Leakey, always the colourful man, had ‘aide de camp’ at KWS

Richard Leaky with CS Judi Wakhungu during the release of ivory and rhino horn stockpiles results at KWS offices, Lang'ata. September 2015. [Angela Maina, Standard]

When Richard Leakey returned to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in September 1998 for his third stint as director, the mood among staff was both tense and euphoric.

Leakey’s predecessor, David Western, had been fired that May but was comically reappointed after six days before he was again booted out four months later. His allies were scared stiff that the Leakey regime would be unkind to them. They were right.

In the team were scientists and corporate highfliers that Western had hired from the private sector to provide intellectual heft and help him propel his “Parks Beyond Parks” programmme whose community-based conservation projects Leakey and his allies held in grinding contempt.  

On the other hand, Leakey’s diehard disciples, the men and women with whom he had fought in the trenches in his wildlife wars with poachers, were euphoric, convinced that their man, about whom they spoke with messianic zeal, would restore the organisation to familiar factory settings.

Unknown to the public, KWS, despite its posh branding, was stone broke. Donor funding had dried up, as had tourism earnings after international tourists gave Kenya a wide berth due to the battering that park infrastructure suffered during the 1997-1998 El Niño rains, a problem that was compounded by the deadly ethnic clashes that rocked Likoni at the Kenya Coast.

With a financial deficit estimated at about Sh400 million (about $3.5 million at current rates), so bad was the financial crunch at KWS that the service's vehicles were being targeted by auctioneers, there was no toilet paper in the washrooms at the spanking headquarters on Lang’ata Road, and senior staff had to be retrenched to help balance the books and stem the bleeding.    

On the morning of his appointment, Leakey rode into KWS to take over and found the anxious staff waiting. The moment he limped out of his car, walking stick in hand, to inspect a guard of honour, a nondescript game warden leapt out of the parade and stepped right behind him, in the manner of a president’s aide-de-camp.

That man and Leakey would have an interesting history. The warden, though barely literate, was a relatively senior officer, a pistol marksman who later became head of Leakey’s elite personal security detail.

Indeed, he was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat when an aircraft Leakey was flying crashed, hitting a tree in the incident that cost Leakey his legs. The bodyguard, who was flung out of the aircraft, escaped unscathed when his fall was broken by a tree branch which held him suspended in the air by the sleeve of his shirt.

But why would Leakey, who in the government pecking order ranked below the Inspector General of Police, have a personal bodyguard, chase cars and a ring of elite guards trained in VIP escort?

At the height of his battles with poachers, Leakey had dramatically claimed that his life was in danger, and even led journalists to a tree in the bushes where goons had allegedly pinned a notice warning to come for him. He may not have known it, but his men suspected, amid giggles, that he had personally pinned that piece of paper on the tree trunk! But from that moment on, he always moved around with a chase car and a posse of armed rangers covering his back.

Leakey’s purge against Western’s allies began the next morning. Senior managers and researchers suspected to be allied to his predecessor were quickly shunted aside, and their pet projects halted “to cut costs”.

Among the projects was the pace-setting Nairobi Safari Walk project whose contractor (a court ordered that he be paid the full cost of the contract after getting kicked out) was already on site. A host of senior officers were arrested and dragged out of their offices in uniform for allegedly engaging in corruption. They would later be compensated when the charges against them failed to stand scrutiny in court.

Punishing schedule

As a rule, Leakey would be up at the crack of dawn, and in his office by 6am, often working late into the night. Staff worried that he was pushing himself too hard, that the punishing schedule would take a toll on his body then already ravaged by ill health and advancing age.

However, what seemed to drive Leakey was a fear that corruption had crept back into KWS after his departure. Rumour abounded that he spent hours on end poring over and personally clearing all payment vouchers worth over Sh1,000.

Unfortunately, KWS was apparently so deep in the hole that his best efforts could not rekindle his Midas touch of the early 90s when he, doubling up as director and chairman of the Board of Trustees, seemed to single-handedly haul it from the abyss. It didn’t help that his ruthless purge on corruption - and micromanaging tendencies - had stunned senior officers into terror; no one wanted to make a decision.

This reign had its light moments – like Leakey popping incognito into a slum adjoining Nairobi National Park and catching staff red-handed selling motor vehicle spare parts stolen from KWS vehicles. Or the office cleaner who almost fainted shocked that Leakey still remembered her name despite having been away for five years.

Each morning, Leakey arrived with cans of milk from his Corner Baridi Farm, which his aides sold to staff on credit, to be paid at the end of the month in a typical African village manner.

That was Leakey; a man so complex he could be accused of being a racist, and a Kikuyu tribalist in the same sentence!    

And then one morning, he was gone.

President Moi, in his trademark Machiavellian manner, appointed him Head of Public Service to head a “dream team” of technocrats drawn from the private sector.  To no one’s surprise, he drove off protected by his ranger guard, not the General Service Unit (GSU) VIP escort, a suggestion that he didn’t quite trust the government and that instead, he had faith in the loyalty and capabilities of the KWS ranger. On the second score, he was right.

“Don’t you worry,” he told dazed staff before his departure. “I will look out for you.” And this he did, by ensuring the appointment of Nehemiah Rotich, one of his protégés, as director. Rotich, to the surprise of those who doubted that an African could get the job done, turned out to be a highly effective leader and manager.

Leakey did return to KWS for a fourth time – this time as chairman of the Board of Trustees. It was a case of history repeating itself. The poachers were not only back, but they were killing rhinos in the parks, something that had not happened in decades because of the fearsome reputation of KWS rangers and their intelligence-gathering unit.

In a 2015 interview before a remake of the 1989 historic Nairobi national ivory burn, this writer asked Leakey why rangers were unable to curb the upsurge in poaching.

“Rangers are controlling poaching,” Leakey said “but they are no longer the strong field force they once were. Tell you what, I went to Tsavo and they had 10 vehicles lying in the yard. Not one had a tyre you could drive around the compound with; all were totally worn out. The Authority to Incur Expenditure (AIE) provision for field operations was only Sh23,000. You can’t stop poachers with such a paltry amount.”

In what state really was KWS? we sought to know.

“It’s been so run down, to be honest. We completely lost it. We got beautiful headquarters, which is good – red carpets, fancy gardens, big cars, we fly around in helicopters and have a band that goes out to play the drums with the army. But our vehicles have got no fuel. No tyres. No batteries. That’s what we have to get right,” he said.

And right there it was – an admission that the ambitious experiment to turn the government-run Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WCMD) of the 80s into a lean, efficient and self-funding world-class wildlife conservation institution had failed. Leakey’s description of KWS in 2015 had an uncanny resemblance to the broken institution he had inherited in 1989.

Not surprisingly, Leakey’s plan as KWS chairman was to go back to the donor group, led by the World Bank, which had funded KWS in his first tour of duty. His aim this time round was to ask for $300 million (Sh30 billion) grant.

“Let’s build new staff houses, get new cars, build fences, and get the thing right once and for all. I think we can do it…” he told this writer.

It is not clear whether this ever came to be, or the status of a Sh7.5 billion endowment fund that Leakey always dreamt of to steady the organisation in the event of unforeseen financial crises.

What is not in doubt is that he had foes, like Dr Mordecai Ogada, the carnivore ecologist and co-author (with John Mbaria) of The Big Conservation Lie, who has questioned Leakey’s legacy as a conservationist. But Leakey had an army of admirers as well who believe to this day that his contribution to wildlife conservation is etched in stone.