Amason Kingi – A consummate east African

The aftermath of the these elections had plunged Kenya into uncertainty as post-polls violence threatened to ground the country. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga had refused to accept the results of the Presidential election, which declared Kibaki, running under the Party of National Unity (PNU), as the victor. This protest had fast degenerated into inter-communal clashes resulting in fatalities and a political impasse that stalled social and economic progress. The intervention of neutral international mediators dispatched by the African Union and the United Nations helped hammer out a deal that would end the post-poll crisis.

The 2007 polls served as Kingi’s debut into politics where he contested the Magarini Constituency seat in Kilifi District, now Kilifi County, on an ODM ticket. Kingi achieved the impossible. He defeated the establishment candidate touted as the favourite, Harrison Kombe of the Shirikisho Party of Kenya (SPK).

Kingi’s win as Member of Parliament (MP) for Magarini was essentially the beginning of a markedly successful political career. Even as a political greenhorn, Kingi had already wormed his way into the heart of ODM. The top hierarchy of ODM knew him as an unwavering supporter of the party and of Odinga. His legal acuity, party loyalty and great negotiating tactics proved to be solid political assets. Two additional perks endeared Kingi to ODM in its quest to project inclusivity and promote nationalism: he came from a minority coastal community, the Giriama, and had a record of accomplishment in human rights advocacy and community mobilisation. All these qualities helped tick the right boxes, earning Kingi the slot as Minister for East African Community Affairs.

Kingi’s youthful zeal, academic achievements and credentials to match earned him a critical position in the coalition Cabinet that had been put together as a part of the power-sharing deal in the aftermath of the 2007 General Election.

Kingi found himself among Kenya’s record-breaking and historic Cabinet that consisted of 41 ministers.

Kingi was born in 1974 in Kilifi. In 1980 he was enrolled at Magarini Primary School. The bright young lad performed well in primary school and joined Alliance High School for his secondary education. He left Alliance in 1992 and was admitted to the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 1994, graduating four years later with a law degree.

Upon graduation, followed by a pupillage stint, Kingi went into private practice in Mombasa. While in Mombasa, he took a short contract as district coordinator for the Kilifi District, working for the Constitution of Kenya Reform Commission (CKRC). This experience with the CKRC and his legal background exposed Kingi to effective community mobilisation and public awareness campaign strategies in the entire district. Looking back, it was preparation for what lay ahead.

Kingi’s entry to the Cabinet affirmed Kibaki’s thinking and plans on regional economic integration. He represented party affiliation, regional balancing and minority interests on face value. However, his liberal ideology and good grasp of international legal affairs were needed to appropriately fit the complex dynamics that defined Kibaki’s dual-modelled realist-oriented foreign policy strategy. The first model envisaged the regional economic bloc under the Ministry for East African Community Affairs and the second model was espoused in the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Kingi represented the first model.

The East African Community (EAC) based in Arusha, Tanzania, was founded in 1967. Nationalistic rivalries led to its dissolution in 1977. It was re-established in 1999. Having been there during the original years, Kibaki’s sentimental affiliation to the EAC [see sidebar] did not cloud his resolute intention for the regional grouping. By picking Kingi to the EAC Ministry, Kibaki reiterated his firm vision and desire for fresh insights and passion to drive a strong ‘EastAfricanism’ spirit.

It is on this premise that Kingi was given the task of steering Kenya’s position at the Community headquarters.

Kingi’s appointment was evidence of the level of trust that the President had entrusted in the young budding politician and his place in driving Kenya’s regional and foreign policy interests.

At the time, the EAC was planning to begin the full implementation of the East African Common Markets Protocol within the member States. This was a historic milestone as it allowed free movement of labour, services, goods, capital and residence within the region. It had been a decades-long quest by Kibaki and needed a strong advocate with a regional outlook encompassing a population of 90 million people at the time with a gross domestic product of about US$ 30 billion to execute.

Kingi fit the bill.

He immediately set to work with preparing for the East African Customs Union whose protocol had been signed on 2 March 2004 in Arusha and which was coming into effect in January 2010. The Customs Union represented the first stage in the regional integration process. It aimed to boost trade through the harmonisation of customs and trade protocols and procedures among the partner states.

Kingi’s second task was rooting for the second pillar of the regional integration, which was the common market. According to the EAC Treaty, the common market was coming into force in 2010 as the second milestone following the customs union, which was the first pillar.

The new Minister quickly had to learn the practical details involved and navigate the minefield of sometimes reticent or downright obstinate ‘national sovereignties’ as he spearheaded these regional integration initiatives. He soon found that it was a mixed blend and a tough task. Some partner States were hampered by the slow wheels of bureaucracy. Others displayed administrative efficiency, speed to integrate and open-door policies. While the efficient States impressed the Minister, the apparent inaction of other member States rankled. The plain-speaking Minister dispensed with diplomatic formalities and protocols and castigated the inaction of those delaying integration. Kingi ruffled the sensitive regional feathers.

