Icarus tales: Power and Proximity in Kenya: Part 1

Guest Writer
5 February ,2019

by Joash Onsando

CS Dr. Fred Matiangi

On 21st January 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued his first executive order in 2019. The purpose of the order is  to realign the manner in which government projects would be carried out. In the order, he established The National Development Implementation and Communication Cabinet Committee. The committee, tasked with five major functions, chief among them being supervising government projects, will be chaired by Interior CS Dr Fred Matiangi, who will be deputized by his Treasury and Planning counterpart, Henry Rotich.

No other Executive ordered by the President has received as much attention or raised as much controversy as order number 1 of 2019. However, the attention had little to do with its probity, either in law or otherwise (as has been the case with other controversial orders) but rather what it portends to the relationship between the President and his Deputy. There could be two reasons for this.

Firstly, the order explicitly states the Matiangi led committee’s reporting obligations as ‘’to His Excellency the President”. Before this, jubilee formal and informal communication has always made reference to “the Presidency” as though Uhuru and Ruto are attached at the hip. By breaking away from this norm, the President seemed to suggest said attachment was an inconvenience to him.

Secondly, the order seemed to have given the committee the exclusive mandate to do two things: i) Monitor and evaluate the progress of national projects, and ii) Provide coordinated strategic communication to the public and other stakeholders on the progress of national projects.

These two, seem to be the very functions the Deputy President purports to be carrying out in his whirlwind tours across the country (now aptly christened tanga tanga). On multiple occasions, the DP has dismissed critics who claim he is engaged in a premature campaign for the 2022 general elections. Together with his allies, the DP claims to be making his forays around the country strictly for development purposes. He has often stated that, as the President’s Principal Assistant, it is his job to communicate (read launch), supervise, and evaluate the status of Jubilee development projects. So to many pundits, the executive order seems to usurp roles and responsibilities assumed by the DP and handing them over to the Interior CS. If indeed this is the case then it is no accident that the President picked the CS as his hatchet man.

Fred Okenyo Matiangi is no stranger to controversy.  However, little was known about the former university don, before his appointment to the cabinet as ICT CS in 2013.

Since then, none of his cabinet colleagues have had to encounter and overcome as many challenges as he has. Further, none has accumulated as much notoriety as he has, in the execution of their duties. Dr Matiangi is also the only CS during Uhuru’s tenure to have held substantive and acting cabinet positions on two separate occasions, having acted in the lands ministry whilst at ICT and acted in the interior ministry whilst at Education.

His meteoric rise in public service began with a baptism of fire at the ICT ministry in 2015. He was tasked to oversee the migration of the broadcast industry from analogue to digital platforms. This move would prove to be particularly unpopular amongst many industry stakeholders, particularly media owners.

According to the MOA, the media owners lobby group, the migration exercise needed more time and consideration. Many observers saw their hesitation as being informed by the need to protect their business interests rather than the greater good they purported to be their motivation. The government position was a polar opposite. According to Matiangi, change was inevitable, and had to happen immediately. Both sides dug in, spoiling for a fight, a long protracted battle or at least it seemed so.

Kenyans had become accustomed to private corporate interest, holding sway over government policy positions that were in conflict with their own. Given how powerful the MOA lobby is, the expectation was that the CS would ultimately buckle under pressure and give in. Surprisingly however, Matiangi held his own and successfully oversaw the migration process. This was the first feather in his cap!

In December 2015, Matiangi was appointed CS for Education, Science and Technology. At the time, instances of leakages and cheating in national examinations had become so rampant that some education stakeholders openly expressed a complete lack of trust in the examination process and ultimately, the integrity of its results. The phenomenon of cheating in exam results had grown to what was then described as a cartel involving KNEC (the examinations council) officials, teachers, parents and students.

Upon assuming office and in his characteristic, bullish style, Dr. Matiangi moved to disband the Kenya National examination Council. Alongside reconstituting it under the leadership of a hardnosed, kindred spirit, Prof. George Magoha, the CS also instituted radical reforms to the process of administering and marking national examinations. Security measures during examinations were the most stringent ever seen. The marking process was also significantly expedited. The ultimate outcome was the announcement of KCSE results two months early and its results being hailed by many, as the closest reflection of the candidates’ performance the country had seen in a long time. Popular opinion was that the CS had taken on a powerful cartel and prevailed.

On July 8, 2017, Kenya awoke to the sad news of the demise of the then Interior CS Joseph Nkaiserry. The interior docket is not one to be left vacant for long. The president needed to find a replacement, fast! Matiangi was an obvious choice. He had proved himself many times over! However, one political consideration stood in the way; for some inexplicable reason, the internal security mandate seemed to have become a reserve of the Maasai community. From Prof George Saitoti and Katoo Ole Metito under the Kibaki regime to Joseph ole Lenku and Maj Gen Nkaiserry under Uhuru there seemed to be an unwritten rule or tradition that the docket was a preserve of Maa speakers.

