Natembeya: 'Tawe' movement rallies against bad governance

Trans Nzoia Governor George Natembeya. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The Tawe Movement, representing defiance of the existing norms and an appeal for constructive transformation, has been the platform through which Governor George Natembeya has introduced diverse measures aimed at improving food security, education, and healthcare in Trans Nzoia.

Despite facing criticism and resistance, he remains resolute in his dedication to the welfare of his constituents and the advancement of their well-being.

The Standard recently interviewed the governor to delve deeper into his initiatives and vision. 

What inspired you to enter politics, and what motivated your decision to run for governor? 

The realisation that I was benefitting myself by holding high administrative office in the land and not the general public made me resign from serving in the Ministry of Interior as a Regional Commissioner to vie for political office where I have added the opportunity to shepherd the development of my people. 

You've been described as a ‘young and energetic’ governor who has ‘rattled the status quo’ through the Tawe Movement. Can you tell us about Tawe and some of the changes you've implemented since taking office? 

"Tawe" is a Luhya word that translates to "no". In the context of our emerging Movement, it embodies a rejection of bad governance and a rallying call for fresh ideas in our political landscape. We refuse to accept the status quo marred by issues such as rampant corruption, partisan gridlock, obstructionism, lack of transparency, and negative campaigning.

Instead, we advocate for a new approach rooted in accountability, integrity, and genuine concern for the well-being of our nation. Let "Tawe" resonate as a symbol of our collective determination to usher in positive change and build a brighter future for all.

How do you balance your energetic approach with the need for consensus and cooperation in governance?

Our constitution framework entails a collaborative effort between the governor and the assembly. Within our vibrant assembly, there's a diverse spectrum of 25 elected and eight nominated MCAs, spanning across political affiliations, with whom we've fostered a harmonious rapport. As we ascend the hierarchy, interactions with certain MPs haven't been as seamless, likely due to the inherent tensions between national and county interests. Nevertheless, our county's progress remains steadfast, undeterred by occasional dissent from one or two MPs in Trans Nzoia. 

Being a disruptor in the political arena can sometimes lead to pushback. How do you handle criticism and opposition to your policies?

Throughout my tenure in political office, I have come to recognize that much of the criticism directed my way isn't always straightforward. It's been a tough lesson, but I've learned the importance of embracing criticism constructively. Without careful handling, such critiques have the potential to derail one's focus from fulfilling their manifesto promises. Take, for instance, the disparaging remarks hurled by certain MPs with whom I've had no prior interaction. They've resorted to name-calling simply because I dared to question the effectiveness of Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula in championing the rights of their people, despite their long-standing roles as purported Mulembe kingpins. 

Many young people look up to you as a role model for political engagement. What advice do you have for aspiring leaders who want to make a difference in their communities?

I love it that the majority of the Kenyan voters are young and increasingly liberal. This lot is the one that will change the style of Kenyan politics and resonates well with the style of politics played in developed countries that is short of excessive tribalism and useless patronage.

You’ve shared in public rallies that you met Wetang'ula as a student where you said he told you it was impossible to take down the one-party regime. What did you make of the situation and Wetang'ula as a leader?

Ah, those were intriguing times indeed. The university campus served as a simmering cauldron of political fervor, with the University of Nairobi seemingly intent on quelling student unions. I remember the day we were ushered into Wetangula's opulent office, a well-to-do lawyer aligned with the ruling powers. As he nonchalantly sipped his tea from an electric kettle, he dismissed our demonstrations to condemn the move by the ruling party as futile endeavors. Meanwhile, figures like Wamalwa Kijana, Koigi Wamwere, Anyang Nyongo, and other stalwarts of the liberation movement found themselves ensnared in fabricated charges for daring to defend multipartyism.

