Ababu Namwamba – Critic turned defender

On January 15, 2008, at the height of the post-election violence that erupted after the disputed 2007 election, the then 33-year-old MP stirred up drama in Parliament when he swore by “President Raila Amolo Odinga”, contrary to the prescribed oath-taking manner where officials swore by the elected President and the country.

Mr Namwamba inserted the name of his party leader in line with the mood among ODM members who believed Mr Odinga had won. The party had claimed victory in the elections even though President Mwai Kibaki had already been sworn in.

Mr Namwamba’s shocking stunt was all the more melodramatic because he was the first MP to be sworn in owing to his position on the alphabetical order of lawmakers and his antics had the potential to throw the solemn ceremony into a disarray.

He later took the oath in the prescribed manner after Speaker Kenneth Marende called him to order following protestations from Party of National Unity (PNU) MPs led Martha Karua and Kiraitu Murungi.

The first-term Budalang’i MP, a lawyer, was one of the most eloquent defenders of Mr Odinga’s, making him an unlikely bedfellow in Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet.

Yet politics is the art of the possible. After a National Accord that brought together President Kibaki and Mr Odinga in a restive coalition that made the latter the Prime Minister with the power to appoint half of the Cabinet, several politicians who had been sworn nemeses were forced to work together from April 2008 when the Grand Coalition Government was announced.

Even then, Mr Namwamba was to remain on the back benches until September 2012, when he was appointed minister for Youth Affairs and Sports in a reshuffle, a year to the end of the Grand Coalition government.

By then Mr Odinga was facing a season of discontent on his side of the Coalition and was shuffling his ministers, kicking out those he considered disloyal. Mr Namwamba replaced Dr Paul Otuoma of neighbouring Funyula in Busia county who was moved to the ministry of Local Government in one such jostling.

Politics aside, the appointment of Mr Namwamba, then only 37 but looking even more youthful, exuberant and enthusiastic, was a befitting one for his docket and he immediately went about working, visiting stadia and making one proclamation after another.

In an interview for this book, Mr Namwamba singled out the long-in-coming Sports Act that sought to harness sports for development, promote drug-free sports and recreation, as well as establish sports facilities and set up a National Sports Fund as one of his proudest achievements.

Others are the streamlining of the National Youth Service (NYS), expansion of the National Youth Enterprise Fund, launching of the National Youth Council and the streamlining of the network of youth polytechnics that have provided the springboard for the current Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) programme that is key in the country’s industrial take-off and employment creation.

But how did Mr Kibaki take to the fact that Mr Namwamba had refused to swear by him? How easy was it moving away from the earlier tensions and working together with erstwhile sworn political enemies?

He recalled that even after the recalcitrant drama he pulled in Parliament four years earlier in support of Mr Odinga — his political mentor — he enjoyed his time in the Kibaki Cabinet, terming it a moment of both “personal growth and maturation in service to the country”.

“Maturity entails moving on and serving higher ends like national interests. We were very comfortable together and worked superbly well,” Mr Namwamba explained, adding that he remembered how President Kibaki congratulated him on the enactment of the Sports Act, and personally encouraged him as the ministry rolled out the programme to improve sports facilities across the country.

“My proudest moment came on January 10, 2013 when I stood in Parliament to lead the debate and ultimately witness the passing of the Sports Act, which I had prioritised upon appointment. That piece of legislation has provided the platform for revolutionising our sports sector,” he said.

He also campaigned, albeit unsuccessfully, for Kenya to be granted the right to host the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations in 2017.

He said that President Kibaki allowed his ministers considerable latitude to manage the affairs of their ministries but was always available to listen and advise as he had vast knowledge of issues in almost every ministry.

According to Mr Namwamba, the third President did not shy away from putting one’s thoughts and ideas to test, or even disagreeing outright with a minister in a Cabinet meeting. “You brought forth some obtuse thought, and you could be told off matter-of-factly!” he recalled.

Having been appointed at the youthful age of 37, Mr Namwamba said he matured and gained invaluable experience working under the “steady, experienced and highly knowledgeable President Kibaki”.

