Conservation icon and former civil service boss Leakey dies at 77

Richard Leakey (left), former US secretary of State Rex Tillerson (centre) and Tourism CS Najib Balala at KWS headquarters, March 2018. [Beverlyne Musili, Standard]

One of the world’s most renown conservationists, Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey died yesterday aged of 77, just hours after his close friend and Kenya’s first indigenous Attorney General Charles Njonjo died and was cremated.

Dr. Leakey was eulogised by President Uhuru Kenyatta as a globally renown Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist, who has served Kenya with distinction in several roles among them as director of the National Museums of Kenya and chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

From running a powerful civil service to being criticised as being to brash in his dealings in the conservation world, Leakey was a man who stood tall in life and handled whatever it threw at him.

He fell off a horse and fractured his skull, survived a puff adder attack, kidney failure and a plane crash as well.

For a man who didn't believe in God, death had come too close on multiple occasions and he survived on numerous occasions.

“God is the biggest fake news of all time. I am a humanist. I believe in evolution,” he told The Standard in a previous interview.

Leakey dropped out of school in Form Two aged 16 and tried different things: A tour company, keeping snakes, and even boiling carcasses and sending skeletons to museums abroad.

He became director of the National Museums of Kenya when he was 22.

He started his career in palaeoanthropology by accompanying his father to different excavation sites.

He became the chair of KWS in 1990 when there was an influx of poachers. In one meeting, he gave them what humanitarians considered the worst advice: He told rangers that if poachers shoot at them, they should shoot back.

After years in conservation, Leakey would find himself at the centre of power in 1999, when he was appointed as the Head of Public Service in July 1999.

Leakey’s mandate was to head a group of rapid response technocrats, succinctly called the ‘Dream Team’, assembled by the resident to bring discipline to the public service.

The goal was to help boost donor confidence in Kenya at a time when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had suspended loans in protest over hitherto rampant corruption and political intolerance.

In appointing Leakey, the then President Daniel Moi – who three years earlier had branded the global conservation icon “a foreigner unsuitable for any public office” – said, “(He is) recognised, both at home and internationally, as a man of determination and integrity... attributes which are greatly needed at this time. He will have my complete and undivided support.”

The entire 'Dream Team' was fished from the private sector.

Leakey himself was drawn from an illustrious career at the helm of the KWS  and the National Museums of Kenya.

He was the Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of Civil Service. Martin Oduor-Otieno (previously Director of Finance and Planning at Barclays Bank) was named Permanent Secretary for Finance and Planning, Mwangazi Mwachofi (previously a representative of the International Finance Corporation) as Permanent Secretary to the National Treasury, and Titus Naikuni (previously Managing Director of Magadi Soda Company) as Permanent Secretary for Transport and Communication.

Dr Louis Leakey and his wife Mary Leakey. [File]

Others were Shem Migot Adholla (from the World Bank), appointed as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, and Wilfred Mwangi (from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Energy.

At the time of his appointment, Leakey was assuming a very powerful position. The post of PS had been described as key, since ministers and assistant ministers were political appointees and seldom had experience in the areas for which they were responsible.

Although Moi had on numerous occasions publicly stated his aversion to Leakey, the archeologist was highly esteemed in international circles.

The Tribune News Services reported on 24 July 24, 1999 that he was “… throughout recognised as an efficient and charismatic manager who will be called on to revive Kenya’s once well-functioning civil service”.

Leakey’s team embarked on restructuring the bottom-heavy civil service, eradicating corruption at all levels, reviving the crumbled infrastructure and jump-starting the ailing agriculture sector.

In fact, two days after moving into the job, Leakey vowed to end widespread corruption, inefficiency and nepotism.

In September 1999, after just two months in office, he swooped on the corruption-laden Coffee Board of Kenya by sacking the organisation’s general manager and financial controller, and placing it under State control.

An audit team dispatched to look into the affairs of the board reported that it had become an impediment to the full liberalisation of the coffee industry.

Imenti South MP Kiraitu Murungi described it thus: “… it is controlled by a powerful reactionary State and cooperative elite which has immensely benefitted from the unjust and exploitative colonial coffee production and marketing system…

"This powerful clique has for years captured, sabotaged and paralysed any genuine liberalisation of the coffee sector. They continue portraying the farmer as an ignorant person who does not understand reforms and who cannot make rational economic choices.”

But it didn’t take long for the team to run into headwinds. Grumbling in the civil service over the huge salaries the IMF and World Bank were paying the 'Dream Team' would soon boil over.  

Thus, when the Dream Team fell out of favour, Leakey left a forlorn and frustrated figure, having been unable to hack into and launder the close-knit corrupt ethnic politics.

“In the process and in trying to seal the corruption loophole, the team stepped on many powerful and/or politically connected toes and by early 2001, it became obvious that its expiry date was close at hand. Leakey was side-lined,” The Standard reported.

Dr. Richard Leakey served Kenya with distinction in several roles among them as director of the National Museums of Kenya and chair of KWS. [Courtesy]

An Associated Press article of  March 27, 2001 reported, “Mr Leakey’s blunt approach has earned him enemies on all sides in Kenya. Parliament overruled his attempt to reduce the number of employees in Kenya’s bloated civil service. Two days after moving into the job, he said he would work to end widespread corruption, inefficiency and nepotism."

As head of KWS, Leakey had transformed the organisation from a loss-making entity to a sustainable machine able to attract foreign funding at a time when even the government couldn’t source a coin from donors.

In fact, in 1991 he personally raised 150 million dollars (about KES 15 billion at the current exchange rate) towards the organisation’s projects.

Within conservation circles though, he was criticised as bulldozing his way of thinking. For many, it was his way, or the highway. 

After his stint in government, Leakey retreated to a quiet life away from the limelight until President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed him the chair of KWS after which he slowed down somewhat and at the time of his death, was working on his Ngaren Project in Kona Baridi. 

In a previous interview, Leakey told The Standard that upon completion, the project would show humanity’s journey by exposing forces that shape Earth’s climate, evolution, timescale of human’s existence and impact.

The Ngaren Project is laid out on a 300-acre piece of land. It was within this dream of furthering his work that he died.

He co-authored two books with Roger Lewin: Origins (1977) and People of the Lake (1978) that explained the link between the fossils and the modern human.

He said that Africa was the home of human ancestors 3.5 million years ago. His other book, The Making of Mankind (1981) essentially focuses on his anthropological work.

In 1977, Leakey appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Two decades later, the magazine named him among the top thinkers of last century.

is wife, Meave, and daughter Louise also did ground-breaking work in Turkana.

Born on December 19, 1944 in Nairobi, Leakey was the second of three sons of world-renowned archeologists Louis Seymour Leakey and Mary Leakey.

He was a third-generation Kenyan.