This was not Obure’s first stint in government, having been a powerful Minister under former President Daniel arap Moi, who picked him at the tail end of his regime to replace Chris Okemo as Minister for Finance following an outcry from international donors. At the time, the BBC reported that the reshuffle was “an attempt by President Moi to get a more diplomatic minister to front negotiations with the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) in a bid to convince them to release funds that they had been withholding”.
The same reshuffle saw Kenya’s fourth President, Uhuru Kenyatta, appointed to the Cabinet for the first time. Obure is now the Chief Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, appointed by President Kenyatta.
As Minister for Public Works, he is credited with dealing with cowboy contractors and leading the ministry out of the woods after years of being in shambles due to corruption, rogue practitioners, poor capacity, low funding and irregularities. Obure championed the formation of the National Construction Authority (NCA) through sponsoring the National Construction Authority Bill 2011, which gave NCA powers to sanction and blacklist rogue contractors who in the past had cost the government billions of shillings in losses.
The Minister also spearheaded the enactment of the Quantity Surveyors Act, which allowed the creation of a Quantity Surveyors Registration Board with powers to register high-quality surveyors. Obure first joined government in 1984, as Assistant Minister for Labour under the late Robert Ouko. He was first elected to Parliament as the representative for the former Machoge-Bassi Constituency in the snap General Election of 1983. Obure had unsuccessfully vied for the seat in 1969, when he emerged second after Zephania Mogunde Anyieni. He was also placed second in the 1979 General Election.
Machoge-Bassi was later split to form Bomachoge and Bobasi constituencies and in 1988, Obure became the first MP for Bobasi, winning unopposed in the infamous mlolongo (queue) voting method in the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party primaries, beating Stephen Manoti. In the 1992 General Election, he lost to Manoti.
In his master’s degree thesis titled Gusii Politics in the Era of Multi-Partyism in Kenya, 1992-2007, Walter Ongeri writes: “In Bobasi, Obure, who had beaten Manoti in the first poll, lost the KANU nomination in the repeat primaries to Manoti who was firmly in the (Simeon) Nyachae team. Actually, Obure did not participate in the second round of KANU nominations. He insisted he had clearly won the nominations in the first round but was recorded as having lost. According to the KANU headquarters, the true result was ‘unclear’ and (they) ordered new elections, which Obure boycotted consequently losing the KANU ticket.”
In the 1997 elections, Obure beat Manoti and was thereafter appointed Assistant Minister for Transport and Communications. Following Nyachae’s resignation from the Cabinet to protest his transfer from the influential Ministry of Finance to the less glamorous Industrial Development docket, Moi appointed Obure Minister for Industrial Development.
In 2000, he was appointed Minister for Industrialisation and shortly after was moved to the Ministry of Cooperatives in the same capacity. Following a rationalisation of ministries that reduced their number to 15, he was appointed Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, where he said he undertook several reforms to boost various sub-sectors. And in a 2001 Cabinet reshuffle, Moi moved Obure to Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, where he stayed less than a year before another transfer to the Ministry of Finance.
“In 2002 we did a lot of adjustments. It was a very difficult year,” Obure said in a past interview. “There was a lot of repositioning in politics and this gave us problems. The economy was performing very badly due to the political uncertainties, so tax revenue was very low. Donors were not providing loans. I don’t know how we survived. But as Minister for Finance, I had to hold hard to ensure the economy did not collapse.”
When Obure was voted out of Parliament in 2002, the game of musical chairs continued with Manoti regaining the seat through the Ford-People party. Obure stayed out in the political cold until 2007 when he won back the seat via the Orange Democratic Movement party ticket. In the 2013 General Election, the first under a devolved system of government, Obure opted to vie for a seat in the Senate, becoming the first senator of Kisii County.
Despite a colourful public service career, his tenure in government was tainted by the Anglo Leasing scandal in which shadowy companies were set to be paid billions of shillings to supply the Government of Kenya with technology to print new passports as well as supply naval ships and forensic laboratories. In March 2015, Obure became the most senior government official to be charged in court over the Anglo Leasing scam.
“This is the first serious prosecution of senior politicians accused of corruption in modern Kenyan history. One Western diplomat calls it ‘a revolution’ in the fight against graft,” the Economist reported. The former Minister would later be cleared of the charges.
Aside from politics and public service, Obure also had a history with football. Perhaps as a testimony to his skills on the field, he adopted the sport as his trademark in the game of politics. A popular chant during his election campaigns was “Mpira!” (meaning ball), which boosted his reputation as a man intent on building sports skills among youths.
Obure once played as a winger for the Bata Bullets, Gor Mahia and even the national team, Harambee Stars, albeit very briefly. When Gor Mahia was formed in 1968 as a community club, Obure joined as the first non-Luo player, playing in right wing in the team’s inaugural season. At the time, he was a Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of Nairobi.
Other notable players of that era included Joe Kadenge, James Sianga, Peter Ouma, Nicodemus Arudhi and Fred Siranga.
The former Minister’s name is also synonymous with football management. The story begins with the Kenya Football Association (KFA), the body in charge of football in Kenya at the time. In 1973, a majority of football clubs playing in the top-tier league announced that they were tired of KFA, which at the time was riddled with corruption and mismanagement.
In response, Kenneth Matiba, a wealthy businessman, formed the Kenya Football Federation (KFF) with himself as chairman and Obure as the secretary general.
Born in September 1943, Obure began his education at Kereri Primary School in Bobasi before joining Kamagambo SDA Secondary School in South Nyanza District. “I used to walk 12 kilometres to and from Kereri Primary School every day for eight years. It was tough. The paths were rough and most of the time, there was a lot of rain. What that environment did to you was harden your determination. It emboldens you to work hard and succeed,” he said in a past interview.
After his secondary school education, Obure worked as an untrained teacher at Riosiri Primary School in South Mugirango Constituency. The government had just introduced the Higher Certificate of Education, so Obure left his teaching job to enroll at Kisii High School for his A’ levels. “I found excellent facilities and teachers who were trained and committed, and so I finished forms 5 and 6 in one year instead of two. I did this by enrolling for the London GCSE (A’ level),” he said.
He joined the University of Nairobi in 1965 to study for a Bachelor of Commerce degree. At the university, he was elected Vice President and Minister for Campus Affairs in the student body, with former Gem MP Horace Ongili as President.
“At the time, the Cold War was raging and students became a target group. We were invited to visit the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and other countries in Eastern Europe. We met many student leaders. It was an inciting moment,” Obure said.
At the university, he also studied for a professional course offered by the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and Administrators of the UK, which would later prove vital for his career. “The student population was very small and we were in demand by various institutions, including government. There were many job offers but I chose the East African Bata Shoe Company. I was being prepared for a four-year programme through which they wanted me to go to the UK, but I already had a professional course. They were training Kenyans to take over from departing expatriates. Hence my six-year waiting period was reduced to two years. I was appointed Company Secretary in 1970,” he recalled.
He worked at the shoe company until June 1984 after which he took up an offer at Kenya Breweries Ltd (KBL) to work in a similar capacity. After two years, he was appointed Group Company Secretary with East African Breweries Ltd but still retained his KBL job. In 1982, he was appointed a director at KBL.