Joseph Nyagah – The cooperatives maestro

“Change is the law of life,” a wise man once said, and while ‘constant change’ may be an oxymoron, it is also a stark reality as Joseph Nthiga Nyagah can confirm. For starters, Gachoka Constituency, which he once represented as MP when it was in Mbeere District, is now Mbeere South Constituency. And Mbeere District, which was split from Embu District in 1996, ceased to exist in 2010 when it was merged into Embu County. In addition, the name Nyagah was once literally synonymous with the leadership of Gachoka for many years.

But things change.

Fortunately, Nyagah is not averse to change. Indeed, he is a man who has learned to change and adapt with the times.

Born in 1948, Nyagah is the firstborn son in a family that has always been in the limelight. His father, Jeremiah Nyagah, was a politician whose career began before Kenya’s independence, when he was elected to represent Embu, Mbeere, Kirinyaga and Nyeri districts on the pre-independence Legislative Council (Legco) in 1958. Come independence, he served as MP for Gachoka for close to three decades until his retirement in 1992. During most of this time he was also a Cabinet Minister in key ministries, including Education, Information and Broadcasting, Agriculture, Environment and Health.

Nyagah’s younger brother, Norman Nyagah, was once the MP for Gachoka before he moved to represent Kamukunji Constituency in Nairobi; he also served as Government Chief Whip. Another brother, Nahashon Nyagah, was once Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya. His sister, Mary Khimulu, was Kenya’s envoy to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and his niece, Annie Nyagah, was appointed Chief Administrative Secretary for Cooperatives in January 2020.

Could Nyagah be described as a chip off the old block?

Undeniably, he bears an uncanny resemblance to his father. But the same cannot be said of their political careers, which are like two streams that for a time followed a similar path and then diverged sharply.

Like his father, Nyagah represented Gachoka, his birthplace, in Parliament; he held the seat for a decade after his brother Norman moved to Kamukunji. Nyagah first waded into politics as a member of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. His father had been a KANU man throughout his political career, retiring at the dawn of multiparty politics in the early 1990s.

But Nyagah’s KANU stint expired with President Daniel arap Moi’s era, for by then he was Opposition-bound. Having read the writing on the wall, he boarded the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ship and sailed to victory in 2002, the year when KANU’s almost 40-year grip on power was broken.

It was then that he first became an Assistant Minister in the brand new Ministry of East African Community, becoming part of a team with John Koech as Minister and Peter ole Nkuraiyia as Permanent Secretary. The Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community had been signed in Arusha, Tanzania, at the end of 1999 and come into force in 2000; this was 23 years after the previous Community had collapsed.

In his first term, President Mwai Kibaki had inherited the East Africa Community mantle and run with it, so putting together a competent team to drive this agenda was crucial. Kibaki was keen to achieve the Community’s integration, establishing the new ministry and serving a stint as chairman of the Heads of State Summit―the Community’s supreme decision-making organ.

During this time, the East African Passport was introduced to ease travel within the Community. In addition, investment opportunities in the region were expanded, propelling Kenya to become the second largest investor in Tanzania. Indeed even in retirement, Kibaki has continued to champion the Community’s integration. Speaking at a public lecture at Makerere University in Uganda in February 2015, he proposed that courses on East Africa Studies be introduced in universities in the region.

Nyagah, who would become the national coordinator for the Northern Corridor Integration Project years later, stood to gain valuable experience in this ministry.

But it was in the Ministry of Cooperative Development – where he was appointed Minister in Kibaki’s second term – that he really found his milieu. Together with Assistant Minister Linah Jebii Kilimo and Permanent Secretary Patrick Khaemba, he got down to work. After his high school education at Alliance High School, Nyagah had studied economics and political science at the University of Nairobi and also had a Master of Business Administration degree in Finance and Management from Northwestern University in Illinois, USA. This, coupled with experience he had gained managing Kenya Airways, prepared him for the assignment. Besides his Cabinet posting, Nyagah chaired the Inter-Ministerial Committee of African Co-operative Ministers.

In Kenya, the first School of Cooperation was started in 1952 at the Jean School (now Kenya School of Government). It grew into a college in 1967, over time becoming an important training ground for personnel from co-operative societies and unions as well as middle-cadre government officers involved in the activities of the cooperative movement on behalf of the Ministry of Cooperative Development.

By 2005, the college was offering undergraduate degrees in cooperative business, in collaboration with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. In 2016 it became a fully-fledged university – Co-operative University of Kenya, where Nyagah was chancellor from 2016 to 2017.

With unprecedented economic growth and infrastructure development taking place during Kibaki’s tenure, it was an exciting time to be in charge of cooperative development. The sector flourished and in 2008, additional legislation was passed to strengthen and guide this growth. The Cooperative Bank went public and was listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange in December 2008. The Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisation (SACCO) movement in Kenya grew in leaps and bounds into one of the largest in Africa, with the total membership in the country peaking at 10.1 million in 2010.

The Kenya Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (KUSCCO), the umbrella body for SACCOs, thrived, and the Cooperative Alliance of Kenya, a lobby and advocacy organisation for the cooperative movement, was formed, as was the SACCO Societies Regulatory Authority (SASRA), the body charged with regulating deposit taking SACCOs in Kenya. In addition, new SACCOs such as the Kenya USA Diaspora SACCO and various youth cooperatives were registered. It was also during Nyagah’s tenure that matatus were required by law to organise themselves into SACCOs to bring order to their sector.

