Amos Kimunya – The comeback kid

In 2002, a Finance prodigy made an important decision. He would make a move from the private sector where he was already excelling and throw his hat into the political arena. Perhaps he needed the challenge, perhaps he realized his talents could benefit his country; whatever the case, in the year he turned 40, Amos Muhinga Kimunya was in the race, seeking to represent Kipipiri Constituency in Parliament.

Kipipiri made sense; it was where he had always called home, for although Kimunya was born in Kiambu, his parents had made the move to Nyandarua County (then Nyandarua District) and made a home there. It was there that a young Kimunya had studied until his ‘O’ levels, which he completed at Njabini High School before venturing out beyond his childhood home for further studies. And study he would, for it is clear his resolve regarding matters education was singular. No wonder he went all the way to PhD level.

But now back to Kipipiri in 2002, in a Constituency that wasn’t getting left behind now that the new dispensation had finally arrived. These were heady times for Kenya. Although the second liberation had begun in December 1991 with the repeal of Section 2(A) of the Kenya Constitution essentially re-introducing multiparty politics, the country was about to taste the fruits of that victory. The election of Mwai Kibaki, who was taking over from Moi’s 24-year reign was accompanied by great hope and jubilation. NARC was the vehicle in which Kibaki had arrived at the top seat, and it was the very same vehicle in which the nascent Member of Parliament for Kipipiri landed.

It was Economics Genius meets Finance Prodigy moment. Kibaki had graduated top of his class at Makerere in 1955 before heading to the London School of Economics. Kimunya would be the top student in his class when he received his Global Executive Masters of Business Administration (GEMBA) from USIU in 2014.

“You have asked me to lead this nation out of the present wilderness and malaise onto the Promised Land. And I shall,” Kibaki promised when he took office, just days after his inauguration, as he outlined his goals―key among them, economic reconstruction.

The Commander had spoken. But he would need some Generals.

And when Kibaki’s first Cabinet was announced in 2003, Kimunya made it to the list as Minister for Lands and Settlement. Completing this team in this Ministry were Assistant Minister Orwa Ojode and Permanent Secretary Francis Baya. In 2005 when the Ministry was reconstituted as the Ministry of Lands and Housing, from the original team, only Kimunya remained as Minister, with a new team of Assistant Minister for Lands Asman Kamama, Assistant Minister for Housing Betty Tett, and Permanent Secretary Stephen Mwero. Among Kimunya’s accomplishments in this first cabinet post, he enabled squatters in Geta area in his Kipipiri constituency to acquire and settle on their own land.

Lands has never been a light docket given the keen—if inordinately enormous —significance placed on land ownership by Kenyans. And it would not be light one for Kimunya either. As Minister for Lands, he was responsible for dealing with a particularly sensitive matter―the eviction of residents of the Mau Forest. Kimunya canceled 10,000 land titles for parcels in the forest after the Ndung’u Report termed the land allocations illegal and recommended their revocation.

The forced eviction from the forest in the government’s attempt to save the country’s largest water tower has spanned decades, beginning in 2004 and still ongoing in 2020. It has resulted in the displacement of thousands of families, including the predominantly hunter gatherer Ogiek community. The Mau evictions were a matter of international concern, involving a coalition of national and international human rights organizations. Forced evictions have been described as a “gross violation of human rights” by the former UN Human Rights Commission (now the Human Rights Council). In 2017, a landmark ruling by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights affirmed the Ogiek’s right to live in the forest.

In 2006, Kimunya was appointed Minister for Finance, a crucial Ministry in light of Kibaki’s goal to resuscitate the economy. Finance was a Ministry Kibaki knew exceedingly well, having served as Finance Minister himself in both the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi governments from 1969 to 1982. This made Kibaki the longest serving, and arguably the best performing Minister in that docket. Hence, Kimunya’s appointment to the Finance Ministry was all the more poignant because it was made by Kibaki.

What was it that Kibaki saw in Kimunya, that he would trust the Parliament first-timer with such a critical Ministry? Did he see something of himself? No doubt, there were some things in common. Like the understanding of matters finance. Kimunya had excelled academically, and besides, had solid work experience in the development sector, with special emphasis on financial management.

