Franklin Bett – A man of many hats

It was a significant year, 1953. Kenyan nationalist leaders, among them the country’s first president-in-waiting, Jomo Kenyatta, were sentenced to jail by the colonial government at the height of the emergency period. That same year in Britain, a 25-year-old young woman was crowned queen. Princess Elizabeth had been on a tour of Kenya with her husband, Prince Philip, the previous year when her father, George VI, died. So it was in Kenya, then a British colony struggling to break its shackles, that she became Queen, though the coronation wouldn’t happen until the following year. Queen Elizabeth II would become the world’s longest serving monarch.

It was in these tumultuous and uncertain times that Franklin Bett was born; but resistance to colonial rule was already legendary in this region, where the Kalenjin, led by Orkoiyot Koitalel Arap Samoei, an indefatigable warrior of the Nandi and Kipsigis people, resisted British colonialists successfully for more than a decade. Koitalel was so successful that the enemy eventually tricked him into a ‘truce’ meeting where he was killed by the notorious Colonel Richard Meinerzhagen in 1905.
Born to a people of unbowed courage, tough times then, did not prevent Bett from embarking on his life’s journey decades later. And though no one could have known it at the time, it was set to be an interesting life. He was born in the tea-growing highlands west of the Rift Valley in a little village called Kiptiriri in Cheborge location of what was then Kericho District, and when time came, the young Bett was enrolled at Cheborge Primary School, and later at Korongoi Primary School, from where he finished as the top student.

No wonder then, that his path was set to, at some point, intersect with that of Mwai Kibaki, who had also grown up among tea fields, albeit in different part of the country in the central highlands near Mount Kenya. There too, in Gatuyaini primary school in Othaya, Kibaki was star student in his days. But by 1953 when Bett was born, Kibaki was studying economics at Makerere University.

Four years at Tenwek High School in Bomet County, and two years at Shimo La Tewa High School in Mombasa provided fertile opportunity for Bett to distinguish himself as a bright student, acing his ‘A’ levels in 1974. He qualified to study for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Nairobi, graduating with honours. It was 1979, the year when Bett turned 26 and independent Kenya turned 16. The same year saw Mwai Kibaki elected Member of Parliament for Othaya Constituency for his second term. That one would become president and the other would some day be a member of his cabinet, however briefly, was not predictable at this time. After all, three decades stood between this eventuality.

In hindsight, one might have noticed some common ground between the two men, separated by the happenstance of time and space though they were, that might endear the young man to the older one as a potential team leader. The destinies of the two men, presaged by common interests and circumstances, it may seem, were bound to meet.

Kibaki had returned to teach at Makerere after his studies at London School of Economics. He maintained a zeal for education that saw him make important reforms in this sector during his tenure. The most memorable pro-education policy of the Kibaki presidency was no doubt the free primary education. Bett’s zeal as an educator showed itself early. Upon graduating from high school, and before he began his university studies, he founded Tebesonik Secondary School in Cheborge and served briefly as its first head teacher. The school has been providing a high school education to girls and boys in Cheborge for more than four decades.

What is the fuel that charges an enthusiasm for education? It seems likely that if one tries to get to the very bottom of it, a genuine desire to enhance the quality of people’s lives will surface. It’s no wonder then that their interests can hardly be pegged down to one particular profession or area of interest. This may explain the diversity of Bett’s career.

A civil servant from the outset, it would be two decades before he ventured into politics, and three before he joined the Kibaki Cabinet. But these were pivotal decades. The Treasury, where he was appointed Assistant Secretary in 1987, was perhaps the first manifestation of the young Bett’s potential, and an opportunity to hone the management skills that would come in handy later in his career. Later he was appointed to head the Supplies Branch of the Ministry of Roads and Public Works. It may seen to have been the initial foundation for his future role heading the Roads Ministry, but it was a really brief appointment; just a couple of months really.

Bett was appointed Deputy State House Comptroller, then State House Comptroller in 1996 by then President Daniel Arap Moi. The Comptroller of State House is responsible for finance and administration, and until 2009 also fulfilled the role of Private Secretary, handling the President’s diary and Presidential programmes. His work at State House was followed by a stint as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environmental Conservation, then a year and a half as Kenya’s High Commissioner to Australia, his final civil service position before his entry into politics in 2002.

Foray into politics
It was an exciting time politically for Kenya. Multipartyism was no longer an idea but a reality whose time had come. The 2002 elections were in the horizon, and they would be the first featuring a united opposition under the NARC coalition since the transition from the single-party system in 1991. Bett had joined the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), lead by Raila Odinga, when the marriage between LDP and the Mwai Kibaki lead National Alliance of Kenya (NAK) was consummated. The political newbie was entrusted with the coordination of the alliance’s activities in the South Rift, and did well at it. The coalitions victory meant a victory for Bett as well, who was nominated by the new NARC government as a member of parliament in 2003 and elected to chair the Parliamentary Select Committee on Agriculture, Land and Natural Resources.

His political career had began with a nomination to parliament, but Bett would run for election as Member of Parliament for Bureti Constituency, and win. His was a historical win, having ran on an ODM ticket. Prior to his election, every Member of Parliament for Bureti since 1963 had been a KANU man. Bett had started something new. In subsequent terms, Bureti has been represented by URP’s Leonard Sang and Jubilee’s Japhet Mutai. Bett himself did not run or parliament again, but it was during his one elected term that he wore another vital hat.