That Nyagah was genuinely passionate about the cooperative movement is evident in his book, An African Minister’s Lessons for Co-operatives, in which he highlighted challenges and issues faced by the movement in Kenya during his time at the ministry’s helm.

He wrote about his struggle to save the Kenya Planter’s Cooperative Union (KPCU) through the receivership process when one bank and the union’s board members did not seem keen to act in the farmers’ best interests. The union had fallen on hard times in the 1990s, after the liberalisation of the coffee industry, when many members left the cooperative for greener pastures. In a last-ditch effort, a special general meeting was called and the farmers authorised the new team to do whatever was necessary to save the cooperative. Nyagah’s term ended before the issue was resolved; meanwhile KPCU continued to struggle and was eventually taken over by the State and rebranded as New KPCU in 2019.

The former Minister still has a deep concern for farmers and is disappointed by the decline of coffee farming in Kenya. In an article he wrote for The Standard newspaper in March 2020 titled Somebody do something, we are producing less coffee than we did in 1963, he recalled that coffee was once the number one foreign exchange earner for Kenya, which was the leading coffee producer and exporter in the region. He wrote that “last year (2019), we produced less coffee than we did in 1963, at independence. In the eighties, the country reached an annual production of about 140,000 tons. Today, we are below 40,000 tons. What a shame for a country with so much potential to produce more!”

He blamed poorly introduced liberalisation of the sector, which destroyed cooperative institutions such as KPCU.

In his book, Nyagah also wrote about his attempts to organise sugar farmers, with the help of their local leaders, to buy a large stake in five sugar mills – Sony, Chemelil, Nzoia, Muhoroni and Miwani – during the privatisation process.

“I was terribly disappointed that despite my efforts, only some MPs from these two regions showed support. Very few turned up for meetings that we would hold with farmers,” he said.

And things continue to change – the Ministry of Cooperatives is no longer an entity on its own but a department under the Ministry of Industrialisation.

Nyagah retired from public life in April 2013. A few months later, President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed him as an adviser on the National Coordinator for the Northern Corridor Integration Projects. His days in the Ministry of East African Community under Kibaki would stand him in good stead here.

But he was not done with politics yet. In 2017 he threw his hat in the ring for the presidential race, perhaps confirming that once bitten by the political bug, the infection lasts a lifetime.

Interestingly, despite his father’s active involvement in politics, Nyagah’s own foray into the political arena did not follow an obvious path. He was a diplomat for four years, as Kenya’s ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg, and also worked as CEO of Kenya Airways for another four years. Nyagah said it was President Moi, a long-time friend and colleague of his father’s, who encouraged him to move to the public sector.

So in 1997, he ran for the Gachoka seat, and won. His brother Norman, who was the outgoing Gachoka MP, opted to contest the Kamukunji seat rather than compete against his brother. With both brothers in Parliament, Nyagah on a KANU ticket and Norman as a member of the Democratic Party, sibling rivalry reared its head. From different sides of the floor, they wrangled over the use of the family name.

“Mr. Speaker (Francis ole Kaparo), I should be referred to as Nyagah, and that other honourable member on the other side as Joe because the voters will get confused and assume that I am the one supporting bad government policies,” Norman asserted.

“If the Standing Orders permitted it, we should have referred to the honourable gentleman on the other side as the Junior Nyagah,” Joseph retorted.

“You are putting me in an awkward position to arbitrate between the Nyagah siblings,” Kaparo reproached. “For the avoidance of doubt I will refer to the one on the government side as the ‘Nyagah to my right’ and the one on the other side as the ‘Nyagah on my left.’ Since I have only one right and one left there should be no doubt as to which Nyagah I am referring to.”

And so the brothers managed to represent their respective constituencies on different sides of the same House.

After another victory in Gachoka in 2002, Nyagah lost the seat in 2007 to Mutava Musyimi of the Party of National Unity. Nyagah had decamped to NARC in 2002, then to the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) as a founder and member of the ‘Pentagon’ – the party’s decision-making organ – alongside Raila Odinga, William Ruto, Musalia Mudavadi and Najib Balala. Having suffered a loss at the ballot box, Nyagah was nominated to Parliament by ODM in the coalition government of Kibaki and Odinga (who was Prime Minister), and appointed Minister for Cooperative Development.

He made his 2017 stab at the presidency as an independent candidate. Among his campaign promises, he said he would bring an end to what he termed “irresponsible and reckless borrowing that is crippling our economic growth”. He also promised to prioritise education by setting high standards for schools and providing the resources necessary for success, as well as restore the dignity of teachers. He declared his dream for the youths of Kenya – that each one would receive skills training that would lead to jobs or self-employment. He also emphasised the importance of cooperative action in helping people achieve what they could not as individuals, leaning on the experience he had gained during his time in the Cabinet.

When the presidential election results were announced, Nyagah was a distant third in the first tally. He lost again in the repeat election, but importantly, he pointed out that the repeat vote should have included all eight candidates, not just the top two, since all eight had been victims of the unacceptable transmission of election results that led to the dispute and repeat election.

Joseph Nyagah, one of the few delightfully and genuinely charming politicians Kenya has ever known, died at the Nairobi Hospital on December 11, 2020 at the age of 72. Among his last wishes before he died, according to his brother Norman, was that his body not be viewed before burial.


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