With the general election only a few weeks away, it remained to be seen if the President was willing to antagonize the Maasai community by givin away ‘their seat’., therefore risking the loss of an important swing vote. A few days later the president took the gamble and appointed Matiangi, albeit in an acting capacity. Surprisingly, there wasn’t an iota of grumbling from the Maasai community. Seemingly, the CS was such a formidable pick that it wasn’t politically expedient for the Maa to grumble. Such is the position that Matiangi had horned for himself in the Jubilee administration. He had, over time, managed to establish himself as the poster boy for fighting cartels and corruption networks, at least in the eyes of the president’s support base.

Matiangi was, however not done endearing himself to the administration and its supporters. With the Commander in Chief being rather destructed by a strenuous campaign and the prospect of a general election too close to call, he was able to depend on him to hold fort, on matters security.  And that is exactly what he did.

With the Supreme Court ordering a rerun of the presidential election, the Jubilee administration was thrown into a tail spin. Its hitherto unchallengeable grasp on power hang on a thin thread and a firm hand was needed to restore the status quo. It was because of controversial and highly unpopular decisions such as proscribing the NRM as an illegal organization that allowed the president the kind of leverage he needed to prevail past the Jan 30th swearing in of the president and ultimately the handshake.

In the post handshake era, the CS has managed to widen his approval base beyond Jubilee supporters, particularly by his oversight of the clamp down on counterfeited goods and his ability to step into the gaps in the Transport ministry’s role with regards to reducing road carnage. This was further buttressed by his commitment to purge the country of not only illegal immigrants but also of undeserving holders of work permits.

When it is all said and done, one thing remains undoubtable; Matiangi has established himself as President Uhuru’s fixer in chief. His critics might disagree with his intentions and methods but even they would agree that he gets things done for his boss! There could be many factors that could have led to this. After all, no phenomenon is mono factorial in nature. He fondly refers to the President as ‘commander in chief’ as opposed to the more commonly used ‘his excellency’. This betrays a man whose unity of purpiose to drive the president’s agenda is to be carried out unquestioningly and with military precision!

  Dr. Matiangi was born in Borabu, Nyamira County. His academic journey culminated with him being conferred a doctorate degree from the University of Nairobi. His career before cabinet was illustrious to say the least. Hehas more than 12 years’ experience in democracy development including a six year stint at the Kenya Parliamentary Strengthening Project, rising through the ranks to the position of Chief of Party. He also has extensive experience in governance related research, civil society advocacy as well as donor funded democracy and government projects. Clearly his past roles served to prepare him well to understand government bureaucracy as well as the vagaries of navigating public sector environments while getting things done.

The CS has enjoyed the mentorship and patronage of former Gusii political supremo, Mzee Simeon Nyachae, who is rumoured to have influenced his appointment to cabinet. Mzee Nyachae will be remembered for having risen through the ranks of provincial administration faster than his counterparts. In fact, after being appointed as the PC for Rift Valley, a Senior Chief Titi quipped that Mzee Kenyatta had appointed a child as PC.

The 1975 assasination of Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki happened whilst Nyachae was the Central Province PC.  The general belief in the region was that government machinery eas behind the popular MP’s assassination. So great was the bitterness in the region that a song, ‘Maai ni maruru’ (water is bitter) was composed to condemn the killing. Realizing the need to contain a potentially volatile situation, Nyachae invoked the then Chief’s Act to ban the song! As if that was not enough, the PC stood up to be the only senior government official to have attended JM’s funeral. In fact he ended up reading the Jomo Kenyatta’s speech, a task that a number of senoir officials, including cabinet ministers Jeremiah Nyagah and Dr. Julius Kiano had turned down.

This is the kind of dedication and unquestioning loyalty to the powers that be that the CS inherited from his mentor and political Godfather.

CS Matiangi is  also an ardent member of the SDA Church. His public pronouncements betray a person who derives a lot of strength and resolve from his spiritual faith and doctrine. He seems to justify his zeal and bulldozer approach to issues by a firm held belief that his work is part of a wider divine agenda and plan to which he is only accountable to the God he serves.

He might be a man of many firsts but Matiangi is definitely not the first ‘fixer in chief’ we have seen in our history as a country. This position has and will remain to be a precarious one for any person to hold. Almost without exception, previous holders of this position have fallen from grace quite pitifully. George Santayana said ‘’those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. If nothing at all, the good CS must pay heed to these famous words even as he soars close to the sun, on borrowed wings.

Joash is a Kenyan thinker and budding policy analyst, with a passion for public sector governance and democracy. Find more of his work on medium.

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