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Dr Richard Leakey: A swashbuckler with intent

Kenya's former Head of Public Service Dr Richard Leakey. [File, Standard]

President Daniel arap Moi stunned the country and the world at large by appointing his erstwhile critic Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey to head Kenya’s 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 President 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 (IMF) had suspended loans to Kenya to protest against the hitherto rampant corruption and political intolerance.

In appointing Leakey, 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.”

Born on December 19, 1944 in Nairobi, Leakey is the second of three sons of world-renowned archeologists Louis Seymour Leakey and Mary Leakey. He is a third generation Kenyan.

The entire Dream Team was fished from the private sector. Leakey himself was drawn from an illustrious career at the helm of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the National Museums of Kenya. He was appointed 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 Treasury, and Titus Naikuni (previously Managing Director of Magadi Soda Company) as Permanent Secretary for Transport and Communications.

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.

Leakey was assuming a very powerful position. The post of Permanent Secretary has been described as being a key position, since Ministers and Assistant Ministers are political appointees and seldom have experience in the areas for which they are responsible.

Although Moi on numerous occasions publicly stated his aversion to Leakey, the archeologist is highly esteemed in international circles. The Tribune News Services reported on 24 July 1999 that he is “…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 its task of 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, Leakey swooped on the corruption-laden Coffee Board of Kenya (CBK) 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 the CBK had become an impediment to the full liberalisation of the coffee industry. At the time, the Board enjoyed monopoly of coffee marketing, but it was under the grips of mafia-like cartels.

Imenti South MP Kiraitu Murungi described the CBK thus: “…it is controlled by a powerful reactionary State and co-operative elite which has immensely benefited 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.”

Initially, Moi sent out signals that he had full confidence in the Dream Team. During their first year, Moi appointed Maseno University College Principal William Ochieng’ as a Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President to strengthen Leakey’s office in order to enable it to meet its mandate. The Standard reported, “All seemed fine at the beginning as the members hit the ground running.”

But it didn’t take long for the team to hit headwinds.

Grumbling in the civil service over the huge salaries the IMF and World Bank were paying the Dream Team would soon boil over. “They (donors) were funding the payment of some of these accounting officers, so the interests of these foreign countries prevailed, which was very painful to some of us”, Joseph Kaguthi, Permanent Secretary in the Directorate of Personnel Management told The Standard when the Dream Team was disbanded.

During their tenure, Leakey and Mwachofi earned Sh2.4 million each, Adholla Sh2 million, Oduor-Otieno and Naikuni Sh1.5 million and Mwangi Sh1.2 million.

A plan to retrench 250,000 civil servants was met with resistance. The anti-corruption agenda came a cropper as cartels joined hands with politicians to frustrate the efforts of Leakey and his team. Indeed, on October 18, 2000, MPs defied party lines and voted against the retrenchment exercise. They criticised Leakey, claiming that he had spiced his latest assignment with the “…dictatorship he exhibited during his tenure at the helm of the Kenya Wildlife Service and the National Museums of Kenya.”

Thus, when Moi was done with Leakey in 2001, he hastily offloaded the Dream Team like a hot potato. Leakey left a forlorn and frustrated figure, having been unable to hack into and launder the close-knit corrupt ethnic politics that drive Kenya. “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 newspaper reported.

An Associated Press (AP) article of 27 March 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”.

That was the day Leakey left Moi’s government and was replaced by Dr Sally Kosgei. The circumstances weren’t clear; while the government insinuated that it had retired him, international news reports indicated that he had quit. The Standard reported, “Leakey and two other senior members of his team (Otieno and Naikuni) were shown the door towards the end of March 2001. Even as the team’s detractors called for the rationalisation of the salaries of the remaining members to the level of other civil servants, it was just a matter of time before they too left or were sacked.”

Dr Richard Leakey, Head of Civil Service, talks with President Moi in April 2000. [File, Standard]

The AP article also reported, “Richard Leakey, chief of the ‘dream team’ meant to extricate Kenya from its myriad economic problems, has resigned from his key post as head of the civil service and from President Daniel arap Moi’s Cabinet.” The news agency continued, “Mr Moi’s office said the President ‘noted that with the completion of stage one [of Kenya’s recovery strategy], it is therefore time for others to take over and move the process of reform forward.’ President Moi said that he had agreed with Dr Leakey that he would stand down.”

The team’s achievements are rather difficult to quantify. However, it won back donor confidence and the aid taps opened once again. Some level of discipline was inculcated in the civil service. Corruption slowed and budgetary hygiene was restored.

Instructively, Moi’s choice of Leakey hadn’t been mere happenstance. The son of the renowned proponents of the Theory of Evolution was a global powerhouse in his own right. A decade earlier, in 1989, he had single-handedly rallied the entire world around the issue of protection of the elephant and the rhino, forcing a global ban on transnational trade in ivory and rhino horn.

In his capacity as head of the wildlife custodian KWS, Leakey had transformed it from a loss-making entity to a sustainable machine able to attract foreign funding at a time when even the Kenya government couldn’t source a coin from donors. In fact, in 1991 he personally raised USD 150 million (about KES 15 billion at the current exchange rate) towards the organisation’s projects.

