Dr. Sally Kosgei – The bold woman of many firsts

It clearly emerged in her highly acclaimed eulogy at Moi’s funeral in February 2020, that Sally Kosgei has great insights into not just the workings, the controversies, the power play, and the failings of Kenya’s past presidential regimes but also the geopolitical realities they have had to weather.  Besides, she knows a load about key scions of politics and business in Kenya, some now holding top government positions and many who were her mentees since her memorable days as the Kenya’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

Kosgei also has interesting snippets of American politics, having studied with high profile Americans, such as Condoleezza Rice, former US Secretary of State, at Stanford, and being bosom friends with Jendayi Frazier and a phalanx of other American heavy hitters in the academia and the foreign service, which in America, is often the same crowd.

From a distance, Kosgei strikes one as reserved but one soon realizes that it is a façade fit for the consummate diplomat

Unfortunately, Kenyans will have to wait for a while before they can access these interesting tidbits, for Dr. Kosgey’s book is not about to come out. Her musings about arcane aspects of quality combines with her bureaucratic orientation and lingering vestiges of the Official Secrets Acts that Kenyan civil servants take upon joining the service to conspire against the local publication of her tell-all book. Just to underscore her reticence to let it all hang out, she also politely declined an interview for this profile.

From a distance, Kosgei strikes one as reserved but one soon realizes that it is a façade fit for the consummate diplomat. When she is not on her guard, she comes out as a great conversationalist, made more so by her intelligence and first-hand knowledge of major issues and events in Kenya and around the world. No wonder she is reputed to be one of the most influential and powerful leaders in post-independence Kenya. This reputation was stamped when she was selected in early 2008 to be part of the four-member negotiation team from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) that was tasked with holding talks with their Party of National Unity (PNU) counterparts, in efforts to quell the post-election violence experienced in the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Nairobi after the vigorously disputed elections of 2007. To have been selected by ODM to join this strategic team while she was clearly not a radicalized insider speaks to her unique possession of much-needed skills, moderation, toughness and firmness. But it is also most likely that she was chosen because of her vast knowledge of government.

During the mediation talks, she played a critical role in leading discussions between the two opposing factions, using her acumen in diplomacy, and by activating her international networks to drive the talks. Pitied against her and her ODM team of James Orengo, William Ruto and Musalia Mudavadi were PNU’s Martha Karua, Sam Ongeri, Moses Wetangula and Mutula Kilonzo. While everyone in both teams was accomplished in their fields and in politics, and was capable of an extended exegesis of arcane points of constitutional law and politics, none could wag a finger at her credentials as a highly trained Africanist, a highly experienced diplomat, and a top civil servant – having been Head of Public Service – and as a politician in her own right.

Her credentials were such that she looked like she was on the wrong side of the table, her lengthy curriculum vitae qualifying her as a member of the Panel of Eminent African Personalities that was brokering the peace. The dynamics of the negotiating teams were such that everyone could huff and puff, and there was a lot of this as it emerges from Kofi Annan’s book, Interventions: A life in War and Peace and Ben Mkapa’s book: My Life, My Purpose, but everyone knew whose contribution was tempered by a 360 degrees perspective and it was in most cases Kosgei’s.

“Adversaries or not, we had a collective responsibility, which propelled us to upgrade our thinking to appreciate that we were not adversaries, we held divergent views, which needed to be narrowed to achieve peace. Our views of the way forward nearly converged, but not quite, that was left to the two principals to agree and sign,” Dr Kosgei is quoted as having said by the East African Standard of November 23, 2008, in an article titled: “How we achieved peace.”

After the signing of the National Accord, Kibaki appointed her the Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) in the coalition government that was formed after the negotiations where she served for two years before being transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture in the same capacity. Her stint in the cabinet was characterized by much silence and it often appeared as though she had lost her previous oomph.

Nevertheless, she went on to represent her party, ODM, in the drafting of the Harmonized Draft Constitution of 2010 that was later ratified and promulgated in August 2010. This was yet another cap in her feather. The country had waited for two decades for a new constitution, and what was delivered is often described as the one of the post progressive constitutions in the world. Later, Kosgei was instrumental in the push for the deferment of the two Kenyan ICC cases back to Kenya in a bid to spare the then presidential candidate Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate Mr. William Ruto from potential foreign incarceration.

Dr. Sally Jepngetich Kosgei was born in Aldai constituency in Nandi District to a family of farmers. In an interview for the 10th Parliament Book, Kosgei said her parents encouraged her to take the lead in everything she got involved in, thus laying the foundation for her career in long-running leadership. In her eulogy to Moi, Kosgei revealed that she owed her academic success to the late former president, who she says made her promise to pursue her education up to the PhD level. She went to the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, then to Stanford where she studied for an MA and PhD in Diplomacy and African Studies.

