“You are joking. You are crazy, obviously!” These were the words of a small town businesswoman back in 1992, when the subject of stepping into the world of politics was first broached to her. Who would have thought that just a few years later, she would not only be a seasoned politician, but the very first Kenyan woman ever to throw her hat into the ring for the presidential race at the heady start of multiparty politics?
When Charity Kaluki Ngilu ran for President in 1997, she and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai became the first Kenyan women to do more than just dream about such a thing. Internationally, women icons such as India’s Indira Gandhi, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto had ascended to the top seat, but Kenyan women were still testing the waters. At the time, there was just one woman in the Cabinet, Nyiva Mwendwa, who had been appointed to the Ministry of Culture and Social Services in 1995, becoming the first female Cabinet Minister in Kenya. Coincidentally, Mwendwa is also from Kitui and an alumnus of Alliance Girls High School. Besides Mwendwa there was only a handful of women in Parliament. Indeed, the country’s history boasted few women in powerful positions; women like mayors Grace Onyango and Margaret Kenyatta, who were exceptions to the rule. And now the possibility of a woman president hung on ‘Mama Rainbow’, as Kenyans had dubbed Ngilu, a reference to her National Rainbow Coalition party.
Running for president took formidable courage. Just days after she announced her candidacy, Ngilu was attacked and wounded by machete-wielding thugs she believed to be youth wingers from the Kenya African National Union (KANU). That was after speaking at a political rally. Later she received a threatening phone call from someone who said, “So, you are still running for this after what happened on Saturday,” Ngilu said in a New York Times interview in 1998. But she was a woman with a dream. She wanted to see Kenya liberated from the Moi era security laws, and a new Constitution in place that would give the president less power, and create a system of checks and balances. ‘’Presidents are to serve and not to be served. I am demystifying that office,’’ she said. She was unsuccessful in her bid, taking 5th position out of 15 candidates in the race with 469,807 votes. This was not a minor accomplishment given the times and the formidable opponents she faced, who included the sitting president, Daniel Arap Moi, who had been in power all of 20 years, and political giants such as Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga and Michael Wamalwa.
It may have been a loss at the polls, but Ngilu’s attempt was a win for Kenyan women and girls. It dared them to hope, and showed them how. This may have planted a seed in Kenyan women that year that began to sprout, and finally matured in 2017, two decades after Ngilu’s presidential candidacy, when a record number of women won various seats in the elections. They included the first three women governors and the first three women senators in Kenya’s history. Ngilu was among the three governors. Besides, 22 women were elected to the National Assembly. Although the two-thirds gender constitutional requirement was yet to be met, with women accounting for just 23 per cent of the National Assembly and Senate, it is a giant leap forward from the handful of women in the National Assembly when Ngilu ran for President in 1997.
“You are joking. You are crazy, obviously,” had been Ngilu’s response to the women who had first approached her with the request to run for the position. The mother of three explained in the New York Times interview that she had been washing dishes, her mind on matters domestic, when the women approached her, so she was clearly taken aback. But it turned out they were not crazy after all, as Ngilu, once she had wrapped her mind around their request and acceded, went ahead to win a Parliamentary seat. It was 1992 and Kenya would never be the same again. The country had transitioned to a multiparty system the previous year. The first multiparty elections were coming up at the end of the year, on 29 December, postponed from 7 December. But the country had waited this long; what was a few more weeks? It was an important first for Ngilu, running for her debut term in Parliament under Mwai Kibaki’s opposition Democratic Party (DP). And she won, not just that first election, but every single one after that, representing Kitui Central Constituency in Parliament until 2013 when she ran for and was elected Governor of Kitui County. As to the presidential race, KANU under President Moi, would win that and the next one, amidst much dissension, but Kenya now had a fledgling opposition in Parliament, and Ngilu was among them.
In 2002, when Mwai Kibaki was elected President, he picked his first Cabinet with great care, for he had important development goals to achieve and promises to keep.
The Health Ministry was Ngilu’s first appointment in the Kibaki Cabinet in 2002 with Gideon Konchella as Assistant Minister and Joseph Meme as Permanent Secretary (PS). Ngilu’s appointment to that ministry was renewed for a second term in 2005, this time with Assistant Minister for Medical Services Wilfred Machage and Assistant Minister for Public Health Samuel Moroto. PS Hezron Nyagito — an excellent economist who later became Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya — completed the team.
Ngilu’s interest in healthcare goes back to before her days as a politician, when she helped fundraise in Kitui for local clinics to provide basic health services. This was one of the projects that had endeared her constituents to her and caused them to seek her out as their representative. Why the health portfolio for Ngilu, who had no medical background? President Kibaki, himself an economist, had served in this very ministry from 1988 to 1991, at a time when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was at its height. Kibaki therefore had first-hand understanding of what qualities were needed in a health minister. Putting a woman at the helm of health was a strategic decision that served to refocus the ministry to women’s healthcare, which was in dire need of attention. Besides, Ngilu’s background enabled her to understand the struggles of ordinary people in obtaining health care. One of her ambitions as Minister for Health was to achieve universal health care for the country, an ambition she unfortunately failed to achieve, but one she is achieving now for Kitui County. The Kitui County Health Insurance Cover (K-CHIC), launched in 2018, is a subsidised health insurance cover that seeks to provide healthcare services to all residents and visitors in the county. After serving two terms in the Health Ministry, Ngilu was appointed Minister for Water and Irrigation in 2008.
