There is something steely about Naomi Namsi Shaban’s demeanour. It is as if underneath her trademark colourful head wraps lies an impenetrable steel helmet made to deflect missiles directed at her in her decades long career in politics. This was not just a character attributed to her, but to the Mwai Kibaki Presidency and to most of those who served in his Cabinet.
Since her formative years, Shaban has thrived on going against the grain in a hugely patriarchal society. She even, in her own words, stood firm against curses and threats from male elders to follow what she deeply believes to be an ordained path of service and leadership. But, like many paths that criss-cross the political landscape in Kenya, hers too has been characterised by loyalty, betrayal and everything in between, including the seemingly inevitable association of Kenyan politicians with graft at one point or another of their careers.
When all is said and done, however, Shaban still stands firm. Swayed by the tumultuous winds of bare-knuckle politics, bent by a constant barrage of pressure from coveters of the political throne she has occupied since 2002 when she was first elected Member of Parliament (MP), but never broken. On several occasions though, in her journey to being elected MP for Taveta, she came close to snapping.
The women in my constituency urged me to vie for a political seat. Fora while I was not convinced, but after consulting my family members, I eventually agreed… I received threats from elders who opposed a woman being incharge of the constituency.
Shaban was born in 1963. Through her formative schooling years at Mahoo Primary School in Taveta, she was always the shy girl in class who kept away from volunteering answers whenever a teacher asked a question. Her timidity, though, was not a sign of aloofness. Whenever she was compelled to respond, she always gave the right answer. With time though, her timidity faded, but her unmistakably thoughtful nature remained with her throughout her secondary education in Butere Girls High School and later at the University if Nairobi.
When she walked the university hallways, there were only two sides to existence. You were either pro-State of pro-opposition. Pro-opposition simply meant you were anti-State. Nowhere were these lines of alienation more pronounced than at institutions of higher learning. The University of Nairobi was a key battleground and breeding ground for these opposing ideologies.
Decades earlier, the man who would appoint her to Cabinet, President Kibaki, was in the same space at Makerere University. Organising, plotting, scheming for victory in a different kind of war — the battle for self-rule.
Shaban though, according to those who knew her then, somehow managed to sit on an invisible fence which separated the two sides. In some conversations she appeared pro-change, in others, she had her feet firmly set on defending the status quo, never burning bridges and mastering the art of pleasing both sides. Decades later, this skill would serve her well, ensuring she survived government purges and waves of political euphoria that soon characterised the country every election year.
The years of study did not prepare her for her next phase of life. She’d become quite successful as a government dentist, posted to various parts of the country and to Kenya’s largest referral hospital Kenyatta Hospital.
Like many who came before her, and many more who came after her, she soon set aside her call to civil service for a life of private practice. But this did not last. Soon, she began to feel the nudge that prompts a certain cadre of civil servants to serve as such. No matter how much she tried to ignore it, she couldn’t shed it let alone wish it away. There was something about serving the people that seemed like an addiction to her.
In 2001 when the country was deep in the throes of campaigns something happened that would squarely set the tone for the rest of her life.
For close to 10 years, the politics of Taveta had been defined by Basil Criticos, a rancher of Greek origin who dominated the Taveta political space through connections, money and a close association to power. He had represented the constituency as MP since the 1992 General Election and was almost completing his second term when, in an inexplicable huff, he abandoned his seat and fled the country leaving behind accusations of harassment and intimidation from the Kenya African National Union (KANU) government. Twice, Criticos had been elected on a KANU ticket. As this happened, the people of Taveta turned their attention to the young woman who had been turning up for harambees (fundraisers) and paying school fees for the destitute for years. “Could she step in,” perhaps they thought.
Soon, they approached Shaban in Nairobi, asking her to take up the challenge of being the area MP.
“The women in my constituency urged me to vie for a political seat. For a while I was not convinced, but after consulting my family members, I eventually agreed,” Shaban told an interviewer for a collection of essays on Women legislators published by the Association of Media Women in Kenya.
It wasn’t all rosy though.
“I received threats from elders who opposed a woman being in charge of the constituency.” She refused to back down. Hoping to frighten her into backing out, they pelted her mother and grandmother with stones.
“They took my three-year-old son and threatened to throw him into a pit latrine,” she said.