Upon returning to Kenya, she worked for five years as a junior civil servant before Moi kick-started her diplomatic career by appointing her to head Kenyan missions in different countries before promoting her to head the Foreign Affairs Ministry back home. She is the person Moi entrusted to head the public service as his stranglehold on national politics neared its end in 2002. The position of Head of Public Service was an extremely powerful position at that time, more powerful than the vice-presidency. That she did not use this position to stonewall the transition to the new government of Mwai Kibaki is an ample statement of her patriotism. Despite the taunts, catcalls and stone throwing witnessed when Moi publicly handed over power to Kibaki at Uhuru Park, she was courageous and magnanimous enough to serve briefly as the head of the public service in the Kibaki government.

When she decided to run for political office in 2007, she unsurprisingly got mentorship from the former president, who was at that time already five years into retirement. In an unexpected twist, Kosgei surprised many when she joined ODM, supporting Raila Odinga, the man who had broken ranks with Moi when the president needed him most during the 2002 transition. She told off those who questioned her wisdom, saying that she needed not follow the crowds as long as she was committed to serving her electorate. Apparently, her independent streak, coupled with her vast experience and knowledge, impressed Raila Odinga so much that she became one of his most trusted advisers. She captured the Aldai Constituency seat in Nandi and represented it between 2008 and 2013, capping her profile as a trailblazer and a great example for women empowerment, having held not only political and diplomatic positions that would traditionally be reserved for men, but also by being elected in a rural seat deep in Kalenjin land where patriarchy is palpable.

Having immediately joined the cabinet after her election as a member of parliament, we will never know how she would have fared as a backbencher. In her role as a Cabinet Minister, however, she attended parliament regularly in her conservative, Margaret Thatcher suits and handbag (those were the days when ministers were picked from the house) and perfunctorily answered ministerial questions posed by various parliamentarians. Like most people who move from the inner sanctums of government to join politics, it was clear that overt politics was not her cup of tea. She detested the limelight, the verbal parlays and the obnoxious turnarounds.

Nevertheless, she remained a strong defender of women and their abilities. She has often retaliated that people should never doubt the capacity of women to perform their duties with excellence in whichever position they may be placed. She detests any hints of having played the gender card in her career advancement, insisting on her achievements being recognized on merit and exclusive of her gender. She was once quoted by The Standard newspaper as having said, “I have fought for my space not as a woman but as any other person. I am not an affirmative action person. I don’t operate in the women’s corner.” In an address to students of Alliance Girls High School, her Alma mater, in 1991, she said that women do not need to shout or be aggressive to be heard, and that humility not only attracts respect but is also key to success. This could explain her soft but firm demeanor while navigating politics and public office.

Dr. Kosgei has had a long running career in diplomacy, having been appointed the first secretary, Kenya High Commission in Zimbabwe in 1984, after working briefly for the UN HABITAT as well as the OAU. Between 1986 and 1992, she was appointed the Kenya High Commissioner in London, joining 150 other ambassadors, who were all men. She was later promoted to the position of Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Foreign affairs, working first under Kalonzo Musyoka and then under Dr. Bonaya Godana.

After this appointment, she was moved to the Office of the President, where she acted as a president’s advisor in foreign affairs, drawing from her experience both as a high commissioner and as a PS. This goes to show that a big part of her early career was driven in no small part by Mzee Moi, to whom she demonstrated unwavering loyalty. It is no wonder then that she is alleged to have shed tears when the former president boarded a helicopter to fly out of state house for the last time after handing over the presidency to H.E. Mwai Kibaki.

Her rich career portfolio include appointments to: the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Kenyan High commissions in Zimbabwe and UK, Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President and Head of the Public Service, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, among others. At MoEST, formed by merging the Ministry of Science and Technology with the Department of Higher Education, formerly under the ministry of Education, she served alongside PS Prof. Crispus Kiamba.

The most urgent mandate of the newly formed ministry was to develop a national policy on biotechnology – which outlined the role of biotechnology in poverty reduction, enhancing food security and environmental conservation. It was during her tenure at MoEST many colleges were upgraded into fully fledged universities. One of President Mwai Kibaki’s campaign promises was to make higher education accessible to the hundreds of thousands of students who qualified for university but were not admitted due to a shortage of slots. His government embarked on a mission to upgrade middle-level colleges into universities. The process was undoubtedly rushed, a fact that Kosgei herself warned could affect the quality of education offered.

For example, the government upgraded Kenya Polytechnic, Kisii, Pwani, Chuka, Mombasa Polytechnic and Kimathi Institute, all in just two months. During the same period, four university campuses, Kitui, Kabianga, Taita Taveta and Kenya Science were upgraded to be under Kenyatta University, Egerton, Moi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and University of Nairobi (UoN), respectively. In 2008, Narok Teachers Training College, the South Eastern Meru University College of Science and Technology were upgraded into constituent colleges of Moi, UoN, and JKUAT, while Bondo Teachers’ College was placed under Maseno University. No doubt this increased access to higher education.