Here was a global icon who had earlier stood up to Moi and his ruling party KANU by co-founding and leading Safina, an opposition political party alongside other founding members of the nascent party including Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, Farah Maalim Mohamed, Kiraitu Murungi, Robert Shaw, Maoka Maore, Muturi Kigano, Kimani Rugendo, Ntai wa Nkuraru and Koigi Wamwere.

The conservationist’s foray into politics really angered Moi, who claimed that Leakey was scheming to divide Kenyans along ethnic lines. But observers felt that Moi’s hostility arose from the fact that Leakey’s mobilisation and fundraising skills were causing discomfort within the ruling party. There was also a feeling within Kanu that Safina’s main architect was former all-powerful Attorney General Charles Njonjo, Moi’s key nemesis since the early 1980s.

Indeed, fear was rife that Njonjo was using Leakey and Muite to make a comeback to politics. “Running Scared?” is the way The Economic Review (28 May – 4 June 1995) described Moi’s ranting over Leakey’s entry into politics.

“Who is he that I should be scared?” Moi fumed. He branded Leakey, a third generation Kenyan, a foreigner and a colonialist. Cabinet Ministers Simeon Nyachae and William ole Ntimama, along with Assistant Minister Shariff Nassir, took their cue from Moi in casting slurs at Leakey.

The influential New York Times, in an article dated 29 May 1995, reported, “Late last week The Kenya Times, a government-run newspaper, went further, asserting in a front-page article that the opposition party had sought financial backing from the Ku Klux Klan. It charged that Klan members were present at a luncheon attended by American and British businessmen and diplomats as well as Leakey.” American and British diplomats immediately protested the allegations in a letter to the editor of The Kenya Times.

Indeed, Leakey’s entry into politics was a nightmare for the ruling party. The Safina party spokesperson was whipped by an anti-opposition mob in Nakuru in August 1995.

“A missile hit me. I think it was an egg, and the next think I knew, I got an enormous bump on the back with a whip, and then was whipped solidly as I made my way back into my car. Whilst trying to get into the car, because getting into the car is quite difficult, I really got thoroughly thrashed, then they smashed the windscreen with pick-axe handles,” he recalled.

According to media reports at the time, Moi asked Europeans to respect the leadership of the African lest their deeds evoked memories of colonial oppression of Africa. “For Leakey to dismiss both my government and the existing opposition leadership in Kenya as lacking credibility is not only the height of ignorance but also an insult to the people of this country,” he said.

Dr Richard Leakey talks to President Moi at JKIA. [file, Standard]

Leakey’s younger brother Philip (a KANU member who served in the Cabinet in 1992) was forced to assure Moi of his support for the ruling party. Philip also led a delegation of people of European descent to State House to express their loyalty to Moi and Kanu. “Richard is my brother but an opponent politically … he is opposing me and we will remain opponents until he gets smarter politically...” Philip reportedly remarked.

The Weekly Review of 7 July 1995 headlined the encounter “Leakey Versus Leakey”. It opined, “From the time Richard made his high profile entry into opposition politics … Philip made it clear that he was not on his elder brother’s side.” Indeed, in a twist of irony, KANU and Moi were welcoming Philip, a KANU member, as a Kenyan while treating Richard, an opposition leader, as a foreigner.

Though Safina didn’t field a presidential candidate, it managed to win an “impressive” five parliamentary seats, according to The Weekly Review of January 1998. Muite won in Kabete, Philip Gitonga in Lari, Ngenye Kariuki in Kiharu, Elias Bare Shill in Fafi, and Adan Keynan Wehliye in Wajir East. Leakey didn’t run for any political seat. Reports later indicated that he had fallen out with some of his colleagues in the opposition.

Leakey’s appointment to the Cabinet infuriated the Safina party leadership. “Dr Leakey’s management style does not promote institutional development. (His) style is based on cronyism and patronage,” claimed party Chairperson Farah Maalim.

After the debacle, Leakey retreated to a quiet life away from the limelight until President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed him Chairperson of KWS.

Perceived as arrogant, he refutes the perception saying, “I am not impatient at all. But I still find it rather difficult to tolerate fools and I find inefficiency and incompetence as unacceptable as ever.”

According to reports, Richard was originally reluctant to follow his parents’ career and instead opted to become a safari guide. However, at age 23 and on an expedition to the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia, he became fascinated with the Koobi Fora along the shores of Lake Rudolf (since renamed Lake Turkana). He would lead a team that uncovered 400 fossils of individuals, marking Koobi as the cradle of humankind. This remains the largest fossil find in the world.

He co-authored two books with Roger Lewin: Origins (1977) and People of the Lake (1978) that explained the link between the fossils (which he named Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, Homo sapiens and Homo erectus) and the modern human. He proposed 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 the famed Time international magazine posing with a representation of Homo habilis. The cover was titled How Man Became Man. About 22 years later, Time again named him among the great thinkers of the century.

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