Like Kibaki, Kimunya was from a humble background and stood out on his own merit. He had attended Njabini and Shimo La Tewa High Schools solid but not top schools and he had excelled regardless; a trait that seemed to run in the family. Kimunya has said that his late father, Samuel Kimunya “did not attend any school, yet he read the papers, spoke fairly good English, and documented his entire life of 85 years.”

Then there was their shared passion for golf. Kibaki, has been the Patron of the Kenya Golf Union for decades and an avid player for much longer. His former caddy, who carried his clubs for ten years, says that Kibaki played 9 holes every day, back before his accident and before he was elected president. Kibaki was inducted into the Kenya Open Golf Limited Hall of Fame in 2018 for his significant contribution to the sport. Kimunya is not only an avid golfer, but a talented one as well. A former team captain and chairman at Muthaiga Golf Club, he would have rubbed shoulders with Kibaki there over the years.

But there was more. Like Kibaki, Kimunya’s style was understated. Less-talk-more-work. He was performance-oriented.

Kimunya’s performed well in the Finance Ministry. With his team of Assistant Minister Oburu Odinga and Permanent Secretary Joseph Kinyua, he maintained the economic growth that Kenya had enjoyed since Kibaki took the reins in 2002. He presided over the privatisation of Telkom Kenya, concluded successfully in November 2007 with the sale of a 51% share to France Telecom.

Kimunya also directed the Safaricom IPO, Kenya’s biggest share offering, which was launched in March 2008, standing firm to move ahead despite a recommendation by the Parliamentary Investments Committee to shelve it. The IPO was massively oversubscribed, bringing a ray of hope to a nation that had staggered under the shock of post election violence. And although the shares initially declined in value, investors who held on reaped the benefits of record highs in the long term.

Earnest about economic growth, Kimunya earned himself some opposition from among his colleagues for another reason. He was the first Finance Minister in Kenya’s history to suggest that his colleagues in parliament pay tax on their allowances. He first broached the matter in his inaugural Budget Speech in 2006―as a request―and was summarily rebuffed. But he was determined. It simply made sense. So in June 2008 the proposal was back in his Budget Speech.

“The other interesting item which I expect to get more comments on from honourable Members, as we discuss these tax proposals, is the issue that touches on all of us here, which is the taxation of the allowances that are paid to us as honourable members and constitutional office holders. In effect, we are saying that nobody in Kenya, from the President to the lowest paid public officer, will be exempted from the national duty of paying their taxes,” said Kimunya on June 26 that year, during debate on the budget.

But before the tax on MPs matters could find a resolution, a storm hit.

Kimunya may not have been looking for the limelight, but it found him. The Finance Ministry is not one that lends itself easily to obscurity. Indeed Kimunya had been appointed to the Ministry in the aftermath of the mega Anglo-Leasing Scandal that had seen his predecessor, David Mwiraria, resign from the post.

And now Kimunya was in the eye of another huge storm. Named in a scandal involving the sale of the government-owned Grand Regency Hotel at far below its value, he denied any wrongdoing and, amidst calls for his resignation, declared that he would “rather die than resign.” However, within two days of his statement, he did in fact resign. Parliament had already passed a vote of no confidence in him and, caught between swallowing his words and waiting to be fired, on July 8, 2008 he made the difficult announcement that he was stepping aside to facilitate the inquiry. He, however, maintained that he was innocent.

It may have looked like the end for Kimunya ― censured by the House, forced to swallow his words and resign from his Cabinet position. But he had more than one life. Kimunya was cleared of wrongdoing by an independent commission in August that same year, and by January 2009 he had been re-appointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Trade in an acting capacity, a position he held until 2010 when he was appointed Minister for Transport.

Kimunya had made his debut into politics as Kipipiri MP in 2002, and had held that seat for ten years. Then the unexpected happened. He lost Kipipiri in 2013 to Samuel Gichigi, who had previously campaigned for him. Kimunya had come in at the beginning of the Kibaki era, and now he seemed to be exiting with it.