Although the people wanted her, she was still miles away from winning her first election.
First, she couldn’t secure a nomination ticket for her preferred party, KANU, after elders had convinced its top party leadership that a woman would not win an elective position in her community. Luckily though, she was nominated to vie for the seat on a Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (Ford-Kenya) ticket.
But her baptism of fire birthed something else: a spontaneous reaction from women leaders who had gone through the same hurdles that she was now facing and most importantly, surmounted them.
Beth Mugo, whose family has interests in gemstone mining and owns huge tracts of land in the constituency funded her hurriedly assembled agents. Martha Karua threw her weight behind Shaban, abandoning her own candidate because Karua felt she identified more with Shaban than with her own party’s candidate.
Other pioneers came through for her has well. Long-time Maendeleo ya Wanawake chairperson sent her lesos to distribute to women. Pheobe Asiyo wrote a cheque that went a long way to building her brand.
By the time Taveta residents woke up to vote, Shaban, at least in her mind, was clearly headed for victory. It is the people who had come for her. Everywhere she went, she was assured of votes. A day after the elections though, she got her second lesson in politics. There are no guarantees. She lost the by-elections to Jackson Mwalulu. Coming a distant third.
The defeat in 2001 taught her one enduring lesson — that politics, like everything else she had done in life by then, needed preparation. So, she went to class.
First, was to leverage her unique position as one of the few women engaged in active politics back in the day. She needed to brand herself. She shed the dental scrubs for African attire and changed her messaging to become more people centred. Most importantly, she learnt to ignore side shows such as engaging male competitors on whether a woman could effectively represent the people and run a home at the same time.
For the next year and a half, she embedded herself in the community that had come out to seek her that day in 2001. When elections were called in 2002, amid euphoria for political change, Shaban stuck by her guns.
In the previous election, the people had asked her to vie for the seat on a KANU ticket. She remained loyal to them and sure enough secured the KANU ticket for the election. The trend at the time was to ditch KANU for the National Rainbow Alliance that was sure to win the Presidency.
This time she won with a huge majority and was one of the few legislators countrywide to survive the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) euphoria that eventually ended Daniel Arap Moi’s 24-year-reign as President. Shaban had announced her arrival and domination for a seat that she has successfully retained over four elections.
No mean feat for a girl from Taveta whose education was a constant headache for a mother who gave her all to see the daughter achieve the education that she missed out on herself.
In numerous interviews with various media, Naomi has talked about the struggles she faced growing up light-years from privilege. Taveta, the place she calls home, is a paradox. It hosts some of the wealthiest landowners, some of the most exclusive safari destinations and is home to the country’s most important precious stone mines, including the world famous tsavorite.
Yet, amid this abundant wealth live some of the country’s poorest populations; poverty that transcend generations. When her father died when she was just a young girl, her family moved back to Taveta from Mombasa to live with her grandparents.
The family reunion though did not last long and soon her mother had to move to Nairobi to look for a job, eventually landing a menial job at a printing press. For Shaban, there could only be one sure way out of the life she was afraid of being trapped in — education — and she pursued it relentlessly.
On 13 April 2008, just four months after she had successfully defended her seat as MP for the second time, Shaban’s life seemed to have gone full circle. That day, after months of push and pull that had emanated from a bitter fallout over the Presidential election results of 2007 that resulted in spontaneous violence across the country, Shaban was named as one of the 40 Cabinet ministers that were to serve in Kibaki’s government. Her Assistant Minister was Mohamed Muhamud Ali.
In just five years in politics, she had moved from a novice, to MP to minister as one of the four appointees from KANU, which had shelved its presidential ambitions the previous year in favour of a Kibaki Presidency.
Shaban would serve in the newly created Ministry of Special Programmes whose first duty was to deal with the human suffering of internally displaced persons, victims of the violence of the previous year.
After two years in this position, she was moved to the Ministry of Gender and Children Affairs, again as minister. Her public life and her years as MP had before this reappointment been defined by fighting gender biases within her community and championing the importance of education for children. This proved a natural fit, and she served in this capacity until the end of Kibaki’s Presidency.
Shaban’s years in public light were not entirely scandal free.
On 11 August 2009, the brutal murder of a British miner was linked to her. It was alleged that Shaban’s uncle was part of a group of men who killed the miner at a disputed mine. In the course of the trial, Shaban was accused of providing bail for the accused and interfering with ongoing investigations into the case.
