Chirau Ali Mwakwere – The magniloquent ‘shark’

A political player par excellence, Chirau Ali Mwakwere was one of the most colourful and humorous personalities in President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. The politician from Kwale County in the coastal region was known to tickle his listeners, including the President, to the point of tears through his dramatic oratory.

Beyond his moving power of speech, analysts point to Mwakwere’s rich education, long career in public service and willingness to confront government critics as important political assets that attracted him to Kibaki – to the extent that he was given key ministries to head, such as Foreign Affairs, Trade and Transport.

Yet his route to Kibaki’s inner sanctum was a circuitous one. As a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) whose leading lights – Raila Odinga, George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka and Joseph Kamotho – had left the KANU party in protest over former President Daniel arap Moi’s choice of Uhuru Kenyatta as his preferred successor, Mwakwere wasn’t among the obvious considerations for the Cabinet.

The LDP had many heavyweights who had joined hands with the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK) to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) that swept KANU out of power, and only a chosen few would make it to the Cabinet. On being elected MP for Matuga on his first attempt in 2002, Mwakwere was appointed Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs in Kibaki’s first Cabinet, deputising Musyoka.

But after just six months, ‘Zipapa’ (meaning big shark in the coastal Digo language) – as he is known in political circles – was appointed Minister for Labour and Human Resource Development. It was an opportunity for him to prove his mettle as he juggled demands from the trade unions without over-committing government resources. This was a delicate balancing act that always put him at odds with trade union leaders in the country.

He was behind the development of many of the current labour laws, which he believed even Francis Atwoli, Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, would acknowledge him for. Atwoli is known for having called for Mwakwere’s sacking on several occasions, accusing the Minister of sleeping on the job.

In June 2004, there were twists and turns within the ruling party that pushed Mwakwere into the inner circle. Following much bickering among some of the LDP heavyweights about alleged short-changing in the sharing of government positions, Musyoka was pushed to the less influential Ministry of Environment, leaving Mwakwere to head the Foreign Affairs docket. Zipapa, the big shark, was at home in the already charted waters of diplomacy where he had swum before as an ambassador and thrived.

In an interview, he talked about his tenure at Foreign Affairs, proudly counting the release of three Kenyan truck drivers who had been held hostage in Iraq among his biggest achievements. “We were the only country in Africa to manage the feat,” he claimed.

Mwakwere’s time as Minister for Foreign Affairs was probably the height of his political career. He represented the President at many high-level international events such as the funeral service of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in November 2004 in Cairo, Egypt, and the funeral of Pope Paul II in Rome in April 2005. Earlier in March 2005, he had the challenging task of recalling 70 diplomats from embassies abroad owing to the government’s cash-flow problems. He said the move saved the country USD 4.1 million, which was used to cover unpaid rent and salaries. At the time Kenya’s missions owed an estimated Ksh. 600 million.

But his biggest test was yet to come. In April 2008, Kibaki appointed Mwakwere Minister for Transport, replacing the no-nonsense John Michuki, who had introduced strict rules to tame the public service vehicle sector, especially the notorious matatus.

Many expected him to maintain the zeal Michuki had; instead matatu operators slid back into the familiar chaos that was characterised by careless driving and uncivil behaviour. As the chaos increased after the collapse of the safety regulations famously known as the “Michuki Rules”, Mwakwere dismissed the rising complaints, saying he was a Minister, not a traffic policeman, driver or conductor.

“If there is madness on the roads, I am not to blame,” he blurted out. He was at pains to explain that his critics were judging him on the basis of the so-called Michuki rules, whose implementation lay with other ministries.

“My predecessors, John Michuki and Chris Murungaru, put emphasis on transport regulations and privatisation of parastatals respectively, which was really a great job. But I have put stress on development of infrastructure, which my detractors have chosen to turn a blind eye to,” he told an interviewer at the height of the criticism of his track record.

He cited the development of the Mombasa port, the laying of a foundation for the Lamu port, the upgrading of Kisumu Airport to international status and revival of railway transport as some of his successes.

Away from ministerial duties, it was clear to keen observers that the former headmaster of Dr Krapf Memorial Secondary School and Dr Aggrey High School was an asset to President Kibaki in other ways. As a masterful orator, his salvos, often fired in Kiswahili, were as piercing as they were handy in defending the government which at the time was under constant criticism from Odinga and his group.

After a brief lull following the signing of the National Accord that handed Odinga the premiership and half of the Cabinet as part of the deal that quelled the post-election violence of 2007, the grumbling hit a crescendo, with the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party complaining of getting the short end of the stick at every turn.

Away from ministerial duties, it was clear to keen observers that the former headmaster of DrKrapf Memorial Secondary School and DrAggrey High School was an assett o President Kibaki in other ways

This is where Mwakwere came in – with Kibaki’s allies relying on the then Matuga MP to fend off the criticism. At the height of the protocol wars pitting Prime Minister Odinga against Vice President Musyoka concerning who should be the Official Leader of Government Business in the coalition government, Mwakwere never forgot which side of his bread was buttered.