The interview with Mr Namwamba, now a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Chief Administrative Secretary (a rough equivalent of an assistant minister) in the Kenyatta administration, opened a window into the character of the third President.

He described President Kibaki as “absolutely urbane, erudite and broad-minded” and added that they bonded in many ways despite the age difference.

“Once, while having lunch with him at State House, I picked his mind on the youth enterprise fund as an avenue for powering our young entrepreneurs, and I was completely amazed by the depth of his grasp of the dynamics of economic empowerment for our youth,” he said.

Another opportunity for the two leaders to interact came at the 2012 NYS graduation parade in Gilgil when the President turned to him and complimented him and the ministry for the transformation of the NYS, “specifically picking out the new paramilitary uniform we had recently designed and which the NYS uses to date.”

Later, in December 2012, President Kibaki conferred on him the Order of the Elder of the Golden Heart (EGH), First Class, the highest civilian national honour, which he says was based on his performance, quite a change of fortune for a man who had begun his parliamentary career on the wrong foot.

“Overall, I would say the sports and youth sectors thrived considerably under the Kibaki presidency, and I credit this to his interest and the free rein he accorded us to run the ministry,” said Mr Namwamba, who was deputised by then Mukurweini MP Kabando wa Kabando and his Kathiani counterpart Wavinya Ndeti (both of whom were also youthful). The Permanent Secretary was career administrator James Waweru.

Born in December 1975, Mr Namwamba was raised in Uganda and later in Kenya. He attended Port Victoria Mixed Primary School before joining Kolanya Boys High School in Teso North, both in his native Busia.

From 1993 to 1997, Mr Namwamba was an undergraduate student at the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law. He later studied for his Diploma in Law at the Kenya School of Law, while at the same time doing pupilage at the Public Law Institute (PLI) under the guidance of Dr Oki Ooko Ombaka. He holds a Master of Laws degree (LLM) in International Law from American University’s Washington College of Law.

It was not by accident that Mr Namwamba burst onto the national political scene, because he started practising the art way back in 1996 when he was elected a student leader at the University of Nairobi while in his third year at the School of Law. The Student Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU) had always served as a springboard for future politicians in Kenya. He turned into an eloquent lawyer with charming English mannerisms complete with an impeccable fashion sense.

He was inspired by the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s book, Not Yet Uhuru, which he said he had read while in Class Seven. The book moved him to enroll in the youth ranks of Ford Kenya — Jaramogi’s party — when he was in high school.

It was no surprise, therefore, that Mr Namwamba would later embrace Jaramogi’s son Raila Odinga as his political hero. Mr Namwamba’s national political journey started in 2002 when he joined Mr Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and worked as a volunteer for the NARC coalition’s euphoric 2002 election that swept Mr Kibaki to power.

While on a Fulbright scholarship from 2004 to 2006 at Washington College of Law, Mr Namwamba remained active in LDP activities, including in the Diaspora during his postgraduate studies in the United States.

It was while in the US that he wrote a weekly column for the Sunday Standard in which he often heaped praise on Mr Odinga, saying he was the Nelson Mandela of Kenya (owing to the Kenyan leader’s prison stint).

Earlier, in 2002, he had founded the Chambers of Justice, a public interest trust he would lead as Chief Counsel until 2007, alongside his own law firm, Ababu Namwamba Attorneys-at-Law.

In 2007, Mr Namwamba joined ODM and won the Budalang’i parliamentary seat.

He easily recaptured the seat in 2013 after spearheading the movement known as ODM-Reloaded and CORD-Effect that excited the party rank and file.

At that time, he argued that Mr Odinga had only one bullet remaining in the chamber (having twice vied for the presidency unsuccessfully) and it had to hit the target that time around. For this he was given the title of ‘General’ for being a strong Odinga enthusiast.

After the 2013 elections he put up a spirited, but unsuccessful attempt to take the ODM secretary-general’s position after incumbent Anyang Nyong’o indicated he would not be defending it.