In 2014 Shaban appeared in court and defended her involvement in the case and has since distanced her name from any involvement over the death of Campbell Bridges, the gemstone minor. She, alongside the then Education Assistant Minister Calist Mwatela and former Central Bank Deputy Governor Jacinta Mwatela were named in court as accomplices by the geologist’s son, Bruce Bridges.
This, though, was not all. Shaban had earlier found herself in a far stickier situation, this time involving billions of shillings, in what was to become an infamous maize scandal.
The series of events leading up to the now infamous maize scam began in late 2008. At the time, the country was experiencing a severe maize shortage due to low yields and destruction of close to 3.5 million bags of maize during the post-election violence that also significantly reduced the area under production.
The crisis was worsened by the high prices of farm inputs including fertilisers and fuel. The country’s Strategic Grain Reserve was 1.6 million bags, well below the required 4 million bags, which placed the country in a precarious position. The maize shortage resulted in an increase in the prices of maize flour and related products, which shot up from KES 48 for a 2-kilogram packet of flour to as high as KES 130.
Under pressure from public protests, in October 2008, the government responded with measures that included directing the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) to import some 3 million bags of maize to ease the shortage. The government also directed NCPB to sell maize only to millers at a subsidised price.
Under the scheme, selected millers with substantial milling capacity were allowed exclusive access to subsidised maize allocations from NCPB. In return, the selected millers were to sell flour to consumers at a reduced price jointly set with the government. Under these measures, hundreds of metric tonnes of maize were imported into the country and allocated to millers.
Contrary to intended policy expectations, allocations were made to companies and individuals, who in some instances were not millers. Some had no milling licenses, premises or capacity. These individuals and companies subsequently sold the maize off to genuine millers and in the process made exorbitant profits.
“There were some reports of at least one hundred thousand bags diverted in this way. This negatively affected the desired outcome of reducing prices,” rights Lobby Africog wrote at the time.
Consequently, allegations of impropriety, corruption and mismanagement implicating several personalities and government departments were made in Parliament and across the media. These allegations exposed underlying institutional and governance weaknesses not only in the maize sector and agriculture policy, but also in government disaster preparedness and the country’s overall food security.
At the time, the country’s disaster preparedness fell under Shaban’s Ministry of Special Programmes. On 25 February 2009, she became one of the dozens of government officials that were questioned by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (now Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission) over their involvement or knowledge of the scandal.
“Let us not make up stories of what we do not like or think. Let us look for solutions into these hunger problems because there is no scandal,” she said at the time, dismissing any notions that there was a scandal within her ministry.
“According to me it is too much of politics because procedure was followed. We need to now look for solutions.”
In 2012, she once again vied for the Parliamentary seat that she had occupied for 10 years.
While many of those who served as Cabinet ministers went for the more illustrious position of Governor, Shaban contested the MP seat. This she won on a The National Alliance (TNA) party ticket, which was part of the Jubilee coalition of parties that included her former party leader and would-be president Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto, both of whom she had been with in KANU at different stages of their careers and served with in government in various capacities.
After the third consecutive five-year term, the lessons she had learnt early in her career started replaying in her mind again, the biggest of them being the loyalty test. In 48 hours, she quit the party that had taken her to Parliament in 2013 and returned to it.
“Someone was determined to get rid of me,” she said after the elections.
She stuck to her guns, that if party matters were not put right then she would quit.
“My mum always told me you started with Uhuru Kenyatta and you should end with him,” she told NTV in an interview.
The people who first took her to Parliament, put her back into the house for the fourth time. But her journey has also been characterised by the dark misogyny that sometimes surrounds female leaders. As a single mother she has been called names, some bearable others not flattering.
Through the years though, she has taken all these challenges head on and put her doubters in their place. Her journey has not been without personal tolls.
“I cried one time when my son, who was in class two, told me he wanted to go to boarding school because I wasn’t spending enough time with him,” she reflected in another interview.
The steely determination that was hidden somewhere inside her at a young age is now part of her armour. She wears it proudly, and as an active politician, she wears it loudly too. The shy little girl is no more. Instead, in this space sits a go-getter whose initial step of faith has made her serve her people for an entire generation.