Kivutha Kibwana: The unusual politician

The first day the teenager stepped into high school, it was with as much excitement an adolescent can possibly muster in a new environment. And for the very first time in his young life, Kivutha’s hardened heels had a cushion against the rocky ground; a black pair of lady shoes. The first pair he ever owned. Days earlier, he and his parents had walked into a shoe shop.

There were no boys’ shoes in the store, the attendant had politely informed them. I imagine the boy was distraught. But only for a second. He was not about to leave the store barefoot. So he did the only thing he could. He picked out the prettiest pair. And walked out minutes later with a smile on his face.  I ask if he was teased about it; and he admits that he was, by his peers.

That is the only frivolous question I can afford to ask. We are strapped for time. That young man is today the governor of Makueni. He was once the Minister for Defence. And he can now afford as many pairs of shoes as he wants. And donate them too if he wishes. He is, however, not ostentatious. Today he is in an understated navy blue suit and simple black shoes. If he were a little trimmer, a tad taller and more brash, he would easily pass for Hollywood actor Samuel L Jackson.

Kivutha is known for being gracious and firm, but the Kivutha I meet on this day in his Makueni office is a little thin on patience. He has just has had a long day of meetings with the Senate. His face is drawn, and the dark rings around his eyes stand out.

“I am exhausted from the day’s meetings. How much time would you need?” he attempts a weak smile as he offers me a seat and takes his place behind the table. We settle at 40 minutes.

“How would you describe yourself?” I ask, as my mind whirs in a bid to reshuffle the questions I need to ask. I thought I had two hours with the man.

Sensing that I am a little off balance, he smiles imperceptibly, as though glad that order has been restored.

“I am a husband… to Nazi Kivutha. A father of four adult children; two girls and two boy. I am a grandfather.”

“I am also a lawyer by profession. I have a Master’s degree in Law. And I have another in Theology.”

Law of the land and God’s law. Which one takes precedence?

“God’s law is the ultimate law. And man’s law has borrowed a lot from God’s law. I am a born-again Christian,” he adds.

He takes his faith seriously. And while he knows that politics is mostly a dirty game, he lets his faith guide him to make the right choices.

“Being a governor is ministry. It is my way of serving God – by serving people. This is not to say that I am perfect. Of course all have fallen short of the glory of God. But I live by the understanding that my faith should inform my politics.”

Behind a powerful man, an equally powerful woman…

He also considers his home a church. Sensing my puzzlement, he explains. “I serve as a pastor and Nazi is my assistant.”

The two first met in 1973 through a shared love for drama. Kivutha loved theatre and Nazi had won the best actress award at the secondary school drama festival.

But their marriage, while happy, has been rocked by hardships thanks in part to his profession and activism. In fact, one of the things he doesn’t like very much is that his chosen profession hasn’t allowed him much time to spend with Nazi and the children. Not as much as he would  like anyway. As a governor it is not unusual to leave office late.

The early years of their marriage marked his foray into politics and activism. In the 80s and 90s, Kivutha was a notable general in the fight for multiparty democracy. He also taught law at University of Nairobi.

It is a period of his life that evokes nostalgia. While on one hand he was pushing for change, it also meant that he would be away from home for lengthy periods of time.

Also his life was fraught with danger.

“It was not a good experience. I remember acutely one time in the in late 90s, when I was accosted by  men who abducted me and our watchman as I drove into my compound,” he says.

Because of his work, Nazi couldn’t get a job and she was also denied a permit to operate a business. Their children couldn’t attend public schools too because their father “wanted to topple the government.”

“I am amazed at how calm Nazi remained during those tough days. She could have asked me to stop. She could have said, ‘leave this’. But she never once did. I give her credit for that. I am indebted to her. And I often feel guilty when I can’t spend quality time with her.”

Family he says, is his strength.

“Family is very important,” he says. “Even society becomes better when we have functional families.”

Kivutha grew up in a big family. His father had two wives and 29 children.

Despite the family’s burden, young Kivutha never felt misplaced – or even overwhelmed.

“Except for meal times,” he says, laughing. “If you were not quick at eating, food got finished fast.”

His father and two mothers instilled the sense of hard work and honesty in him. And for that, he is grateful. And it is this plus the sense of unity that he did his best to impart in his children growing up.

“We were 29 kids. And though some members of the family are now abroad, we are in touch at every opportunity.  At funerals that I have attended, when eulogising the departed, family members talk about the quality moments they spent with them. When your family is proud of the quality time and happy interactions they had with you, it is an achievement.”

What is the one thing he knows for sure about family relationships? I prod.

“You can’t achieve much in life if you haven’t achieved anything for your family,” he says.

Squabbles and disappointments, and an assassination attempt…

Coming from a large family, and being firmly entrenched in politics, means that conflict is part of everyday life. And for a man known to firmly air his ideals with conviction, it can only be worse being in a profession not markedly known for its integrity. So how does he deal with conflict?

“I keep my anger inside. Because anger can cause one to hurt others and in the process hurt themselves too. I am more of a peace maker.”

One time five years ago, he realised that politics is a dangerous game.

“It was in 2014 after I had been elected as the Makueni governor. My relationship with Members of County Assembly soured. And the Assembly called for a meeting of leaders. They wanted to impeach me – the governor.”

“I went to the meeting. But apparently they did not want me in there. When we arrived, the leaders asked their body guards to shoot. I thought the police were shooting in the air but then we realised that the people who were around me had been shot. My personal assistant, a pastor, my security detail, a police officer, and a county assembly staff got hit. I believe it was an assassination attempt,” he says.

As he says this, he is calm, clearly having dealt with the incident and come out stronger.

I ask him why he didn’t just practice law, instead of getting into the murky world of politics. After all, he had taught law for 25 years.

“There are more important things in life than money; like contributing to society.”

He believes that a man fully lives when their life goes beyond selfish gain: when they have impacted someone else’s life. And that is why he joined politics.

“Know what? I would have loved working in the judiciary. As a judge you can be reform-oriented. And that would be something I wouldn’t have minded doing,” he says.

Can’t afford Presidential campaigns

What of the top seat? The Presidency.

He hesitates. He has concerns.

“Running a county is not the same as running a country,” he says. “At the national level, the president has to deal with many stakeholders, and all of them have interests. ”

He is also wary of the ethnic nature of Kenyan politics.

“Do you think it is possible to convince Kenyans that there is a better alternative to the ethnic system within two years?” he asks me. I have no answer to that.

And then there is the little matter of amassing huge amounts of  money for the campaigns.

How much? I prod.

“Say about Sh20 billion, by the year 2022. I can’t afford that.”  

But would he want to be the president? If say Santa came by and gave him the sum?

“If I became president, I would do a very good job.”

In fact, he says, he wouldn’t have a problem at all performing presidential duties pro bono.

“As long as Kenyans feed me and provide basic needs, I wouldn’t mind being president for free,” he says. “Because it would be about changing lives and not making myself rich.”

The 40 minutes are up. It is 9pm. It is time for me to leave because the governor seems to have a few more meetings to go before he can go home to Nazi. Everyone else in the office seems to have left for home but it is not yet resting time for the weary man.