Francis Muthaura – The quiet heavy lifter

Muthaura was Kibaki’s replacement for Sally Kosgei, the last Head of Civil Service in the Kenya African National Union (KANU) government. To date, Kosgei is the only woman to serve in that position in independent Kenya.

The office is a powerful and pivotal one, and that Muthaura’s appointment came in an extraordinary context only served to maximise his influence in the government. He joined the Cabinet at a time when Kenya was transiting from the KANU party’s monolithic regime to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) administration. By virtue of his office, Muthaura facilitated Kibaki’s operations; he was the link man between the President and line ministers or ministries.

His position was also strategic – he chaired the National Security Advisory Council, which allowed him a firm hand on and unfiltered access to national security and intelligence. Needless to say, he enjoyed express access to the President, ministers and senior officers in government and the private sector.

Courtesy of his chairmanship of the government’s cohort of permanent secretaries, he also moderated many policy discussions. This would explain his role in the formulation and execution of the NARC government’s strategies and policies. In a publication titled Three Key Lessons on Growing the Economy from Kenya’s Vision 2030, Muthaura reflected on what it took for Kibaki’s government to resuscitate Kenya’s economy.

He explained that Vision 2030 was a sub-strand of the Economic Recovery Plan for Employment and Wealth Creation. The successful implementation of the latter, which was NARC’s economic blueprint, inspired the formulation of the former. He said Vision 2030 was NARC’s strategy for departing from the tradition of having national development plans running on five-year timelines.

He recalled the enthusiasm with which Kibaki received the proposal that his administration should adopt a long-term development vision. With the President’s blessings, the document was fine-tuned and fleshed out with input from the civil service. The implementation of Vision 2030 commenced in earnest once it was approved by the Cabinet and endorsed by Parliament. It was eventually launched on 10 June 2008.

According to Muthaura, the blueprint was modelled on the economies of South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. However, the focus was not limited to the economy but overlapped into the quality of life for Kenyans. Vision 2030, in his view, was designed to promote issue-based, people-centred politics for national cohesion and equitable distribution of resources.

Some of the high-impact sectors, flagship projects and programmes targeted in Vision 2030 were agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, retail and wholesale, financial services, ICT, roads, energy and education. The document also informed the Kibaki administration’s interest in health and housing, Lapsset (the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor project), Konza City, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the Standard Gauge Railway, Mombasa Port and the Special Economic Zones.

One of the key elements of the NARC manifesto was a government commitment to deliver a new progressive constitution within 100 days of assuming office. It was in an effort to deliver this promise, albeit belatedly, that Kenya had a plebiscite in 2005. Kibaki’s ‘Yes’ side (symbolised by a banana) lost to his ally-turned-political nemesis, Raila Odinga’s ‘No’ faction (whose symbol was an orange). In the aftermath of this development, President Kibaki dismissed his entire Cabinet. To date, this remains the only case in Kenya’s history where a President has dismissed the Cabinet in one go.

This marked a turning point in Kibaki’s first term and was the crack that morphed into the hot political contest of the 2007 General Election.

Muthaura was a key player in the Government of National Unity, which was an offshoot of the 2007 elections. Odinga became Prime Minister and appointed Mohamed Isahakia as the Permanent Secretary in charge of his office. Kibaki, on the other hand, retained Muthaura as Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.

Although the new political arrangement helped to end the violent protests that followed the elections, the question of how to make it work presented something of a headache. Fears loomed large that the deep divisions between the coalition partners would impede the Cabinet’s capacity to function effectively.

Jointly with Isahakia, Muthaura had to support Kibaki and Odinga in implementing the National Accord and Reconciliation Act. He therefore played a critical role in the formulation of the new government’s policies and ultimate delivery of its promise to lay a firm foundation for Kenya’s future.

Muthaura and Isahakia had a good working relationship that dated back to Daniel arap Moi’s presidency when they both served as permanent secretaries. This good relationship enabled the functioning of a government that had been formed out of traumatic circumstances. But there was a gap in the National Accord and Reconciliation Act – it was vague on the composition of the coalition Cabinet. This lack of clarity caused an immediate impasse between the coalition partners. To mitigate the situation, Muthaura and Isahakia met and mooted a Kibaki-Odinga meeting that culminated in what became known as the Sagana Lodge meeting. Away from the rest of their teams, the two leaders haggled and eventually agreed on what was deemed to be a suitable compromise.

In addition to reaching a consensus on the list of names to fill Cabinet portfolios, Kibaki and Odinga wholeheartedly embraced Muthaura’s proposal for a party interchange arrangement in the ministries. This suggestion, according to Muthaura, would ensure that the management of ministry responsibilities was shared – which is how the coalition Cabinet ended up with a Party of National Unity (PNU) Minister and an Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) assistant or vice versa. This strategy was based on a formula he had used while working as an East African Community diplomat.

The party interchange recommendation included the appointment of permanent secretaries in the coalition government. Thanks to the Sagana Lodge agreement, every ODM minister would work with a PNU Permanent Secretary; similarly, PNU ministers would work with ODM-affiliated permanent secretaries. This enhanced accountability by creating a reliable check-and-balance system for the coalition government.

