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Story of altar boy who rose to be Cabinet minister in Moi era

By Edwin Nyarangi | January 3rd 2021 at 12:26:26 GMT +0300


Julius Sunkuli. [File, Courtesy]

Julius Sunkuli, while serving as Internal Security and Defence Cabinet Minister, enjoyed immense powers during the last three years of President Daniel arap Moi’s reign. Some quarters in the political class have equated the powers to those of a Prime Minister

This is an unlikely path for Sunkuli, who in his youth had set his eyes on becoming a Catholic Priest. He was brought up by his maternal grandmother, a devout Roman Catholic, with his uncle Joseph Taruru, a school headmaster, being his mentor.

The former Cabinet Minister says his family attended mass every week at St Joseph Catholic Church, which was four kilometres away from their Oldonyorasha home. He also went to school at Saint Joseph Sosio Primary School, where pupils attended mass every Thursday.

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“My teachers were nuns from Holland. I enjoyed school because of these Sisters. They inspired me to become religious. When the seminary came to recruit for priesthood, I went for an interview and impressed the panel. We only had a problem when my father’s consent was sought,” says Sunkuli.

The 59-year-old politician says his father, the late Francis Sunkuli, was a Protestant and a Maasai elder who could not countenance his firstborn not getting married. He flatly refused the proposal to have him become a priest. The younger Sunkuli, however, remained firm in the Catholic Church, serving as an altar boy in his local church.

Sunkuli, who went to Cardinal Otunga High School, Mosocho, in Kisii County for his secondary education, distinguished himself as a staunch Catholic and, apart from serving as an altar boy, he was a member of the church choir.

This was a streak he continued when he joined the University of Nairobi, where he served as the chairman of the Young Christian Students Association.

The former Cabinet Minister, who studied law, was employed as a magistrate when he completed Postgraduate Diploma at Kenya School of Law in 1987, and was posted to Kericho, where he served for five years, after which the residents of Trans Mara implored upon him to contest for the Narok West parliamentary seat in the 1992 polls.

“Kericho is not far from Kilgoris. I received many visitors from my home. My fame spread very fast, as I helped people solve their problems. Some came to seek medical care and stayed in my house. Others wanted better schools for their children, or teacher training college vacancies, and I always helped where I could,” says Sunkuli.

He says most of the people from his home area who visited him were there for legal advice since, at the time, Kilgoris residents had a political leader who was not only seen as vindictive, but who also made enemies with whole clans, leading to injustices on land issues and inter-clan conflict.

Sunkuli found himself, in the midst of these issues, as the alternative leader. Various delegations visited him and persuaded him to contest for the Narok West parliamentary seat. He trounced long serving area MP Francis Sompisha. He was elected at the relatively young age of 31 years.

The former minister says he does not regret leaving the Judiciary after serving for only five years as a magistrate. Still, he would not mind going back to the Judiciary given a chance to serve as a judge before he attains the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Julius Sunkuli (Left) at Kericho High court. [File, Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

“Serving in a political office is exciting, but challenging. The higher you go, the hotter it becomes. However, political office gave me the scope to do more than I would have done had I remained on the bench. As an MP and Cabinet Minister, I demonstrated my abilities to be a servant of the people,” he says.

When Sunkuli was elected Kilgoris MP, President Moi appointed him Assistant Minister in the Office of the President in charge of Internal Security and Provincial Administration. He served there for five years. He says he enjoyed spending time in Parliament, where he made many friends from among his colleagues.

He recalls that he was at the centre of the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group, which successfully demolished the tools of the one party state in 1997, where they removed the laws on sedition, renamed the Chiefs Authority Act to the Chiefs Act, and levelled the playing field for all seeking elective office.

The former minister sat in the Standing Orders Committee, where, together with the late Dr Bonaya Godana, Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula, and others, they travelled around the Commonwealth countries from Canada, to Britain and New Zealand, to benchmark on their systems and subsequently improved the rules of engagement in the House.

Sunkuli would be made Cabinet Minister in charge of Public Service and Internal Security in a reshuffle done in 1999. In 2000 he was made to be also in charge of Defence, the most powerful docket at the time, as Moi prepared to exit the political scene.

“As a minister I worked closely with the military and police. We made great strides, but we had our challenges. We were facing an angry opposition backed by foreign governments. We were poorly funded and there was hardly enough money for any development. The lowest moment in my political life was when Kanu lost the 2002 election,” says Sunkuli.

From left, Devolution CS Eugene Wamalwa, ANC party leader Musalia Mudavadi, former Minister Julius Sunkuli during the 40th anniversary of the Vihiga Cultural Festival at Mbale municipal grounds on December 26, 2019. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

In the 2002 election Kanu’s presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s was beaten. Sunkuli also lost the Kilgoris parliamentary seat.

However, President Moi asked the seemingly surprised Kanu henchmen to accept the outcome for the good of the country.

Sunkuli enjoyed a close working relationship with Moi, who he considered a father and a colleague at work.

He says Moi took his work seriously, was always punctual and had no time for anything other than serving the people for the more than 50 years he was in the Kenyan political map.

Sunkuli says Moi’s daily job ranged from meeting diplomats, holding Cabinet sessions, receiving intelligence and security briefs to meeting ordinary Kenyans and having lunch with friends in his or their homes.

Moi, Sunkuli notes, expected total loyalty from those who worked with him and rewarded it. “He never took friendship for granted”.

“I learnt a lot while working under Moi as an Assistant Minister and Minister in his office from 1993 to 2002.

“Moi was dedicated to serving the people of Kenya and I do not recall him going on leave even for a single day. He would wake up at 3am and make several calls across the country to know what was happening,” says Sunkuli.

The former minister enjoys a close relationship with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who together with other leaders in Kanu, worked to support Project Uhuru in 2002.

He says the Kanu campaigners almost delivered the presidency to Uhuru in 2002 and that he was happy that Uhuru finally became President while Moi was still alive. “This shows that Moi was not wrong in endorsing him earlier”.

On his relationship with Deputy President William Ruto, Sunkuli says he has not been on Ruto’s calling list for many years, and they were close friends when they worked in the Office of the President.

They parted ways as many politicians left Kanu for ODM towards the 2007 election. His move to stick with Moi, Sunkuli says, earned him a lot of criticism.

Sunkuli regrets what he describes as a mistake that divided his family. This was having to compete against his younger brother Andrew Sunkuli for the Narok Senate seat in 2013. If one of them had gone for the seat, Sunkuli says, they would have won, since their combined votes were more than what the winner, Stephen Ntutu, got.

“In a way, we are a lucky family. We all are public service-oriented and for this, we each have made friends. Ambition is an animal that must be well tethered and should thrive only when well controlled. We will do our best to ensure the 2013 mistake is not repeated,” says Sunkuli.

He says that the killing of his firstborn son Augustine Salaton two years ago in Kilgoris Town was the worst moment for his family.

Despite the loss of his son being painful, Sunkuli has chosen not to pursue the matter, hoping that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations will call him and disclose their findings one day.

The leader, who served as Kenya’s Ambassador to China between 2008 and 2012, later served as Board Member of Industrial Commercial and Development Corporation. He is currently running his law firm, Sunkuli and Company Advocates, and hopes to recapture the Kilgoris Constituency seat that he lost to Gideon Konchellah in 2002.?

Julius Sunkuli Former President Danile Arap Moi
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