During his heyday in politics, Gumo came to be associated with two Kiswahili phrases — jeshi la Mzee and kaa ngumu — which earned him mileage and admiration in a political environment where right connections triumphed over polished speeches and presentation.
‘Jeshi la Mzee’, or Mzee (Daniel arap Moi’s) army, was a ragtag militia Gumo commanded while Member of Parliament (MP) for Westlands Constituency in Nairobi, which would do anything to protect Moi’s and the Kenya African National Union’s (KANU) interests in Kenya’s capital. ‘Kaa ngumu’ (relent not) became Gumo’s slogan in his final years in politics. Little wonder that he represented Westlands for nearly 20 years (1994 to 2013).
Gumo often used the ‘kaa ngumu’ slogan to encourage other politicians to fight for their space, resulting in the rallying cry, ‘kaa ngumu kama Gumo’ (be as tough as Gumo). That phrase summarises a man who rose from clerk to senior government minister but who somehow found the right connections almost always at the right time. His aggressive side worked for him well. He pushed through his will both in government and in politics and was mellow when it required him to, just like when, in 2013, he was appointed Minister for Regional Development Authorities, and he adopted a more official mien.
Gumo’s no-holds-barred and sometimes confrontational approach to politics, especially his poll battles with Betty Tett for the Westlands seat, placed him in the league of politicians for whom the end justified the means. Against all expectations, Gumo successfully served as Minister for Regional Development Authorities and later had the additional responsibility of heading the Local Government docket in an acting capacity. This was when Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi for the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) wing of the Government of National Unity, quit to focus on his Presidential campaigns. At Local Government the Assistant Minister was Robinson Githae while the Permanent Secretary (PS) was Samuel Kirui.
Gumo’s political career was always controversial. He became mayor of Kitale, Trans Nzoia District (now Trans Nzoia County) in 1974 at the young age of 27 and held the position for 6 years. He quit to enter Parliamentary politics in 1979 and even defeated Masinde Muliro, a veteran politician, in polls that were riddled with claims of rigging. The no-nonsense Gumo started emerging.
In 1984 the High Court ruled that his victory over Muliro in the 1983 elections for Kitale East Constituency was “massively rigged”. Gumo did not contest in the subsequent by-election. He tried to make a political comeback in Kwanza Constituency in 1988 but failed, this time defeated by Noah Wekesa.
In 1989 he was appointed chairman of the Nairobi City Commission, the first by the Office of the President, as previous appointments to this position had been made by the Minister for Local Government.
Gumo’s political appetite was growing stronger and in 1992 the first born son of Pius Gumo and Martina Gumo shifted base from Trans Nzoia to his original home, Bunyala, in the then Busia District (now Busia County), but he was defeated by James Osogo in the nominations.
Four years later, his luck changed through a strategic calculation. In 1996 he took a gamble and contested the Westlands by-election following the death of MP Amin Walji, winning with a paltry 1,200 votes, the lowest to be recorded in any election in the multiparty era. In the 1997 General Election, Gumo, running on a KANU ticket, defeated Betty Tett of the Democratic Party (DP) in the most controversial parliamentary poll that year.
His political star started to shine and, backed by his no-compromise attitude, he ended up earning the distinction of being the only KANU MP in the then Opposition-dominated Nairobi region. This feat caught President Moi’s eye and Gumo would be rewarded with appointments as assistant minister.
Gumo was appointed Minister for Regional Development Authorities on 14 April 2008 by President Mwai Kibaki under the coalition Government of National Unity, it was expected that his tough style would barely change.
Having served as an assistant minister during President Moi’s tenure, Gumo knew one or two things about running a ministry. In fact, during Kibaki’s first term under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government, Gumo was Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife and, later, Education.
This was a relatively a new Ministry, created in an expanded Cabinet to serve the interests of the Government of National Unity after the December 2007 General Election, and Gumo became its second Minister, steering it until the end of Kibaki’s tenure in 2013. The Ministry of Regional Development Authorities later became a directorate in the Ministry of East African Community and Regional Development.
Gumo, enthusiastic to be part of the coalition government of Raila Odinga’s CORD party and Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU), hit the ground running, learning the ropes of living under a fledgling coalition and balancing his political allegiance to his party boss and Prime Minister Odinga and President Kibaki, the appointing authority. His Assistant Minister, Judah Katoo ole Metito, was a good match and the two worked well together. The PS was Carey Orege.
One of Gumo’s first policy pronouncements was a warning in August 2008 to workers in loss-making parastatals under the Regional Development Authorities Ministry that they would be sacked to improve efficiency. Some of the parastatals, he said, had excess workers hired for political expediency. He somehow forgot that the Cabinet he was now part of was, in fact, the epitome of political expedience, where positions had been shared out between ODM and PNU as part of the pact reached to ease tensions of the post-election violence.
“The rural-based authorities were specifically created to uplift the living standards of our people at the grassroots through the creation of viable projects,” Gumo is quoted as saying. “It is unfortunate that currently, most of them have failed to deliver the required services and are unable to even pay sitting allowances to their board members.” That advisory, as fate would have it, fizzled out.
Barely months into the job, Gumo had to deal with sugar politics. In July 2008 he led a delegation of top Regional Development Authorities Ministry officials to Tana River with incentives to drum up support for the KES 24 billion Mumias-Tana River Development Authority sugar project.
The Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA) and the Mumias Sugar Company were seeking to produce sugar cane for local consumption in Kenya and for export (ethanol) on 20,000 of TARDA’s 40,000 hectares. An alliance of pastoralists and conservationists, however, stopped the project.
Gumo and his team had proposed a review of the shareholding structure to increase the portion reserved for local communities to appease them, but the community’s concern over the likely negative impact of the venture on their livelihoods carried the day.
