John Koech – The gentle lion from Bomet

In Chepalungu, where John Kipsang Koech was MP for the larger part of the period between 1979 and 2007, his supporters fondly refer to him as “simba” (lion). And it is not for nothing. He had a streak of rebelliousness that seemed to fit well with his gentle mien – this lionised him and set him apart from his peers.

For instance, in 1997, as a Minister of State in the Office of the President, he drove to the Nation Media Group’s Nakuru Bureau where he asked for a pen and paper and wrote a one-sentence resignation letter. He was protesting the humiliation he had suffered at President Daniel arap Moi’s Kabarak home where he had been denied entry while ordinary MPs, including some from his own Bomet District backyard, were ushered in.

Even though Koech was later persuaded – or pressured – to rescind his statement and take back his job, he had made a name as one of the most principled politicians in Kenya, especially at a time when it was almost taboo to reject a presidential appointment much less resign from one.

Before him, only Mwai Kibaki had resigned, six years earlier. Kibaki was the Minister for Health at the time and surprised Moi on Christmas Day 1991 when he announced his resignation via the newly-launched Kenya Television Network (KTN) – the first independent TV station in the country.

The 1997 incident was not the first time Koech was getting in the crosshairs of power. In 1989 he was sacked as Minister for Public Works and expelled from the Kenya African National Union (KANU) – the ruling party at the time – with then Vice President Josephat Karanja for being “disloyal” to Moi.

Koech would bounce back in the 1992 elections, get booted by voters in 1997, but win their favour again in 2002. He joined the Cabinet even though KANU, the party that sponsored him to Parliament, had been obliterated in the elections.

The now 74-year-old former Minister for East African and Regional Cooperation in the Kibaki administration is at ease with himself. He believes he made the right decision in joining the Cabinet in 2004, even though he was a member of the Opposition.

Even before this, Koech’s path had crossed with Kibaki’s many times in their long public careers, enabling them to forge a working relationship despite being in different political parties. In an interview, Koech expressed admiration for Kenya’s third President.

“Kibaki never misused money. At President Moi’s desk there was always a briefcase full of cash. This was never the case in Kibaki’s State House,” he said. He also hailed Kibaki for changing the way Kenyans viewed the Presidency – away from the previous, somewhat autocratic style that was characterised by roadside declarations to one that was largely issues-oriented.

“He was a professional man and a politician who knew where the country needed to go, and steered it there,” recalled Koech of the man he first met in 1978 in Nyeri District (now Nyeri County) where he was a director in the provincial education office.

Their common love for education drew them closer.

“It was then that I saw, firsthand, his love for schools and development,” said Koech. He would later interact more with Kibaki when he joined Parliament after the 1979 General Election.

According to Koech, a Makerere University-trained economist, he had a lot in common with Kibaki, a fellow alumnus of the same department (although Koech joined Makerere six years after Kibaki had left his teaching stint there). While this bit of shared history may have played a role in Koech’s appointment as Minister for East African and Regional Cooperation on 30 June 2004, he maintained that he got the job on merit and as part of President Kibaki’s desire for “a government in which every Kenyan had a stake”.

At the time, Kibaki was facing a rebellion within the ruling National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wing owing to what the latter said was failure to fulfil a pact contained in NARC’s pre-election memorandum of understanding. Bringing Koech and other Opposition members into the Cabinet would no doubt boost his support in Parliament.

Koech, the KANU MP for Chepalungu, Njenga Karume, KANU’s MP for Kiambaa, and FORD-People’s Simeon Nyachae and Henry Obwocha – all came into the Government of National Unity, as it was called, during this period.

“He wanted to incorporate the whole country and reduce politicking,” said Koech in an interview in which he maintained that he and Kibaki were birds of a feather and that he had supported the President even before his Cabinet appointment.

“The incessant feuding between the National Alliance (Party) of Kenya and their coalition partner, LDP, had begun to affect NARC’s performance,” Koech told an interviewer after his appointment.

Kibaki had argued that a united government could never be woven simply along party lines. “Today, I have decided to re-organise my government to reflect the diversity of the Kenyan people,” he said at the time, as he announced a reorganised Cabinet.

It was not lost on observers, however, that the inclusion of members of the Opposition was aimed at clipping the wings of the increasingly intransigent LDP that, led by Raila Odinga, was threatening to impeach the President. If he had lost the vote of no-confidence in Parliament, he would have had no option but go home, which could have plunged the country into chaos, writes Nyachae in his autobiography, Walking through the Corridors of Service.

Koech’s friendship with Kibaki paid off again in August 2004, when the President handed him the chairmanship of the Sudan and Somalia peace talks. The position had been taken away from Kalonzo Musyoka, a member of LDP.

Koech took over the East African Community (EAC) ministry at a time when Kenya was playing the lead role in peace negotiations in Somalia and Sudan. Thankfully, he was up to the task – he had been Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) between 1998 and 2000. He threw himself into the new task and was soon the chairman of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) ministerial committee mediating the Somalia peace talks.

His first major diplomatic assignment was on 29 August 2004, when he presided over the swearing in of a Somalia Transitional Parliament at the United Nations headquarters in Gigiri, Nairobi.

