president was nothing before him. He would arrive at functions after the president, including at his daughter’s wedding. That was the beginning of the end for him.
Ambassador Francis Muthaura, came in at the start of the Mwai Kibaki presidency. He was a quiet and soft-spoken power wielder. He was not popular at all with the political opposition, but was loved by the establishment and by his compatriots from Mt Kenya.
He presided over a State system that was unashamedly Mt Kenya dominated. While he was not himself showy, those around him behaved like power peacocks. Former Kibwezi MP, and a Kibaki loyalist, Kalembe Ndile, lamented about these people, “Each time they open their mouths, Kibaki loses 10,000 votes.”
Some of these individuals are still active in politics, with diverse fortunes in the post-Kibaki era. Mr Muthaura was the powerful man behind the mask that they were.
Muthaura himself got into trouble following the post-election violence of 2007-08, which saw him indicted before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. His risen star faded suddenly, as he gave way to Francis Kimemia, who enjoyed exercising power and demonstrating that power was good. Mr Kimemia served under both President Kibaki and President Kenyatta, before going into politics.
After Kimemia, power has now shifted to Matiang’i and Kibicho. They are the latest stars in what can be sometimes a very treacherous Milky Way. How they will end up is anybody’s guess.