Rehabilitating the country’s roads
In 2009, following the unfortunate death of his predecessor, Kipkalya Kones in a plane crash, Bett was appointed Minister for Roads. This was a crucial appointment because developing the country’s roads was an important priority for the government of the day. The Kenya Urban Roads Authority, Kenya Rural Roads Authority, and the Kenya National Highways Authority had all been created and legislated for in 2007 in preparation for major road construction and repairs.

Writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said that “The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.” In a very literal sense, roads enable movement and growth. People, goods, services, economic growth all come to a standstill if the roads are impassable or non-existent. Show me a country without good roads and I’ll show you an economy that is going nowhere. Fast. Roads impact trade, tourism, agriculture and industry, affecting countries, regions and continents. And for the East African Community, with its mission to widen and deepen economic, political, social and cultural integration, road networks were certainly a priority.

Bett’s management experience and his training in commerce were no doubt an asset in a position that required careful management of large and important projects and which were closely linked to commerce and economic growth. His team, including Assistant Ministers Wilfred Machage and Lee Kinyanjui, and Permanent Secretary Michael Kamau were in for a busy term.

The Arusha- Namanga-Athi River road and Thika Superhighway are just two examples of the country’s important roads under construction during Bett’s time at the helm of the Roads ministry.

Bett’s 2009 appointment coincided with the commencement of the rehabilitation of the Arusha-Namanga-Athi River road. This was one of six road corridors identified by the East African Communitty as priority areas for action. On the construction of this road, Bett collaborated with the late John Pombe Magufuli, who was Minister of Works in Tanzania from 2010 to 2015 before he became that country’s president, and whom Bett has described as a “diligent and profuse worker.”

The completion of the road in 2014 resulted in increased traffic flow, faster travel times, and lower vehicle operating costs. Kenya’s imports from Tanzania in recent years have included, among other items, cereals, paper, wood, charcoal, iron and steel, live animals and textiles, while Tanzania imports from Kenya have included soaps, waxes, machinery, electrical and electronic equipment and animal and vegetable fats, among other products.

One of Kenya’s greatest road projects, the transformation of the fifty or so kilometres of road connecting Nairobi to Thika into an eight-lane superhighway was completed under Bett’s stewardship. It was a project described by then president Mwai Kibaki as “the most ambitious infrastructure project in the country’s history.”

With the growth of Nairobi city, its burgeoning population had desperately sought affordable accommodation in its outskirts, in towns such as Thika. The trouble was the road, one of the busiest, not just with commuting city workers but with goods enroute to Nairobi from the industrial town of Thika and beyond, from towns such as Ruaraka, Kasarani, Kiambu Town, Githurai, Ruiru and Juja. Besides, the road is part of the international trunk road A2, which originates in Nairobi City Center and extends to Moyale, Ethiopia. Yet before its upgrading it had become one of the most dilapidated and unsafe roads, with high accident and fatality rates.

The completion of Thika Superhighway in 2012, right at the end of Bett’s term, has had a profound impact. Five years after its completion, the African Development Bank reported that the superhighway “has contributed to improvements in accessibility, affordability and reliability of the transport infrastructure system to promote economic growth and socio-economic development in Kenya. It has also contributed to regional integration in the Eastern and Horn of Africa regions. Commuters enjoy faster, reliable comfortable and more affordable journeys. The time taken to cross Thika town and Nairobi has dropped from 2-3 hours to 30-45 minutes.

The huge traffic snarl-ups that used to occur along Nairobi-Thika road are no more, freeing up time and fuel consumption savings. The superhighway has now attracted a long list of businesses from supermarkets, car dealerships, hotels and real estate developers.”

Final run
Bett made a final foray into politics In 2015 when the Senatorial seat for Kericho County fell vacant after its previous holder, Charles Keter, was appointed Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Energy by President Uhuru Kenyatta. He lost to businessman Aaron Cheruiyot, a 30-year-old first-timer in politics, in a very tight race with less than 600 votes between them. In 2017 Bett, who had previously moved from ODM to Jubilee Alliance Party announced his retirement from politics when he lost in the party primaries, again to Aaron Cheruiyot. Whether this was indeed his final bow at the age of 64, time will tell.
Meanwhile, Bett continues to serve as chairman of the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), a position to which he was appointed in 2016 by President Uhuru Kenyatta. AFC is a Development Finance Institution that assists in the development of agriculture and agricultural industries by making loans and providing managerial and technical assistance to the loan beneficiaries.

Chepkooit the ‘one who delivers’ has striven to deliver in a a wide variety of areas and positions, from the Treasury, to Comptroller of State House, to High Commissioner, to Roads, to Agriculture, with some gigs in between. Bett seems to have run the full gamut in his career. But he still has one more under his hat. Health.

Bett is Chairman of Siloam Hospital, a private 110-bed medical facility in Kericho, which he founded with his wife Alice Bett, a lawyer by profession. The hospital has been in operation for more than 20 years and has continued to grow and expand its services.  And so he continues to deliver in a surprising variety of roles. Living up to his alias – Chepkooit.

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