After that he turned his attention to Sudan’s peace negotiations, which were in the final stages. He was also in charge of the IGAD ministerial committee on Sudan peace talks when the parties involved signed the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005 at Nairobi’s Nyayo Stadium, ending 21 years of civil war between the north and the south of Sudan. The CPA was signed by the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Dr John Garang, and Ali Osman Taha, Sudan’s First Vice President.

“We are going to replace war with peace and hence enhance economic development in the region. The intra-regional trade is bound to increase with the restoration of peace in southern Sudan and installation of a government in strife-torn Somalia,” Koech later told the media.

He is credited with delicately juggling Kenya’s interests at a time when President Kibaki was trying to chart a new chapter in relations with Uganda and Tanzania – then the only members of the EAC. Beyond this, Koech boasts of having brokered the talks that finally admitted Rwanda and Burundi to the EAC as chairman of the community’s Council of Ministers.

“I also handled Tanzania well. The thing with our southern neighbour is to appreciate their pride and find a way of pandering to it,” Koech said against the backdrop of thawing relations between Kenya and Tanzania following the tiff that arose from the two countries’ divergent methods of handling the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2006, presidents Kibaki, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania launched a campaign for a political federation by 2013, a timeline critics dismissed as too ambitious because negotiations on a customs union, common market and monetary union were yet to be completed.

The three presidents simultaneously launched national campaigns that were to promote debate among the people of East Africa on the type of political federation they would want and when they wished it activated.

While critics argued that the push for a political federation was against the order of regional integration that had been set when the community was revived in 1999, Koech maintained that the campaign was necessary because the majority of people in the three countries lacked sufficient understanding of the importance of the community and its operations.

“The EAC is a vehicle that is going to free our people from poverty because it comes with numerous opportunities for economic growth. A federation will help to reduce the high unemployment rate in Kenya and boost trade,” he said at the time.

Koech recalled with nostalgia Kibaki’s management model, which he said was consultative and respectful of expertise.

“I remember his passion for Vision 2030. During Cabinet meetings, he would call technical experts to take us through the blueprint. After they left he would ask us to ensure our respective ministry policies were aligned to the strategy.”

He said Kibaki ensured the best people ran the government, and named Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura as the most committed and selfless of them all. The economist also hailed Kibaki for ensuring micro- and macro-economic stability in the country – micro having to do with pricing and macro with money supply – he explained.

But despite his admiration for Kibaki, the shifting political ground at the time would lead him to defect from KANU to Odinga’s new party, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). When he defected, on 11 October 2007, he said Odinga was popular in villages across Kenya. Five days later he was sacked from his ministerial position and his place taken by his Assistant Minister, Wilfred Machage.

Koech soon changed parties again, this time to Kalonzo Musyoka’s ODM-Kenya after Isaac Ruto beat him to the ODM ticket in chaotic party primaries. Ruto also won the Chepalungu seat in the 2007 General Election.

Koech, who had joined the NARC government against his (KANU) party’s wishes, could not successfully fend off complaints from his ethnic Kipsigis community that during his tenure in Kibaki’s Cabinet, close to 20,000 members of the community – who had bought land in Mau Forest – had been evicted from their farms.

The thinking in Kibaki’s government was that conserving the Mau Complex, the largest water tower in East Africa, was for the greater good, including the good of those forcefully removed from the forest.

Born in Olbutyo, Chepalungu, Koech attended Segemik Primary School before proceeding to Tenwek High School, also in Bomet District (since renamed Bomet County), where he did both his O’ and A’ levels. Having successfully completed 13 years of basic and advanced schooling in the remote location, Koech became something of a celebrity in the region for qualifying to join Makerere University in Uganda in 1969.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in 1972 and between 1973 and 1975, worked as a high school teacher. At only 28, he resigned from his teaching job and unsuccessfully contested the Chepalungu parliamentary seat in 1974.

He went back to his teaching career and would be promoted to senior manager in the provincial education office in Nyeri before resigning ahead of the 1979 elections, which he won this time.

Before he joined politics, Koech had been introduced to Moi by Isaac Salat, father of the current KANU Secretary General Nick Salat, at a time when it was near-impossible for anyone to win a parliamentary seat in the Rift Valley without the blessings of a political patriarch.

Koech represented Chepalungu Constituency until 1989, when he was expelled from KANU. His seat was taken by Kimunai arap Soi in the ensuing by-election.

In the first multi-party elections of 1992, Koech was back in Parliament until 1997, the year of his resignation drama, when he lost to Ruto. To date Koech believes he was rigged out because Moi wanted to fill Parliament with loyalists.

In 2002, Koech was back again as the Chepalungu MP. After his 2007 defeat and a half-hearted run for the Bomet governorship in 2013, he retired from active politics, content that he had done his best for his constituents and his country. He now divides his time between his two homes – one in Bomet Town and another in Olbutyo, 15 kilometres away – where he engages in dairy farming.

“My interest was always to change people’s lives. If you look at my record as MP you will see projects that had the most impact on my constituents,” he said, listing electricity, water and dairy farming as some of his key contributions in Chepalungu. He pointed out that the remotest parts of the constituency – a largely arid hinterland – were connected to the national grid long before the high potential areas of the county because of his efforts.

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