Beth Wambui Mugo is an early inductee to the inner sanctums of power, as she was a favourite of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. She clearly stayed the course, becoming Nairobi’s first ever woman Member of Parliament (MP) in 1997.
Before her foray into politics, where she left ineradicable mark in human rights, and in the education and health sectors, Mugo excelled in the fields of business, social justice, women’s empowerment and mass media. She served as headmistress at Kiganjo Primary School from 1958 to 1959, before joining Voice of Kenya Television, now the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, where she held various top positions between 1964 and 1970.
In 1972, in partnership with others, Mugo and her husband, Nicholas Muratha Mugo, established Beth Ltd, a company dealing with jewellery and African artefacts. The business is still operational. Her knack for business would later land her a post as an executive director at Hobby Hotels and other directorship roles in the private sector.
Mugo, a breast cancer survivor, embodies stoicism, resilience and unyielding pursuit for women’s empowerment
At the time most leadership positions in Kenya were held almost exclusively by men. Mugo’s quest to challenge the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources saw her serve as a director of the Kenya Women Finance Trust, a national outfit committed to providing easy business loans to women. Mugo, a breast cancer survivor, embodies stoicism, resilience and unyielding pursuit for women’s empowerment. Perhaps these traits earned her a Cabinet post in President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. Being a public figure, she was the second, after professor Anyang Nyong’o, to disclose publicly her cancer diagnosis. Mugo is not one to back down from a good fight. She is the woman President Kibaki entrusted with checking the tobacco industry, through the implementation of the Tobacco Control Act in 2008.
As the Public Health and Sanitation Minister, while overseeing the enactment of the Act to control smoking, she would later urge the Finance Ministry to formulate a tobacco taxation policy that would ensure annual increments in tobacco taxation. “This will provide price elasticity to motivate smokers to quit and deter those who intend to start smoking,” she said at the time.
The Act made smoking illegal in public places ranging from disco halls, cinemas, offices, hospitals, factories, bars and eateries to shopping malls, public transport and residential houses. The Act also saw the introduction of regulations already existent in most of the Western world, such as pictorial and text warnings on cigarette packets and designated smoking areas in public places. It also addressed the prohibition of tobacco promotion, advertising and sponsorship.
Her outwardly calm demeanour conceals steely fortitude. Mugo is an active member of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), St. Andrews Church, Nairobi, where she is also a member of the Women’s Guild. She is the mother of three daughters and one son. The first child in a family of 12, Mugo was born to James Muigai Ngengi and Minneh Ngina Muigai at Ichaweri Village, Gatundu, Kiambu County. She lived with her parents and siblings in an extended family that included the founding father of Kenya, Mzee Kenyatta.
Mugo pursued her elementary education at Kahugu-ini and Ng’enda Primary schools in the present-day Gatundu South Constituency before proceeding to Mambere in Kikuyu, Kiambu County. She joined Kambui Teachers College in 1956 where she acquired a National Teachers’ Certificate in 1957. In 1959, following her marriage, Mugo left for the USA to pursue further education. She was a beneficiary of the Airlift Africa project, pioneered by Tom Mboya and Julius Gikonyo Kiano in collaboration with the former President of the United States, J.F. Kennedy.
While in the US, Mugo studied for a Diploma in Business Management from Goldey Beacom College, Delaware. Much later in 2005, while serving as an Assistant Minister for Education, she went back to the USA for study for an Executive Education Programme at Harvard University. The programme specialised in ‘Leadership and Development in Managing Political and Economic Reform’.
Her passion for women’s empowerment is apparent in her career, even before she became a politician. In 1985 Mugo became the Founder Chairperson of the Kenya Business and Professional Women’s Club (KBPWC), the Kenya Chapter of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women. During her tenure, she founded 11 branches across the country. She also initiated a programme to empower businesswomen with management skills in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO). “Through this programme women learnt business skills and also found a platform for networking. Our objectives were to promote the interests of business and professional women. This went hand in hand with promoting education for girls and women and championing for equality and equal opportunities for women in the economic, civil and political life among others,” she explains.