From the onset, it was clear that the old guard in the party were not sold on a Namwamba leadership, preferring to support Coast politician Agnes Zani. Analysts believe that ODM mandarins at that time were not comfortable with Mr Namwamba holding the key post because they felt that he was too close to Deputy President William Ruto, who was in Jubilee, and they thought he was leaking party secrets to the government.

The party elections in February 2014 were disrupted by a gang dubbed “Men in Black”, because of the colour of their suits. Mr Namwamba had waged a well-oiled campaign that raised eyebrows.

After a short blame game as to who was responsible for disrupting the election at the Moi International Sports Centre, Mr Namwamba was handed the ODM secretary-general’s position, albeit with whittled-down powers, a position he held until July 2016, when he left, citing internal sabotage and frustration that had made it impossible for him to effectively execute the mandate of his office.

Thus, despite his earlier dramatic display of loyalty to Mr Odinga, he noisily left the party altogether, citing frustration, betrayal and lack of respect from top party leaders.

“When Prof Nyong’o was secretary-general, there was no position of secretary of political affairs, there was no director of elections or director of communications. Why were these positions created when I became the secretary-general? The answer is obvious,” Mr Namwamba said.

After leaving ODM, Mr Namwamba in September 2016 joined the Labour Party of Kenya (LPK) that was then headed by Dr Julia Ojiambo. He became the LPK leader in March 2017 and immediately announced that his party would support Uhuru Kenyatta in the August 2017 elections. He lost to Raphael Wanjala of ODM in his bid to retain his Budalang’i seat in the 2017 elections.

But Mr Namwamba’s support for President Kenyatta was rewarded when in January 2018, he was appointed the Chief Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Away from his exploits in politics, Mr Namwamba is also a successful lawyer. In 2004, he shot to national fame when he won a landmark case representing a Kenyan-born Pakistani who had been wrongfully accused of terrorism.

Mr Namwamba had already made a name for himself in 2003 when he secured a historic ruling in a constitutional case that affirmed the right of children living with HIV/AIDS to attend public schools unfettered.

He had filed the case for Chambers of Justice and Nyumbani Children’s Home after two schools in Ngong’ and Karen barred Children from Nyumbani because of their HIV status. Following that victory, Mr Namwamba won the 2004 Global Justice Award, which he received in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Mr Namwamba was again thrust into the limelight in 2004/05 during an inquiry into the mysterious death of Dr Robert Ouko, a former Foreign Affairs minister. Mr Namwamba was representing Swiss national Marianne Briner-Mattern, whose company BAK was being investigated on whether its interest in the Kisumu Molasses plant had any links to the death.

An early bloomer, Mr Namwamba was always inquisitive from a tender age. As a little boy, he read Arabian Nights, the collection of folk of tales, and Greek mythology which no doubt went a long way in building his awesome linguistic capacity.

In an earlier interview, he revealed that the story of Daedalus and Icarus had fascinated him, a confession that some of his critics have used against him. They say that rather than learning from Icarus’ ill-fated reckless flight to the sun, the politician has sometimes thrown caution to the wind in his pursuit of power.

They cite his audacious attempt to take over ODM and the miscalculation that led to his departure from the party and his subsequent defeat in the 2017 elections.

A man who loves the finer things in life, Mr Namwamba has often come into the crosshairs of Kenyans on social media who troll him for his escapades in faraway holiday destinations. Yet he gives as much as he takes.

“Just got to love KOT (Kenyans on Twitter), don’t you! Enjoyed this “Ababu-Terrah clad” brouhaha amidst the bustle of preparing to return home from representing my boss, my President in Pretoria. On dress code thingie, I travel easy, and dress smart for officials. Denim is dope. Thaz my style buddies!” he wrote on Twitter.

He had been criticised for turning out in an all-denim outfit while on official tour in South Africa.

The consummate reader of such classics as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom believes that his political journey has just begun, and that the country has not seen the last of him.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that in appointing Mr Namwamba, an erstwhile fierce critic, to the Cabinet, President Kibaki had hoisted the ambitious and colourful politician to a position that he has not held since, though, at 45, the world is still his to conquer.

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