Just a year into the job the Minister raised a storm when in March 2009 he called for equity and regional ownership of the EAC through the decentralisation of some of the Community’s organs such as the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) and the East African Court of Justice (EACJ).

“What we need to know is; what does the EAC headquarters mean? If it means the secretariat, then the treaty does not have to be amended. But if it means all the EAC organs in Arusha, we might certainly have to move to amending it and that will give us equity and ownership with the larger community.” Kingi said at the time. “Being alive to the trend the world over in regional blocs and where their organs are placed is what we should do. There is no single bloc that has all its organs under one roof. We are suggesting that the EAC organs be decentralised to enhance ownership of the community.”

This did not sit well with Dar es Salaam and rang alarm bells across the region. Distressed by Kingi’s forthrightness, Kenya’s Vice President Musyoka assured Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete that Kenya was still bound by the agreement setting up the EAC which provides for Arusha as its headquarters.

Regional political commentator Charles Onyango Obbo captured this episode aptly when he wrote in his column in The East African:

“Men like Kenya’s East African Community Minister, Amason Jeffah Kingi have a habit of ruffling feathers, but our region would be worse off without them.” Onyango Obbo wrote. “Kingi seemed to have horrified some colleagues in government when he took the hammer to Tanzania’s allegedly lukewarm attitude toward regional integration. He suggested that since Tanzania was a reluctant member of the EAC, most institutions of the Community should be hosted in the other, more willing partner states.”

Kingi remained unapologetic and stood his ground. He had made his point. Unfazed he continued to push for the realisation of the common market.

On 20 November 2009, which marked the 10th anniversary of the revived EAC, the five partner States signed the Common Market Protocol.

On 30 June 2010 at the National Assembly Kingi issued a Ministerial Statement on the EAC Common Market Protocol making a strong case for its ratification. The Minister used the opportunity to outline the ‘Four Freedoms’ enshrined in the Protocol: free movement of goods, labour, services and capital. The benefits of these freedoms would “boost trade and investments and make the region more productive and prosperous”.

Kingi’s passionate plea for the common market found ardent supporters in Parliament. Legislators led by Danson Mungatana, Bonny Khalwale and Eugene Wamalwa spoke approvingly of the Protocol. This granted Kingi an opportunity to make a strong case for the monetary union and political federation. “Work has already begun to prepare the East Africans to embrace a political integration. This started way back immediately the Treaty was signed in 1999, where a committee of experts was mandated to go around East African to ask East Africans two questions.

One of the questions was whether East Africans are for a political federation. The second question was whether East Africans would wish to attain the political federation through a fast-tracking mechanism.” Kingi disclosed to the house. “I can confirm to this House that the score that was obtained from the three original countries was well beyond 60 per cent on the question as to whether East Africans want a political federation. On the question as to whether the political federation should be fast-tracked, Uganda and Kenya scored well above 50 per cent. It is only Tanzania that scored below 50 per cent.”

While the survey indicated a groundswell of public approval, the political speed was slow in catching up. Sovereignty fears and lack of public awareness campaigns and education on the EAC are among the core reasons that Kingi cited as stalling integration processes.

The toughest hurdle that Kingi had to contend with regarding the EAC Customs Union and Common Market was the ceding of national sovereignty by member States.

However, even with these difficulties, Kingi celebrated the major successes achieved and remained committed to achieving the policy goals outlined by President Kibaki regarding the EAC. His open criticism of partner States even when it was clear that Kenya was the largest beneficiary of integration, seems to have cut short his stay at the EAC ministry.

In August 2010, President Kibaki reshuffled the coalition Cabinet. With the alliance’s subtleties at play and bringing in consultation with key partner Prime Minister Odinga, Kingi moved to the Ministry of Fisheries Development to take over from Paul Otuoma who was moved to Youth and Sports. Helen Sambili replaced Kingi at the EAC docket.

For the longest time in Kenya, sectoral priorities placed fisheries as a mere department within the agriculture and sometimes the livestock ministries. This time around, Kibaki chose to re-engineer this critical department. The President elevated it to a full Ministry and dispatched the independent minded Kingi to oversee the wide-ranging transformation primed for the fisheries docket. Abu Chiaba, who was Lamu East MP, served as Kingi’s Assistant Minister at the Fisheries Development Ministry. The earmarked changes included fast-tracking the Fisheries Bill, drawing up a blueprint to harness the country’s Blue Economy potential and rollout of aquaculture.

Apparently, while in this Ministry Kingi did not achieve much success. His quest to increase coastal fisheries exports to match the tonnage from internal waters was unsuccessful.

With the dawn of a new Constitution, Kingi’s political star continued to shine as he vied for Governor in the 2013 General Election and won. He became Kilifi County’s first Governor and was subsequently re-elected in 2017.

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