In an effort to promote these objectives, Mugo led a delegation of 26 members drawn from all KBPWC branches in the country to the 18th International Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW) congress at The Hague in August 1987. During this congress she was re-elected the African Region Coordinator, for another two years. Kenya was also voted to host the 1991 IFBPW congress. This is how in 1991, Mugo hosted the congress of the IFBPW, which was the first ever to be held in Africa. Between 1989 and 1993 she served as the Vice President of the IFBPW and as UN Liaison Officer (IFBPW Ambassador to the UN). Her winning streak in women’s empowerment did not fizzle out. In 1994 Mugo was elected President of the Council for Economic Empowerment of Women in Africa (CEEWA) in Dakar, Senegal. CEEWA is a regional non-governmental organisation that campaigns for the economic justice of women, by advocating for the mainstreaming and inclusion of gender-friendly frameworks into policies. Indeed, under her leadership, CEEWA prepared one of the key thematic areas for the 1995 World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995, the Economic Empowerment.
In joining politics, she yearned to further her strong advocacy for democratic governance which upholds ‘human rights and fundamental values of life’. Her first attempt to join Parliament was in 1992 under the umbrella of Kibaki’s party, the Democratic Party (DP), of which she was one of the founder members and the only woman in the interim National Executive Committee (NEC) when DP was founded. However, during the 1992 elections there was strong support for the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Asili (FORD–Asili) party in Nairobi and Central Kenya. She did not make it to Parliament that year. In the 1997 General Election she contested on a Social Democratic Party (SDP) ticket, a party whose Presidential candidate was Charity Ngilu. Although the rest of Nairobi was united under DP, she won the Dagoretti Parliamentary seat with a landslide, becoming the first woman to be elected to Parliament in Kenya’s capital.
The 1997 elections culminated in a record nine women MPs. However, this was a paltry 0.04% women representation in a male-dominated house comprising 222 members. Women MPs came together and established the Kenya Women Parliamentary Group. The founding chairperson for the group was Mugo while the Secretary and the Treasurer were Martha Karua and Grace Mwewa respectively. “The main objectives were to champion for increased women representation in elective offices and the top decision making levels of governance and agitate for the rights of women, especially towards the elimination of retrogressive cultural practices such as Female Gender Mutilation (FGM) and forced early marriages for girls,” she explains.
In 2002 the whole country was united under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). However, before the birth of NARC, she was a key player in The National Alliance of Kenya (NAK) that changed its name to the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAPK). Some of the SDP strategy meetings that supported the National Alliance were held in her private office. She was again overwhelmingly elected to Parliament in 2002 on a NARC ticket and appointed an Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife. She was later moved to the Ministry of Education as an Assistant Minister in Charge of Basic Education. The NARC government had been elected on a platform of providing Free Primary Education and the roll out of this programme resulted in an increase in primary school enrolment by one million children. She successfully defended her Parliamentary seat on a Party of National Unity (PNU) ticket in 2007. John Kiare, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) candidate, filed a petition against her re-election. In his petition, Kiarie had contended that Mugo, S.K. Njuguna, the returning officer for Dagoretti and the Electoral Commission of Kenya had committed several electoral breaches and malpractices during the Parliamentary elections in Dagoretti Constituency. The petition was later dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence with the court ruling that voting and counting of votes at the polling stations was free and fair.
After elections, Kibaki named her Cabinet Minister for Public Health and Sanitation in the Government of National Unity. Her last position in PNU was the National chairperson of the PNU Women Committee and the Patron of the PNU Alliance that brought together PNU, Kalonzo Musyoka’s ODM-Kenya and other PNU affiliate parties in the coalition government. After the disputed 2007 General Election, the country was plunged into unprecedented post-election violence that took international mediation to resolve. The mediation was led by the former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan together with other eminent Africans, among them Graça Machel and President Benjamin Mpaka. At the end of the political mediation, the coalition Government of National Unity was formed in which Cabinet members were drawn from across the political divide. “This is how I landed a Cabinet position,” Mugo said.
