Unmasked: Rashid Echesa rose to the top of public service with one of the shortest CVs on record. A grassroots operator with a temper and quick fist, Echesa is a man scorned and feared in equal measure. How he was appointed and cleared for top office is the biggest joke of our times
In his hometown of Mumias, where he ran for MP on a Jubilee ticket in 2017 and got a drubbing at the hands of ODM’s John Manya Naicca and Amani National Congress’ Festo Fadamula, they call him Rashid Sonko.
He is, in their eyes, a sonko – a secretive political and business animal with expensive cars and bottomless pockets. A hot tempered showman, quick with his fists and who doles out handouts like confetti, Echesa buys booze by the barrel in local pubs whenever he is in town. He is a man loved and feared in equal measure.
As with most things about Rashid Echesa, the source of his fabulous wealth, like his level of education, is a mystery. He is the family man who is rarely seen with his wife, or wives depending on who you speak to, in public. He is the shadowy businessman with an office that does not seem to conduct any business. He is the generous man who is always hosting groups of people – in his mother’s home. Yet his own home is just metres away.
People who know him from back home are certain he never stepped into a secondary school classroom, but are not sure if he ever sat Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams. There was a rumour about an ongoing university course, but that was it – a rumour, like his having been a Kenya Defence Forces boxer. In villages, people speak about him in hushed tones, careful not to mention his name. For a certain menace, an air of suppressed violence hangs around Echesa, the short-lived Sports CS who was hauled out of the blue and thrust into unimaginable power for one so ill-prepared and unsuited for the rigours of high office.
Not surprisingly, he quickly became drunk with power and forgot his place. The mere thought that he, Rashid Echesa, previously an errand boy for political power barons and, to quote him, “a nobody”, was a Cabinet Secretary fascinated him to no end.
The fawning aides, the hangers-on and boda boda riders screaming, “Waziri!”, the police escort in a four-car motorcade and especially the siren announcing his arrival back in his village wowed him. Echesa loved it like a child playing with his first toy. He loved the power that accompanied a ministerial flag fluttering in the wind on his official Mercedes and he drunk that power like it was an elixir.
Wrestling with giants
He was a Cabinet minister, the first Wanga to hold that position since independence. Surely, the powers that be must have realised that in 56 years it was only he, Echesa, who had what it takes to join the Cabinet. His head swelled with pride. He became a big man, invincible, and like Icarus who disregarded his father’s advice not to fly too close to the sun, Echesa started wrestling with giants.
Raila Odinga is one man political heavyweights, like former presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, and President Uhuru Kenyatta, approach with caution. Echesa took him on like he was a mere Member of a County Assembly.
“With all due respect, I am not your (Raila’s) equal. The President was not stupid to appoint me. He knew the country had professors but I was still appointed. Raila, give me a break,” Echesa once thundered at a funeral in his hometown of Mumias.
Echesa was rarely in Nairobi on weekends during his tenure in the Cabinet. There would be an international golf tournament in town and the man would be moving from funeral to funeral in Kakamega.
He loved being a CS but seemed overawed by Nairobi’s fast-paced life and the stiffness, routine, protocol and niceties of being a senior bureaucrat. He preferred to be in his village home, that siren blazing, greeting wananchi at road junctions from the sunroof of his limousine or SUV, and attacking and sneering at DP William Ruto’s ‘enemies’ and senior Luhya politicians.
“I am tired of being nagged by (Francis) Atwoli’s wife who is always calling me to beg for food. I respect Atwoli but it was wrong for the old man to divorce his wife and leave her in poverty,” Echesa snarled at a funeral in reference to the Cotu secretary-general.
Atwoli, himself a crafty political showman of no mean repute and with decades of experience to boot, turned up at a meeting, worked up the crowd with fiery rhetoric and administered a tribal curse on the person of Rashid Echesa. Barely months on, Echesa was booted from the lofty heights of Cabinet office, to fall, kicking and screaming, into the cold, lonely embrace of political obscurity.