However, Dr. Kosgei was not blind to the fact that diploma and certificate institutions were also important, and called for the systematic process of developing higher education from certificate level to degree level without undermining higher education. Her speeches at the time shows she tried to champion courses that created links between the education sector and the job market, and was keen on tertiary institutions deepening the scope of their curricula to match the demands of the job market in efforts to increase the employability of students graduating from these institutions.

In 2013, Kosgei was moved to the Ministry of Agriculture where she served with PS Romano Kiome. When criticism arose that she was appointed to the position as a reward for her loyalty to the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga, she quieted the dissenting voices by pointing out that she was as qualified as any man to handle the mandate. She further reminded her detractors that it was she who had reduced the number of parastatals under the ministry from 49 to 29 during her stint as the head of civil service during President Moi’s regime.

One of the biggest challenges she faced while steering the ministry was the drought experienced in the country in 2010 and part of 2011, which caused severe food shortages to approximately 4 million Kenyans residing in arid and semi-arid regions. She was however able to coordinate relief food distribution from the Kenyan government, the World Food Program among other partners, to rescue the populations most at risk of starvation. To stave off a similar occurrence, the minister mobilized programs which saw farmers in these regions supplied with drought resistant maize seeds, while securing huge donations for the construction of water harvesting structures. She was a strong believer in the combination of short term (relief), medium term (recovery) and long term (resilience) measures as a surefire way to assure sustainable livelihoods for the population in arid and semi-arid areas.

During her time at the ministry of agriculture, Kosgei decried the decline of agriculture as a subject both in primary and secondary schools around the country, saying that agricultural product had funded her whole education journey. She went ahead to launch a competition dubbed ‘Steers Mkulima Junior Competition’ that involved giving castrated bulls to high school students from five schools around Nairobi to compete on whose bull would be the fattest after a given amount of time. In the same period, the Ministry of Agriculture in conjunction with the Agricultural Development Corporation set out to train high school students from the same schools in the latest technologies in Agriculture, in a program called ‘Mkulima Junior Mentorship Program’. These programs were aimed at presenting agriculture as a viable source of income to students who were found to have low regard for the field.

Kosgei has never been one to stand for injustices, which is why in 2010 when cartels and unscrupulous individuals were pushing the government to declare hunger a national disaster so that they could benefit from duty free imports of maize, she was among those who publicly called them out. She was adamant in her stand that until all government silos were emptied, there should be no imports of cheap maize allowed. She knew that cartels were not shy of buying all the maize from farmers and hoarding it to drive up prices at the expense of the common citizens. She was also strongly opposed to the importation of GMO maize.
Kosgei was justifiably proud of her achievements at the MoA, particularly ensuring farmers were paid their dues on time. She also implemented a new tea bill aimed at improving the quality of tea in the country and in the process improving income drawn from the cash crop by grass root farmers.

Kosgei has never been one to stand for injustices, which is why in 2010 when cartels and unscrupulous individuals were pushing the government to declare hunger a national disaster so that they could benefit from duty-free imports of maize, she was among those who publicly called them out

Her public careers can be summed up in a single phrase: A woman of “firsts.” She was among the first Kenyan women to earn a PhD. Kosgei was also the first woman to hold the powerful position of head of public service and secretary to the cabinet. Additionally, she was also the first woman to be appointed Kenya High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, a position in which she is said to have ‘aggressively pushed Kenya’s agenda.’ Kosgei was the first woman to vie for the Aldai parliamentary seat in the heart of Kalenjin land, one of the most patriarchal communities in Kenya. Likewise, she was the second woman in post-independence Kenya to be a permanent secretary after Margret Githinji.

In 2004, Dr. Kosgey was questioned by Anti-corruption police over the 7 billion Anglo-leasing and Financial Scandal. The police wanted to find out whether she played any role in the issuance of the contract. However, she emerged unscathed from the investigations. It is noteworthy that she was questioned in her capacity as the serving secretary to the cabinet when the corruption scandal occurred.

In 2009, Dr. Kosgey was accused of orchestrating the sale of a property worth Ksh. 174 million belonging to the Kenya Railways Corporation. The accusation was that in the duration that she served as the Head of Civil Service in President Moi’s government, she had forced the board of trustees of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) to undertake the purchase of the Parkland’s property at an exorbitant price. She was similarly able to defend herself against the allegations.
Her name also came up in connection with the Paradise Papers leak regarding the purchase of a $ 1 million apartment in London. Upon being interviewed by journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), her response was that she had acquired the property legal means.

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