John Katuku – Strategist at the right place at the right time

As it turned out, Katuku was a beneficiary of a rebellion within the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) that had swept into power in 2002 with Kibaki as the presidential flag bearer. After forming his first Cabinet, President Kibaki’s government set about backing a referendum on changing the Constitution of Kenya. However, a disgruntled group of politicians coalescing around Raila Odinga, whose Liberal Democratic Party was part of NARC, joined Opposition legislators from the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party to defeat the vote. In response, Kibaki disbanded the Cabinet.

As a member of Ngilu’s National Party of Kenya (NPK) – one of the other parties that made up NARC – Katuku supported the draft Constitution and reaped the fruit of this rather risky decision. Nearly all the MPs from the Ukambani region (where he hails from) who had been elected to Parliament on the NARC ticket had rallied behind Kalonzo Musyoka, the regional kingpin, to oppose the draft Constitution.

To achieve ethnic balance in the Cabinet he formed after sending all his pre-referendum ministers home, Kibaki had to pick one other Minister, besides Ngilu, from Kambaland. Katuku was in the right place at the right time. That he came from the Machakos side of Ukambani – away from Ngilu’s Kitui – worked even better for the President, who was at the time desperately angling to bring all parts of the country together.

Keen to deliver a service that had the biggest catalysing effect on development, Kibaki had in 2003 created the Ministry of Water Resources out of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources that had been maintained by both Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi since independence in 1963.

As Minister for Water, a lot was expected of Katuku from the people of Mwala and Ukambani in general, as water in the region has always been scarce and precious. He was deputised by John Munyes of FORD-Kenya, who was the Assistant Minister for Water Resource Management, and KANU’s Major (Rtd) Aden Sugow, who was in charge of Water Services.

Instructively, the Minister and his deputies all came from arid regions (Machakos, Turkana and Garissa respectively); their appointments were a political calculation intended to appeal to these constituencies, long considered marginalised.

On a regional level, Katuku’s appointment came at a time when Kenya and other Nile riparian countries had launched negotiations for a new Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework, which culminated in the Nile Treaty of 2011. He was involved in the negotiations on behalf of Kenya, which had joined Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in pushing for a new deal that would allow riparian countries to carry out projects like dams and irrigation along the Nile.

Ethiopia used the 2011 Nile agreement – officially known as the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) – that outlines principles, rights and obligations for cooperative management and development of the Nile Basin water resources, to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

There was another factor that may have played a weightier part in Katuku’s inclusion in Kibaki’s Cabinet. A keen follower of the events leading to the creation of the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK), which would form the core of NARC, will find Katuku right at the centre of Kibaki’s ride to power.

He was the chairman of the strategy caucus that formed NAK, the coalition that brought together Kibaki, Ngilu and Kijana Wamalwa, before the eventual culmination in NARC. The caucus comprised Kiraitu Murungi, Chris Murungaru, Musikari Kombo and Katuku. Murungi and Murungaru represented Kibaki while Kombo and Katuku took care of Wamalwa’s and Ngilu’s interests respectively.

Katuku also sat on the larger coordinating committee that had nine members. Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP) had Murungi and Njenga Karume, while the FORD-Kenya party’s Wamalwa had Kombo, Kipruto Kirwa and Newton Kulundu. Katuku, Titus Mbathi and a Ms Kanini represented Ngilu’s NPK.

“The smaller committee met almost daily to develop strategies to capture power from (President Daniel arap) Moi. We would share the ideas with Kibaki, Wamalwa and Ngilu. Once in agreement we would share them with the coordinating committee, and later with MPs to sell the product to the public,” Katuku explained in an interview for this book.

The two committees would meet the principals every Thursday for nearly two years ahead of the General Election. The strategy committee was instrumental in deciding who would play what role in the campaign and in government.

Katuku, a former MP for Mwala Constituency in present-day Machakos County, is very proud of this role and considers his initial appointment as Assistant Minister for Finance to be just as consequential as that of a full Minister. He said President Kibaki had a soft spot for him and regretted that the DP leader’s car accident ahead of the elections, and the coming into NARC of Musyoka and Odinga muddied the waters for him and estranged him from his ‘buddy.’

Katuku opened up about the heady days of NARC’s euphoric victory and his times with Kenya’s third President. Commenting on Kibaki’s legendary frugality, Katuku recalled an incident in the early days of the NAK campaigns when he went to him to ask for money for a campaign rally.

“We had a rally in Nakuru and I went to him. We needed some money to hire security and he asked me: ‘Is it an illegal rally? Why do you need security?’ I explained that the police were not there to guard us but to disrupt us. He understood and gave us his contribution.”

