David — and to some simply Daudi — Mwiraria, the numbers man, veteran technocrat and politician is arguably Kenya’s most formidable Treasury chief after Mwai Kibaki. He died of bone cancer in 2017.
Describing him as a ‘friend, confidant, co-worker and trusted ally’, Kibaki, his former teacher at Makerere University and long-standing boss, celebrated his former Finance Minister’s brilliance and grasp of economics, and his diligence, humility and forthrightness. “He commanded respect across the board effortlessly. Kenya has lost an illustrious public servant whose focus was on delivering the best for the good of all. May his soul rest in eternal peace,” Kibaki said.
It was difficult not to respect Mwiraria, even if you were of a different political persuasion. A soft spoken and bespectacled gentleman, his relatively small frame was overshadowed by his towering intellect, deep knowledge of government and public service, and, above all, the authority and ease with which he weaved development and economic policy. The man simply oozed competence.
There was something even more profound about Mwiraria. The three-time North Imenti Member of Parliament (MP) was a gentleman. He steered clear of crass insults, shameless lies and empty sloganeering of siasa za kumalizana — the politics of life and death. Instead, he cut the image of a reluctant politician; a thinker who chose to argue in a political field where those who shout the loudest and foulest often get their way. But then Mwiraria, to quote his Alliance High School classmate, the veteran journalist Philip Ochieng’, was “an educated mind”; a professorial who spent his entire working life engineering and executing government policy and shuffling facts and figures.
Listen to Raila Odinga:
“I had the honour to serve with Hon. Mwiraria as (a) fellow Member of Parliament and later as members of the Cabinet. He was an honest and diligent public servant with the interests of the nation at heart. I will remember fondly the work we did together of reforming critical institutions like the Kenya Revenue Authority, public procurement and infrastructure financing and delivery when the National Rainbow Coalition took power in 2002. It is Hon. Mwiraria’s diligence and commitment as Finance Minister that made all the difference with regard to delivering NARC’s promises on key sectors of the economy as we raced to fulfil our pledges against a background of an economy that had gone to the dogs…”
He didn’t come across as a leader who spent time in dark pubs conjuring up schemes to steal from the government, either. Nothing about Kibaki’s Finance Minister, or his famously frugal lifestyle, pointed at the rapacious appetite associated with some members of Kenya’s political elite. In Imenti North Constituency, which he represented in Parliament for three terms, he was known as Kangumu (the stingy one) because of his aversion, just like Kibaki, to hand-outs. Retired intelligence officer and Democratic Party (DP) founder member Essau Kioni explains that Mwiraria, known for prudent management of his personal resources, believed in individuals working hard for themselves and not looking for hand-outs from leaders.
This portrait hardly fits the profile of the typical nouveau riche corrupt Kenyan whose signature is extravagance, showmanship and, not surprisingly, endless financial squabbles with friends and associates in court. Which is why 2006 news reports linking Mwiraria to the Anglo-Leasing corruption scandal shook the government and hit the country like a bombshell. Anglo Leasing and Finance Ltd, a foreign phantom company, was paid about KES 55 billion to supply the Kenya Government with a system to print new high-technology passports. Other fictitious companies involved in the scam were given money to supply naval ships and forensic laboratories. None of the contracts were honoured. It was John Githongo who dropped the bombshell. Appointed Permanent Secretary (PS) in charge of Governance and Ethics in 2003 by President Kibaki to spearhead anti-corruption efforts, he went into exile after exposing the scandal. And now he was alleging that he was in possession of audio recordings implicating Mwiraria in a cover-up.
It must have been a difficult moment for President Kibaki, who ordered that all payments be halted and the people behind Anglo Leasing exposed when Githongo brought the matter to his attention. The National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) had collapsed a year earlier, forcing him to fire all ministers and reconstitute the Cabinet by drawing in members of the Opposition. His former allies from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wing of NARC had jumped ship and formed an astute and persistent opposition within government. The country was in feverish political mode, with the General Election barely a year away. What’s more, Mwiraria, as Finance chief, was not only the fulcrum of Kibaki’s national economy revival strategy, but he too was in all likelihood one of the President’s closest and most trusted lieutenants in government. The two gentlemen had known each other from Makerere before Kenya became independent. Mwiraria was PS to Kibaki in the Finance Minister in 1991, and with a closely knit circle of friends, helped found DP. What’s more, both Kibaki and Mwiraria shared a love for golf. These allegations therefore unwittingly turned Mwiraria, Kibaki’s buddy and trusted ally into a constant punching bag for the Opposition whose members went for him with guns blazing. What followed was unthinkable. Mwiraria stepped down from office, becoming the first public official to resign because of corruption allegations since Kenya’s independence in 1963. Previously, Kenyans public officials would remain in office until they were fired or the chargers faded away.