Kipipiri Constituency, along with sister constituencies Kinangop, Ol Kalau, Ol Joro Jok and Ndaragwa, make up Nyandarua County, scenic home of the rolling Aberdare Ranges. Indeed the ranges themselves gave the name to the county, a reference to the hills that resemble hides laid out to dry in the sun; until colonialists changed the name in honor of a Lord Aberdare. Rich soil and plentiful rainfall makes Nyandarua a serious bread basket where potatoes, cabbage, maize and beans abound. Good, healthy, simple food. Nothing out of the ordinary. Still, Nyandarua has some surprises to offer. Like hikers paradise Mt Kipipiri and beautiful Lake Ol Bollosat, the only Lake in Central Kenya; one that forms the headwaters for River Ewaso Nyiro.

High up in the Aberdares, six or seven caves that served as operational bases for Mau Mau fighters are now a tourist attraction. The cave walls protected the fighters by repelling colonialists’ bullets, and gave them shelter from the ice-cold winds. Wild fruits in the brush land and honey from wild bees supplemented their diet.

Whether from caves such as these or elsewhere, freedom fighters across the country struggled to wrest the country from the claws of colonialists. And Amos Kimunya’s father, Mzee Samuel Kimunya Gikang’a, was one of these brave men, an active freedom fighter who fought for Kenya’s independence. In Kibaki’s condolence message at Mzee Kimunya’s funeral service in July 2011, he said of him: “I am proud of the contribution he made for this country and in particular for the struggle for our independence.”

When he relocated his family to what was then Nyndarua District, Mzee Kimunya couldn’t possibly have imagined that his son, just a boy then, would one day represent one of its constituencies in parliament for more than a decade. The people of Kipipiri did indeed place their hopes in Kimunya time and again, perhaps recognising in him some great qualities.

That the Constituency lagged in infrastructure development, despite Kimunya’s indubitable expertise in matters management and development is a paradox. The constituency’s roads have been a letdown to farmers seeking to get their produce to market. The ample rainfall that is a blessing to the farmers unfortunately also renders some roads which are in disrepair impassable, affecting access to schools and hospitals.

Until 2013, Kenya’s Cabinet Ministers were picked from among elected Members of Parliament and proceeded to serve in both capacities. This was the case for Kimunya, who served in various Cabinet positions during the ten years begining in 2002 that he was the elected representative for Kipipiri. Under the 2010 Constitution, Cabinet Secretaries (who replaced Cabinet Ministers) may not be Members of Parliament. They are nominated professionals who have to be vetted by a parliamentary committee before their appointment. Perhaps there is great wisdom in this change, which took effect in 2013. Cabinet Ministers prior to this had two jobs to do, and may have struggled to do both effectively.

At any rate, in 2013 Kimunya was out of Cabinet and out of parliament. But he was not at a loose end. There was an issue he had become particularly passionate about during his ten years as Kipipipiri Member of Parliament. He and his wife Lucy realised that there were many bright but economically and socially disadvantaged children who lacked access to quality education. They registered the Kimunya Trust and began sponsoring children through High School using funds from family income and occasional wellwishers. For three years they also sponsored a two-week tuition and mentoring programme that benefited hundreds of Form 4 candidates from schools in Kipipiri, all of whom later joined various universities.

Now Kimunya was out of public office, he had the opportunity to focus on serving his community by helping young people get a good education.

“It is clear that as a country, we have shifted our attitudes and expectations of leadership, away from the noble goals of service to mankind,” Kimunya has written on the website for the school which was born of the passion he and his wife had developed for education. The goal of the Foothills School Kipipiri is to provide quality education and servant leadership skills to boys regardless of their social and economic background.

In 2017, Kimunya was re-elected as Member of Parliament for Kipipiri on a Jubilee Party ticket. He was back! They say it never rains but it pours; Kimunya had had his share of rain. But now it seemed the season was turning for him and the sunshine was getting warmer. Kimunya, had been appointed vice chair of the House education committee, a fitting appointment given his interest and experience in the field. Then on June 2, 2020 in a Parliamentary Group Meeting at State House, Kimunya was appointed Secretary of the Jubilee Coalition Joint Parliamentary Group. And just 20 days later, at another Jubilee Parliamentary Group meeting chaired by President Uhuru, he was appointed Leader of the Majority Party in the National Assembly, taking over from Aden Duale, who had held the position for eight years.

Amos Muhinga Kimunya truly is the comeback kid―a seasoned politician who has weathered political storms and repeatedly returned from the edge, victorious. His poise, experience and proven abilities have shone through, making him an unmistakable pick, first by Kibaki and now by Uhuru.

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