Kitui County, whose slogan is ‘the land of untapped abundance’ is one of those places where the value of water is more than just a passing thought. Kitui is in a semi-arid area 170 km to the south-east of Nairobi City. Access to water is a major challenge in this hot, drought-prone county. Born and raised in Kitui, Ngilu grew up fully appreciating the importance of water, the precious commodity that had to be fetched and ferried long distances. She personally experienced the weight of a barrel of water numerous times as a girl. She had worn the shoe, walked in it and knew where it pinched. No wonder she was already raising money to build wells and water systems to bring water closer to homes even before she ventured into politics. Ngilu has said that transformational leadership “is about ensuring that water goes to find women nearer their homes, not women walking to find water far away from their homes”.
Running for president took formidable courage. Just days after she announced her candidacy, Ngilu was attacked and wounded by machete-wielding thugs she believed to be youth wingers from KANU
When President Kibaki appointed Ngilu as the Water Minister, he found a lieutenant who was and had been passionate about the commodity and its provision for a long time. To an undiscerning observer, the water appointment after Ngilu’s previous position in the Ministry of Health might seem like a great change. But water is as closely linked to health as it is to agriculture. In the absence of adequate and clean water, diseases like typhoid and cholera are merciless killers, as is diarrhoea, which “remains a leading killer of young children”, according to UNICEF. With this in mind, the person placed at the helm of water management in the country would literally be responsible for saving lives. Ngilu’s first-hand experience with water scarcity placed her in a good position to tackle the issue.
As the person responsible for the Water docket, Ngilu formed a team with Assistant Minister Mwangi Kiunjuri and PS David Stower. It was during Kibaki’s presidency that a major change was made to the management of water supply. Until then, the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation and a few local utilities had been solely responsible for the water supply in the whole country. This changed, through Water Act No. 8 of 2002, when the responsibility for water supply was devolved to 91 local water service providers (WSPs) linked to 8 regional water services boards (WSBs). The Act also created a national regulatory board to monitor performance. This clear separation of policy making, regulation and service provision significantly improved water resources management and water services delivery in the country.
Recall Ngilu’s dream when she had run for President in 1992? She had wanted to help bring about constitutional reforms such as reduction of presidential powers. But her presidential bid failed. Now in 2010, her dreams of participating in constitutional reform were realised with the promulgation of the Kenya Constitution 2010. Among the outstanding reforms was the inclusion of the right to clean and safe water in adequate quantities in the Bill of Rights. As Minister for Water and Irrigation, it now fell squarely upon Ngilu and her team to make this a reality. But nobody is invincible. Unfortunately, the Water Ministry was hit by a corruption scandal during her tenure, with Ngilu and her assistant trading bitter allegations. Indeed, corruption allegations have plagued Ngilu throughout her tenure in Parliament and even as Governor of Kitui. Her final Cabinet appointment in 2013 to the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, by President Uhuru Kenyatta, actually ended early due to a land scandal that resulted in her suspension and later with her being charged with obstructing investigations, alongside seven other people. Ngilu was cleared in March 2017 when the anti- corruption court withdrew the charges against her.
It has not been an easy political run for Ngilu. She has certainly had her ups and downs, but although she may have been bent now and again, she has not been crushed or broken. She continues to carry herself with the same dignity and courage as when she took her first steps into the public eye.
What makes her tick? Ngilu’s values are evident in her Twitter profile, which reads: ‘Proud Mother and Grandmother,’ before it makes reference to ‘Governor of Kitui County’. Family first. Her dignified manner and earnest expression affirm this. She strikes the image of a woman upon whom girls can model themselves and her accomplishments back her up.
One of the things that makes Ngilu such an awesome role model for girls is that she grew up in a humble home. Who are the parents that raised the little girl that would grow up to be the first woman to run for President of Kenya? Ngilu was the 9th of 13 children raised by a father who was a Christian church minister and a mother who fulfilled the traditional role of a stay-at-home mother and wife. It was here that she learnt the value of family that has stood the test of time. Perhaps it was here too that she learnt how to stand up for herself. Ngilu has said that her father taught her how to stand up for her beliefs (1997 New York Times interview). At any rate, any child who has grown up amongst the younger of more than 10 siblings learns how to stand up for herself. And Ngilu is no pushover.
It takes a strong woman to thrive in the male-dominated world of politics; and thrive she has. Indeed, she has a bit of a fiery side, which has come to the fore on more than one occasion, when provoked. During her run for president, when she found a KANU official trying to disqualify some Kitui Central voters, she confronted him, grabbing him by the lapels. The next day the headlines read: ‘Ngilu Beats Up Official’. In 2018 she landed herself in hot water when a charcoal trade lorry was burnt by youths in Kitui after she made a public remark telling her audience to burn lorries found ferrying charcoal in her county. Ngilu had banned charcoal trade in the county in an attempt to save the sparse forest cover left.
The last word on Ngilu perhaps, is ‘passion’. No one can deny that she is passionate about her work, passionate about helping the less fortunate, passionate about development. It was her passion for development that pushed her into politics, that propelled her through her years as a member of the Cabinet, and that keeps her working to tap Kitui County’s untapped abundance.