“In order that my name be cleared and to protect the integrity of the President, the government and our country, Kenya, I hereby voluntarily step aside,” he announced.
His resignation was not only a measure of class, but the respect and integrity with which he held public office. “Hon Mwiraria was an epitome of humility. Even when faced with adversity, he was never confrontational, preferring instead to handle matters with unparalleled diplomacy and calmness,” former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka would say when Mwiraria died years later. A subsequent investigation cleared Mwiraria of wrongdoing following which he was reinstated to the Cabinet as Minister for Environment.
Who was this man, this career technocrat, a gentleman of Kenyan politics and giant of Kenya’s historic economic revival?
Mwiraria was born in 1938 in Meru. He went to Kaaga and Alliance High School before proceeding to Makerere University in 1956 where he graduated with a BA in Mathematics in 1962. Thereafter, he enrolled at the Nairobi University College, a constituent college of the University of East Africa, graduating with a Master’s in Statistics. Aged 26, he was the first MA student to graduate at what would become the University of Nairobi. Such sterling academic credentials at the turn of independence made him a hot cake. His first port of call was the prestigious East African Community, which he served as Director of Statistical Department and, later, Secretary of the Common Market until 1977 when he was appointed PS, Ministry of Finance, in Kenya. He served as PS in several ministries for 11 years, including Home Affairs — a position that inadvertently placed him at the centre of the infamous Wagalla massacre.
A plan to disarm warring clans and diffuse ethnic tensions in Wajir went awfully wrong when Kenya Army personnel rounded up thousands of local citizens and detained them for four days in the scorching sun without food or water at Wagalla Airstrip. The citizens, of Somali ethnicity, were reportedly tortured, beaten and executed to prise information about Shifta insurgents allegedly operating in their midst. The matter was hushed up. Government reports would later put the number of the dead at 57 while local leaders claimed thousands died or were maimed, some for life. The massacre put Mwiraria on the spot because he had flown to Wagalla with members of the National Intelligence Committee the previous day to assess plans to ‘resolve the Shifta movement in north eastern Province’. Their visit was, however, interpreted to mean that they had gone to enforce a premeditated massacre. In 2011 Mwiraria told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the massacre could have been carried out by the army without the knowledge of the Ministry of Home Affairs because the district security team had the discretion to detain young men. Mwiraria also denied attending any meeting to plan and execute the massacre, stating that the only request his ministry received was that the province was an operation area and needed more police reinforcement. He then apologised to the victims, saying the Wagalla massacre was a tragedy that should never have been allowed to happen. “In the context in which we were operating, it was risky to speak out your mind. One could be detained or killed for telling what happened,” he told the Commission in respect of the cover-up that followed.
It is worth noting that the chain of command within the armed forces is cast in stone, which makes the complicity of Mwiraria, who was in charge of police, in directing a military operation and the subsequent cover-up a matter of conjecture. Nonetheless, this was the first blot in Mwiraria’s otherwise illustrious career in the public service.
Mwiraria left government two years later in 1986 and went into private business. He re-emerged as the clamour for multiparty politics hit fever pitch in 1991 when Health Minister and former Vice President Kibaki resigned from government to form DP in readiness for the 1992 General Election. Kioni says Mwiraria was in the group of trusted confidants that convinced Kibaki leave the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and launch DP. “When we set out to establish DP, Mwiraria was very clear that we were setting up a party for the future,” Kioni said in a Standard newspaper report.
The following year, Mwiraria ran for the North Imenti Parliamentary seat on a DP ticket and won, defeating KANU’s Lands Minister and self-styled King of the Ameru, Jackson Harvester Angaine. Mwiraria joined his party leader Kibaki, who had come third in the polls after President Moi and Kenneth Matiba, on the back bench.