Trans Nzoia Governor George Natembeya and National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetangula.[File, Standard]

Observing Wetangula's demeanor, surrounded by plush furnishings and an impressive roster of clients, I, a naive village lad fresh to Nairobi's bustle, almost succumbed to the notion that challenging one-party rule’s dominance was an exercise in futility. Yet, as time passed, I've come to realize that while eras may fade, character endures. Wetang’ula seems averse to alternative perspectives, resistant to change and appears stuck in the old one-party style of leadership that favoured coercion over persuasion. It's almost comical that he leads Ford-Kenya, a party founded by individuals who championed political pluralism with lion-hearted resolve. 

Well, you sound dismissive whenever you mention Wetang'ula, have you recently met, do you speak, if you met now what would you tell him? 

In the wake of the 2022 polls, our last conversation revolved around his persistent demand for me to withdraw from the gubernatorial race and await an ambassadorial appointment. I staunchly declined, prompting his assertion that I would fail, as the seat was supposedly reserved for Ford-K. Despite the pressure he exerted, fueled by misinformation suggesting I intended to run on a Ford-K ticket, I remained resolute. Instead, I contested under the DAP-K banner and decisively defeated his party's candidate, Chris Wamalwa. Ford-K's loss was a testament to their decade of inaction in Trans Nzoia.

Since then, our encounters have been confined to informal settings, mainly at funerals. Just recently, at the burial of a politician's relative, our paths crossed again. His followers displayed visible unease, greeting me with palpable tension. Later, I discovered that the bereaved politician had faced backlash for inviting me to the funeral. But should attending a funeral really be a cause for scrutiny or reproach? Despite the animosity, if we were to meet, I would simply offer a courteous greeting and move on. We are the people of Mulembe and our differences are not personal. 

The political landscape is constantly evolving. How do you stay informed and adaptable in your approach to governance, you don't have a social media account that is verified? 

In today's fast-paced world, staying informed and adaptable is crucial for effective governance. While I may not have had a verified social media account until recently, I have taken proactive steps to bridge that gap. Now, with my Facebook account verified, I'm making strides in embracing digital platforms to engage with constituents and stay updated on current affairs.

However, my commitment to serving my people goes beyond the digital realm. I maintain a rigorous schedule, starting my day early and dedicating long hours, 8.00am to 9.00 pm to addressing the needs of my constituents. Regular exercise at the gym helps me stay alert and focused, ensuring that I can tackle challenges head-on. 

Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for your Tawe formation, and how do you plan to continue shaking up the status quo? 

For the time being, I'll steer clear of political rallies and instead engage with grassroots opinion leaders to gauge their sentiments on the widespread issues addressed by Tawe. These concerns, spanning cyclic poverty, governance inequality, leadership incompetence, and fundamental rights such as education and healthcare, resonate across the nation. Once we've refined our demands through this grassroots dialogue, we'll approach rallies with a clear agenda—crafted by the people, for the people. 

You are a political project? 

Since stepping into politics, I've embodied the essence of a people's project, guided solely by my convictions rather than external influences. My journey, whether within or outside of government, has been marked by a steadfast commitment to independence, carving out my unique path. While some, especially seasoned politicians, may tout the notion of me being a "project," I believe it's not mere longevity in politics that holds significance, but rather the tangible impact we make. 

Could the collaboration between the Luhya and Kikuyu communities, advocated by Jimmy Wanjigi during his visit to the western region two months ago, lead to electoral success if two strong candidates were chosen to represent the alliance? 

Politics is uncertain, as it depends on various factors such as voter sentiment, campaign strategies, regional dynamics, and the overall political landscape at the time of the election. I should say the success of such an alliance depends on the support it garners from the broader electorate and whether it effectively addresses the concerns and aspirations of the people. I would not get into such an alliance without the blessings of my people, if they bless me then I feel that the ticket would be unbeatable especially if a Luhya is for the president. Any Luhya, even me. 

Lastly, what legacy do you hope to leave behind as governor, and how do you envision your impact on the future of your community? 

When my tenure is complete, I hope to hear people say, 'Thanks to Natembeya's leadership centered on the people, we have seen remarkable progress. Without it, we wouldn't have had access to education, essential infrastructure like bridges, and other vital services.”