If Atwoli is to be believed, Echesa’s woes have everything to do with his curse. But truth be told, everyone, apart from Echesa and those who appointed him, knew without a shadow of a doubt that the former PNU and ODM youth leader would be a spectacular disaster as Cabinet Secretary.
His harshest critics admit that Echesa’s grassroots mobilisation skills are topnotch. With a youth leader in each village within the wider Mumias region at his beck and call, Echesa can rouse up a noisy and violent crowd at short notice. Brave, fearless and surrounded by wild youth at his command, he is probably the only Western Kenya politician who has managed to bar ODM leader Raila Odinga from addressing a political rally in Mumias. But being an enforcer, a caporegime as they say in the mafia, is hardly sufficient qualification to sit in Cabinet. And it showed right from the onset.
Those in the know say he practically left the running of the ministry to then Sports PS Ambassador Kirimi Kaberia, preferring instead to receive delegations of pocket money beggars from Mumias who routinely hang around his office from morning to dusk. Then come the weekend and he would dash to attend a stranger’s funeral and attack William Ruto’s enemies.
In hindsight, that arrangement was perfect because Echesa might not have understood that apart from football, he was also in charge of the Kenya National Archives, the departments of Library Services, Culture, Records Management and Film Services, as well. He would not have known what to do with them anyway, never mind that he can recite Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, probably one of the few books he has read from cover to cover.
A public servant who has dealt with Echesa closely describes him as a “Sonko-ish” CS who did not consult the experts in the ministry, loathed being advised and never listened to advice anyway.
“At a personal level, he is a really cool guy. Picks [up] calls, returns calls. But he was not government material. He came across as more of a political fixer than a Cabinet Secretary. On numerous occasions, I observed him sign government documents without bothering to check what he was signing. He would be like, ‘Where do I sign?’” said the officer who could not be named because he is not authorised to speak to media.
One of his ministerial colleagues says Echesa never raised issues in Cabinet, never contributed unless his opinion was sought, and that when he opened his mouth to speak, colleagues would nudge each other and break into laughter. He was out of his depth, a fish pond swimmer tossed into the raging waters of the Nile.
But even from this high perch, the notoriety of his past hung on him like white on rice.
Reckless to a fault
There would be murmurs about the CS being barely able to keep to the straight and narrow: there was talk of the arrest of four suspected foreign sex workers flown into the country, allegedly on the strength of his orders for a cultural exchange programme. Links to people arrested in connection with the seizure of foreign currency in an apartment in Kiambu. Links to journalists arrested for photoshopping Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala in nude photos. Not ministerial at all.
Reckless to a fault, Echesa was like a kite dancing in the wind, daring the gods. And the gods seemed to have obliged when DCI detectives pounced and flung him into custody as a prime suspect in a Sh39 billion military hardware scam involving foreign nationals, a fake army general and a deal allegedly sealed in the boardroom of his friend and political mentor, Dr William Ruto.
One must hand it to him though. How does a barely literate child of peasants pull himself by the bootstraps to a point where he can calmly stroll into the Deputy President’s office without an appointment? Or even become appointed CS for Sports when the legends of sport like Paul Tergat and seasoned sports administrators like Jackson Tuwei are overlooked? How come the murmurs surrounding his life escaped the radar of the National Intelligence Service? How did Parliament clear him with a straight face during his neatly choreographed vetting?
Interviews with people close to him paint the picture of a generous man who supports the bereaved, takes care of his late brothers’ children and hosts weekly delegations in his mother’s home where people feast on meat and walk out Sh500 to Sh1,000 richer. A highly driven and fearless man who tutored himself to speak English. A crafty politician who can fight the ODM high command but still squeeze business contracts from Kakamega County, which is headed by ODM Vice Chairman Wycliffe Oparanya. A man who exploits his strengths ruthlessly and for whom the ends justify the means.
Echesa reminds one of Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko and Embakasi East MP Paul Ongili aka Babu Owino. Born poor, they became rich and powerful young. They are also flashy, abusive, hot-tempered, violent, mysteriously rich and currently in big trouble with the State.
Could Kenyans, perhaps, be observing the beginning of the end of Sonkoism?