But it is after the 1997 election that his intellectual powers came to the fore. Kibaki became the Official Leader of Opposition and appointed him Shadow Agriculture Minister. The dexterity and authority with which he critiqued government agriculture policy, an area in which he had neither training nor experience, was not only a reflection of the fluidity of his mind and knowledge of government but the mark of a man accustomed to burning the midnight oil.
The best was yet to come. When Kibaki was sworn in as President in 2002, any keen analyst would have guessed the obvious: Mwiraria would be his Finance Minister.
Kibaki had made, among other things, revival of the economy, which was in ruins, a pillar of his campaign for President. The infrastructure was tattered, to the extent that vehicle manufacturers tested their prototypes for strength on Kenya’s potholed roads. International donors had given the country the cold shoulder on account of corruption and human rights violations. The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) was collecting peanuts, with taxes either stolen or not collected at all. The national budget stood at about KES 220 billion, government employment had been frozen and the labour movement was rife with strikes. Kibaki needed a trusted hand to reboot the economy and get money flowing into KRA to enable him fulfil campaign pledges, key among them the provision of free primary school education. The job fell to the math wizard, Mwiraria, with Joseph Magari — and later Joseph Kinyua — as PS. Kibaki had worked with both men when he was Finance Minister. He knew their abilities and could trust them to understand his philosophy and get the job done.
Mwiraria’s first budget hit the KES 1 trillion mark. It was a mind-boggling figure. Sceptics, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank officials whom he reportedly threw out of his office when asked to check his budget before he could present it in Parliament, wondered where the colossal amounts of cash would come from. But with Michael Waweru, another trusted Kibaki confidant, as Commissioner General, KRA underwent massive reforms and sealed the leaking taps. ‘Tulipe Ushuru Tujitegemee’ became a national war cry and the number of registered taxpayers rose exponentially. In short, Kenya was able to finance that colossal budget from internal revenues.
Mwiraria, the prudent bean counter, was in his element. He stabilised Kenya’s fluctuating interest rates, zero-rated computers to boost ICT development, allocated massive funds for an undersea fibre optic project, instilled financial discipline in government and overhauled the pensions sector. He also concentrated on the basics — reducing government borrowing from commercial banks, forcing them to turn to ordinary Kenyans with loan offers. These measures were a game changer. Kenya suddenly became a huge construction site. The government was carrying out massive infrastructure development projects, wananchi (citizens) were borrowing money from banks and investing in real estate and all manner of businesses. The economic boom was not only reflected in the data streaming out the Treasury but the spring with which Kenyans strutted on the street — a spring that signified a change of fortunes, hope and money in the pocket.
It is instructive to note that Mwiraria, the bespectacled mathematician achieved this in only four years — before the Anglo Leasing demons came calling. But so firm was the foundation he had laid, with assistant ministers Mutua Katuku, Peter Kenneth and Zadock Syongoh, that despite the disruptions associated with the 2007–2008 post-election violence, which shrank economic growth back to KANU government times, the economy had leapt from KES 1 trillion in 2002 to KES 3 trillion in 2013 when Kibaki left office.
Mwiraria served the brief remainder of his time in Cabinet as Environment Minister. He lost at the polls in 2007, whereupon Kibaki appointed him Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service Board of Trustees. Coincidentally, few Kenyans know that Mwiraria was intimately familiar with the Service, having helped established the organisation’s financial management systems in the late 1980s. His retirement was, however, rudely disrupted when he was charged along with nine others in 2015 for corruption related to the Anglo Leasing scandal. Mwiraria pleaded no to the charges from a hospital bed.
Two years later, Mwiraria died. A reading of his will reveals not the massive wealth expected of a corrupt mogul, but a tidy estate built over decades with a bean counter’s frugality and prudence. A stickler for detail, the will even set aside money for his funeral. For those who knew him personally and Kenyans who had followed his career in public service, there was, however, a sense of injustice about his death: that Mwiraria would never rest in peace because he died before arguing out his case about the Anglo Leasing scandal in court. “Let us all put pressure on the investigative agencies to fully investigate Anglo Leasing, arrest and charge the real culprits. If people had not played politics, Mwiraria would not have been prosecuted and probably he would be alive today,” Uhuru Kenyatta, who was Official Leader of Opposition when the scandal erupted, said.
Was Mwiraria guilty? That will never be known. Be that as it may, the matter of David Mwiraria versus the Republic will forever remain an injustice because his was a case of justice delayed and justice denied.