He praised Kibaki’s style of governance and wondered what Kenya would have been like had he become President before the freak accident that occurred a few weeks to the elections (Kibaki would be sworn in as the third President of the Republic of Kenya while seated in a wheelchair, his right leg in a cast) and a stroke he suffered on assuming office. According to Katuku, these two events robbed Kibaki of his physical sprightliness and legendary eloquence.

“Kibaki consulted his ministers. He would ask you: ‘What do we do?’ And if you told him something good he would implement it. I had KES 3 billion for water in the two years I was Minister and we did many projects in the arid and semi-arid lands – sand dams and boreholes,” recalled Katuku, now a farmer and golfer.

He could not remember a time the President ever called to dictate anything that needed to be done. “What he did was proper delegation. When I was appointing my directors in the ministry, for instance, he never interfered with my list.”

If Katuku’s strategic place in Kibaki’s vehicle to power paved his path to greatness, his stubborn pride is the brake that stunted his growth.

“After I lost the Mwala seat I went to Kibaki and he told (Francis) Muthaura, his Head of Civil Service, to give me any job I wanted. Muthaura explained that once Musyoka had become the Vice President in 2008 (after the 2007 election stalemate that resulted in a coalition government), any appointment in the (Ukambani) region would have to go through him. I said: ‘Over my dead body; I will not bow to Kalonzo to get a job.’”

His refusal to kowtow to Musyoka kept him out in the political cold throughout that term. He later made up with the Ukambani kingpin and even supported his bid for State House as Odinga’s running mate in 2017 under the National Super Alliance (NASA).

“My kind of politics is never to go for money or dish it out. If I needed money I would have gone to Moi, but I was always in the Opposition until we formed the government in 2002,” he said in an interview after his failed bid for the Machakos Senate seat in 2017. And he has no kind word for the culture of politicking in between elections, which he believed was the reason for Kenya’s under-development.

The son of a councillor and KANU official, Katuku was a student leader in university and a grassroots mobiliser who cut his teeth in national politics campaigning for Joseph Munyao, the long-time DP stalwart and one-time MP for Mbooni Constituency.

“I was a leader in the students’ body, SONU (Student Organisation of Nairobi University), and also the chairman of all Ukambani college students in Kenya. After campaigning for Munyao I decided to go for it myself,” he explained.

He was elected to Parliament in 1997 aged 32 and would be a member of the House for 10 years. Come 2007, Katuku, running on a NARC-Kenya ticket, was defeated by Daniel Muoki of the Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya party that had overrun almost the entire Ukambani region in support of Musyoka’s presidential bid.

In 2008, when Musyoka struck a deal with Kibaki that earned him the post of Vice President, Katuku led a group of Kamba MPs who had been defeated in the 2007 elections in accusing the President of betrayal. The leaders were Kalembe Ndile (MP for Kibwezi), Kivutha Kibwana (Makueni), Joseph Munyao (Mbooni) and Adelina Mwau (nominated).

Katuku and his group complained that they had been sidelined despite campaigning for Kibaki in a hostile environment, and accused both the President and Musyoka of sealing a deal based on political desperation rather than ideals.

In 2013, however, he sought the nomination of Musyoka’s Wiper Democratic Movement-Kenya party for the Machakos governorship. He lost to Alfred Mutua alongside former Kathiani MP Wavinya Ndeti and ICT engineer Titus Ndundu. Katuku later joined Ndeti in decamping to Chama Cha Uzalendo (CCU) and contested the governor’s seat as her running mate. Again, they lost to Mutua.

In the 2017 General Election, Katuku initially planned to try and recapture the Mwala seat but changed his mind and formed the People’s Trust Party to “break the hold of the big political parties with ethnic following and personalities” as well as to contest the Machakos Senate seat. He lost to Boniface Kabaka of CCU. The fact that he has switched parties seven times in the last 23 years prompted critics to label him impatient and overly ambitious.

Born in 1965, Katuku first attended Kitile Primary School from 1974 to 1980 before joining Miu Secondary School in Machakos, where he sat his O’ levels in 1984. He proceeded to Kilungu High School in Makueni for his A’ levels from 1985 to 1986 after which he worked as an untrained teacher at Kalawa Secondary School until 1990. He joined the University of Nairobi and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Work in 1993 and did his Master of Arts in Sociology at Kenyatta University between 1994 and 1996.

From 1996 to 1997, Katuku worked as a community development officer and administrator at the Child Welfare Society of Kenya before entering politics.

Despite his failure to clinch an elective seat since 2007, Katuku retains pockets of support in Mwala and the larger Machakos. To date it is not uncommon during political rallies for chants from his campaign slogan, “Mundu ni Katuku!” (Katuku is the man!) to erupt spontaneously whenever he stands up to address the crowds.

Outside of politics, the avid golfer and convener of the Kambasome Golf Series said he picked up the sport after he left Parliament to keep himself occupied and fit.

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