“If all the PM wanted was a toilet, then he could as well have one built for him in every constituency he visited in the country,” the then Minister for Trade said in a blistering address that was aired by all the local television networks. Asked at the time why he spewed such choice vitriol at his age mate (both he and Odinga were born in 1945), Mwakwere boasted that he had better leadership qualities and longer experience in government than the PM.

“I am better presidential material than Raila. Cumulatively, I have served one year longer than him in government,” the father of two sons and a daughter responded before going on to enumerate his qualifications: He had worked as the KANU Deputy National Executive Officer for three years, earned his first degree in politics under the tutelage of Kenya’s second President, Daniel arap Moi, then as the High Commissioner to Zimbabwe for seven years, had President Robert Mugabe confer on him a master’s degree in politics before finally earning his doctorate degree under President Kibaki.

During his long stint in Harare, Mwakwere is understood to have charmed Mugabe, and the President had liked him back. The two would converse in Kiswahili and Shona, which are related languages, according to diplomats familiar with the camaraderie they shared.

Mwakwere’s jocularity was known to evoke outbursts of laughter from Kibaki while on the campaign trail, the great dancer of sengenya, a popular Digo traditional dance, was a crowd puller whose speeches were spiced with local proverbs.

“Young people call me Zipapa, a huge shark, while old men call me Mwinza Mukulu, the great hunter, hence my slogan Zipapa lamkani kutzacha kamata adui kamata (huge shark, arise it is dawn; get hold of the enemy, get hold), he said during an interview for this book.

Despite coming from Golini in Kwale, a remote part of the country, Mwakwere was one of the most educated members of Kibaki’s Cabinet, boasting a long and colourful curriculum vitae. Born in 1945, he attended Kwale Primary and Intermediate School from 1952 to 1959 before joining Shimo La Tewa High School from 1960 to 1963. Between 1964 and 1966 he studied education at Kenyatta College (which later became Kenyatta University).

After a teaching stint, the restless ‘hunter’ joined the University of Reading in the United Kingdom for a diploma in science, graduating in 1974 before proceeding to the University of Birmingham from 1974 to 1976 and graduating with a degree in education. From 1982 to 1986 he pursued a master’s degree in international transport and maritime studies at the University of Wales (Cardiff).

Other courses he studied included Master Trainer Programme from the University of Connecticut in the United States of America; Maritime Trainer’s Course from Singapore Polytechnic and Educational Management and Administration at Moray House College in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In 1987, Mwakwere became a member of the Chartered Institute of Transport, United Kingdom. From 1978 to 1979 he was the Political Secretary at the Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia before coming back home to be the pioneer principal of Bandari College in Mombasa, where he worked for 10 years until 1989.

It was after Bandari that he joined politics, becoming the Deputy National Executive Officer at the KANU National Secretariat from 1989 to June 1991. He then went into self-employment until June 1992, when he was appointed Kenya’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe until 1998. His posting came with accreditation to Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho.

From 1996 to 1997 Mwakwere was Kenya’s special envoy to the Great Lakes Region before becoming Kenya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates based in Abu Dhabi and accredited to Qatar, from 1998 to 2000.

On retiring from government service, Mwakwere took a job with a multinational corporation based in the Middle East as a director of business development for Africa.

It was with such a rich background in public and private service that Mwakwere tried his luck in politics – less than three months to the 2002 General Election – and won the Matuga Constituency seat. In 2007, he retained his seat on a Party of National Unity (PNU) ticket after his Shirikisho Party joined the outfit that Kibaki had formed to counter Odinga’s ODM.

Earlier, Mwakwere had led a group of Coast region politicians in declaring that Shirikisho Party would field a presidential candidate to advance the region’s quest for a federal system of government.

In 2010, a court nullified Mwakwere’s election, citing irregularities. He successfully defended his seat in the ensuing by-election and was appointed Minister for Trade. But barely a day after his appointment, he found himself in more problems with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, which accused him of engaging in hate speech during his campaigns.

“I am not aware of any hate speech by me. What I did was to respond to hate speeches,” he fired back at a press conference.

Mwakwere also headed the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources where he once again came under criticism for failing to maintain the standards set by Michuki.

In the run-up to the 2013 elections, he joined William Ruto’s United Republican Party and unsuccessfully contested the Kwale senatorial seat, losing to ODM’s Boy Juma Boy.

After another stint as ambassador – this time to Tanzania – Mwakwere went back to politics. In 2016, as heat for the 2017 General Election started gathering, he defected to ODM to contest the governorship against the incumbent, Salim Mvurya. The former Minister’s demand for a direct nomination from ODM was met with resistance from other aspirants within the party. Some of those opposed to his return to the Odinga fold were unhappy with his previous criticism of the party leader during his time in the Cabinet. Cornered, he jumped to Musyoka’s Wiper Democratic Movement-Kenya party just days after defecting to ODM. But it was too little too late and he failed to unseat Mvurya.

Pundits attribute his failure to clinch the Kwale governorship to the perception among voters that he was a spoiler for coastal unity. They also claimed that despite holding influential ministries, his development record did not go beyond Matuga, claims the Wiper chairman denied fervently.

In the final analysis, the saxophone and golf-playing 75-year-old – whose oratory and eagerness to take on government critics with little prodding helped the President navigate his two terms at the helm – wished to be remembered as a patriotic, honest and corruption-free man.

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