According to Isahakia the conversation he had with Muthaura at Sagana Lodge set a precedent that heavily influenced their subsequent engagements. At the onset of the coalition government, it was Muthaura’s proposal that the Ministry of Finance should vacate one floor in the building where it was housed to make room for the PM’s office. This ensured that the offices of the Prime Minister and the President were directly across from each other. Isahakia also recalled how Muthaura worked with him to ensure that the PM had adequate office support as well as official escort and security details.

Once they were done with Cabinet appointment and staffing decisions, Kibaki and Odinga instituted a joint task force to develop a single coherent policy framework on which the work of the coalition government would be based.

The task force was co-chaired by professors Anyang’ Nyong’o representing ODM and George Saitoti, a PNU luminary and Cabinet old hand. Muthaura was the senior-most civil servant on this task force, which harmonised the PNU and ODM campaign manifestos. The integration of the two manifestos, in Muthaura’s words, “took a matter of one week” and was guided by reforms stipulated in Agenda 4 of the National Accord and Reconciliation Act. The harmonised manifesto was officially introduced and adopted in June 2008.

To enhance coordination and unity of purpose in the Cabinet, Muthaura and Isahakia facilitated the expansion of the role of Cabinet committees. In the Moi administration, these committees were engaged only on special occasions. In the coalition government, they assumed a central role in the policy-making process. Ministries were put into function-based clusters and the government ended up with five Cabinet committees – service, production, finance, infrastructure and security. The Cabinet committee meetings were held every Tuesday under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister and were open to permanent secretaries and technical experts.

In consultation with the President and the PM, Muthaura’s office set the agenda for the fortnightly meetings. To encourage the Cabinet to exhaust its deliberations in one sitting, Muthaura split the agenda into two groups, A and B. Group A had issues that required discussion while group B had only those issues that needed to be brought to the attention of the Cabinet. In his appraisal of the adoption of active and more prominent Cabinet committees, he felt that the bloated coalition Cabinet was way more effective than the lean ones that had come before it.

Muthaura was born on 20 October 1946 in Meru District (now Meru County). He attended Nkubu Secondary School in 1966 before joining Nyeri High School in 1968. He joined the University of Nairobi the following year, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Political Science in 1972. He also holds a Diploma in International Relations from the University of Nairobi.

Upon graduating, he was appointed District Commissioner for Mombasa District (since renamed Mombasa County). A year later, in 1973, he was appointed Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This marked the beginning of his long and illustrious diplomatic career during the Moi era.

Muthaura later served as Under Secretary and Head of Economic Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Kenya’s ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Community. He was also Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations based in New York. Between March 1996 and April 2001, he was the first Secretary General of the East African Community. In 2003 he was appointed Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.

Concerning his relationship with President Kibaki, Muthaura recalled a humble leader who served the nation selflessly. He said Kibaki was so humble that he had to constantly remind himself, during their interactions, that he was the Head of State.

He also had vivid memories of behind-the-scene incidents that played out shortly before the announcement of the 2007 presidential election results. In a 15 August 2015 interview with The Standard newspaper, he revealed how apprehensive they were in the initial stages of the vote tallying process. He recalled calling Kibaki, who was then at his Othaya home, to share his analysis of the results. The President, Muthaura said, was ready and willing to accept the results regardless of whether he won or lost.

For Muthaura, the 2007-2008 post-election violence should never have happened; he believed it could have been averted. This was the premise on which his submission to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Task Force stood. In his memorandum to the task force, Muthaura strongly rooted for the re-introduction of the office of Prime Minister, arguing in favour of the expansion of the Executive to facilitate the formation of an all-inclusive government. In his view, this is the panacea for Kenya’s ethnic divisions and divisive elections.

He proposed that once presidential election results were declared, the winner and the first runner-up should team up and form a government of national unity. In this arrangement, as soon as the winning candidate is sworn in, he or she should immediately appoint the first runner-up as Prime Minister. The President and PM would then share Cabinet slots and other State positions in proportion to the number of votes they garner in the elections.

In addition, the President would appoint members of the Cabinet while the PM would recommend his or her nominees for appointment by the President. The caveat to this proposal, however, is that the President shall have the power to appoint or dismiss a member of the Cabinet. It was also his suggestion that the President should chair the Cabinet as the PM chairs Cabinet committee meetings and coordinates government functions under the executive authority of the President.

In his recommendations, Muthaura envisioned a more consultative and less confrontational government. He also advised that the manifestos of both the President’s and PM’s parties should be merged to align aspirations, visions, philosophies and ambitions of the government.

It is not hard to see where he was coming from – the tried and tested methods that were used to enhance the coalition government under Kibaki and Odinga.

To date, Muthaura remains the second-longest serving Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet after Geoffrey Kariithi, who served for 13 uninterrupted years under Kenya’s founding President, Jomo Kenyatta. Upon his exit, Muthaura was succeeded by Francis Kimemia.

All said and done, his role in Kibaki’s government went well beyond his official job description. According to political analysts, Kibaki’s power men and women joined his inner circle through three channels: some came from his political base in central Kenya; others were his long-time friends and collaborators from a political career spanning decades, and the rest were professionals who got into the stable courtesy of their expertise.

Muthaura fit into all these categories. He was known as Kibaki’s long-time close ally and confidant. He was also the quintessential professional besides being loyal, competent, level-headed and highly efficient. He was one tasked with getting the job done, and he did so quietly. Having retired from government service, Muthaura today chairs the Kenya Revenue Authority Board of Directors.

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