When she was appointed to the Cabinet her first Permanent Secretary (PS) was James Nyikal who previously served as the Director of Medical Services. However, the PS lasted in that Ministry for just a couple of months before being moved to another docket. “The person I served with for the full term was Mark Bor, a career civil servant who aptly understood the workings of government. I had a very good working relationship my Permanent Secretary and our tenure was scandal-free and we were able to achieve a lot as articulated elsewhere”.
As Minister for Public Health and Sanitation, Mugo steered multiple initiatives aimed at disease prevention and control, reduction of maternal and child mortality and taking health services closer to the population. Some of the initiatives included rolling out a campaign against maternal mortality in Africa-Kenya Chapter, and construction of model health centres in every rural constituency, 200 in total, each containing a maternity and paediatric ward.
Other outstanding achievements at the Health Ministry included the introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine into the routine immunisation schedule, introduction of affordable medicines for malaria, home-based counselling and testing of HIV and other unconventional testing initiatives like moonlight testing aimed at counselling and testing commercial sex workers by night. During her tenure as Minister for Public Health and Sanitation, Kenya was twice awarded the Karen Styblo award for tuberculosis (TB) control and the ALMA award for banning monotherapies and eliminating tariffs and taxes on malaria commodities.
As a Minister, Mugo held international portfolios of repute. She leveraged this international network to implement projects dear to her in her ministerial positions. For example, between 2011 and 2012, she was the Chairperson of the East Central and Southern Africa Health Community (ECSA) which comprises 10 member states and 2 observers. This is a regional body of Commonwealth countries in the Africa region that sought to harmonise health policies and systems to enable the region to lobby for health resolutions at global forums that are beneficial to Member States.
Mugo also served as the representative for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) countries on the Roll Back Malaria Partnership Board. As a Board member representing a malaria endemic region, she successfully sponsored a Board resolution to support local manufacturing of malaria medicines and commodities in endemic and poor countries in order to bring down the costs of medical commodities and provide employment opportunities for local communities. She was also the co-chair of the inaugural Board of the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics initiative (ANDi). This World Health Organization (WHO) initiative promotes, with the aim of sustaining, African-led product research and development innovation through the discovery, development and delivery of affordable new tools, including those based on traditional medicines. From 2009 Mugo lobbied African Ministers of Health to embrace the ANDi initiative by hosting side meetings at the World Health Assemblies. In January 2011 the ANDI Board was launched and Mugo was unanimously elected to chair it. ANDi has two co-chairs, a move which was aimed at bringing together the health sectors and science and technology sectors of Africa.
During Mugo’s tenure in the Health docket, there was a rapid scale up of interventions to address major causes of ill health and death, particularly for mothers and children with the support of partners such as the Global Fund. She happens to be a member of the Policy and Strategy Committee of the Global Fund Board, representing Eastern and Southern Africa Constituency of the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria. The Global Fund is a, public-private partnership and international financing institution dedicated to attracting and disbursing additional resources to prevent and treat HIV and AIDS, TB and malaria. From May 2011 to 2012, she served in the Policy and Strategy Committee (PSC) of the Global Fund Board. The PSC is responsible for Strategy Development and formulating policies for Governance by the Board which is the supreme oversight organ of the Global Fund. From May 2009 to May 2011, Mugo was the alternate Board Member for the Eastern and Southern Africa Region on the Global Fund Board. It was during this period that the Global Fund was facing funding constraints and the Board Secretariat requested Mugo to lobby the European governments through the European Union Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, not to withdraw funding from the Global Fund, a role she successfully accomplished.
People think we were born with a silver spoon in our mouths just because we arem from the Kenyatta’s family. It’s by God’s grace and hard work that we are where we are. We did casual jobs in US. I washed dishes while Nick was a gardener.” Though her achievements, both local and international, have had far reaching impacts on Kenyan families while empowering Kenyan women, she is always keen to point out that her journey has had its own vicissitudes. In a past interview with a local newspaper she narrated, “people think we were born with a silver spoon in our mouths just because we are from the Kenyatta’s family. It’s by God’s grace and hard work that we are where we are. We did casual jobs in US. I washed dishes while Nick was a gardener. We have grown together from one level to another. No favours or anything of sort.”