Mumias Sugar Company was the majority shareholder controlling 51 per cent, TARDA held 30 per cent with 10 per cent and 9 per cent reserved for the local communities and other stakeholders. An environment impact assessment (EIA) was carried out for the project but it received major opposition from environmentalists. Nevertheless an EIA license was issued in June 2008. A court case put an injunction on this project, but the case was thrown out on a technicality in June 2009. While the court injunction was still in force, in April 2009, TARDA was given a title for 40,000 hectares of land in the Tana River Delta, on which the authority decided to grow maize and rice because Kenya was facing a food emergency as a result of the drought. Local communities, including farmers and pastoralists were evicted from the area to give way for the agricultural developments.
In August 2010, a new court case was filed by representatives of Tana Delta local communities in the Kenya High Court, which stopped the project in 2013.
All projects were put on hold pending a planned Master Land Use Plan for the delta. The Plan was finalised in 2014 and called for hybrid zoning. By 2016 the TARDA-Mumias project had been discarded. The project would have been a major score for Kenya in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region and other regions which offer ready market for sugar exports. Besides, it would have diversified the livestock-dominated Tana River economy and lifted hundreds of pastoralists out of poverty.
Another project that ran into problems during Gumo’s tenure as Regional Development Authorities Minister emerged in March 2009. The project involved setting up a cement processing plant in West Pokot. The area is endowed with substantial deposits of raw material. A row erupted between area residents and Kavee Quarries Limited, a company licensed to extract limestone deposits in area, over delays in constructing a factory.
When the community issued an ultimatum to the Uganda-based cement firm to either set up the factory or leave the deposit-rich Sebit-Ortum areas, Gumo supported the move, as did the Industrialisation Ministry. Setting up a factory in the area would be more beneficial to locals than limestone exports.
Gumo and his Industrialisation counterpart, Henry Kosgey, visited Ortum in 2008 and ordered a stop to the export of limestone by Kavee Quarries. The company had been mining raw materials and transporting them to Uganda for processing.
Two mining companies — Mehta Group, and Cemtech — had already expressed their interest in setting up a cement factory at Ortum. However, government delays slowed the process and the company eventually chosen was unable to proceed due to logistical delays.
As Gumo gathered momentum, shuttling up and down the country evaluating regional development authorities, someone was planning to spoil his party. In June 2009, a new government Bill was published requiring Cabinet ministers to be degree holders.
Gumo, who has a higher diploma in mechanical engineering from Metropolis College in London, was among at least five ministers (including ministers Beth Mugo — Public Health; Charity Ngilu — Water and Irrigation‘ Yusuf Haji — Defence; and Soita Shitanda — Housing), who were to be affected if the new proposal was effected. The Bill never went through, as the country awaited the new Constitution that would provide for how the Cabinet is constituted. This would have effectively locked Gumo out of the Cabinet or forced him back to class to acquire the necessary academic qualification.
Gumo never shied away from even the most controversial political issues of the day. In October 2008 he was among those who rejected the Waki Report, going against their party leader, Odinga. This was a sensitive political issue on which Raila’s political fate hinged. The post-election violence report by the Waki Commission was handed over to the President and the Prime Minister on 15 October 2008.
The report, however, did not publicly disclose the alleged perpetrators of the violence. Instead, the commission handed the list of alleged perpetrators — which included six Cabinet ministers and five MPs — to Kofi Annan, the mediator of the talks which culminated in the power-sharing agreement. The list was later forwarded to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Gumo was also involved in the contentious issue of the Mau Forest Complex evictions. He argued that conservation of Kenya’s water catchment areas should spread beyond the Mau to areas such as Masinga and Kiambere dams, where encroachment was threatening the country’s power supply.
“The government must evict people from all forests and water catchment areas to avoid a dispute like that of Mau. Politics must be separated from development,” he said, well aware of the political implications for his boss Odinnga, who was eyeing the Presidency in the 2013 General Election and yet had been thrown right in the middle of the Mau conflagration.
With his uncompromising style, Gumo would often run afoul the law in his official duties, especially when it came to appointments to the regional authorities and parastatals under his Ministry. Several of his appointments attracted scrutiny from the authorities, especially Parliament, pointing to the delicate political balancing of the time.
Members of the committee on Delegated Legislation faulted some of Gumo’s appointments after complaints that they had been made outside the law. His appointment of the TARDA Managing Director, Francis Musumba Agoya, in September 2009, was, for example, flagged within a month, with MPs demanding that the Minister updates the House on the status of Agoya’s file during his service in the diplomatic corps in the 1990s.
Gumo said he was unaware of the investigations and appointed the managing director courtesy of his qualifications.
When he got a chance to skip Parliamentary session, Gumo would do it noticeably. In July 2009, Gumo was banned from Parliamentary Business by Speaker Kenneth Marende after he skipped a sitting where he was expected to explain appointments in the ministry.
MPs led by Igembe South MP Mithika Linturi (KANU) had sought to establish whether due process was followed in appointing the managing director of TARDA. With neither Gumo nor Assistant Minister Metito in the House to respond, Marende gave the ruling, which applied to Gumo, his assistant “or any other minister purporting to hold brief for the ministry until such a time that an acceptable and plausible explanation is given to the House.” In fact, Gumo was reprimanded several times for absenteeism while serving as minister.
Another key project he launched as minister was through the Coast Development Authority to increase the water supply and acreage under irrigation to boost food production. Under the five-year strategic plan, more than KES 10 billion would be invested to make the region self-sufficient in food. The agency was to put 2,000 hectares under irrigation. That, too never, came to fruition.
In 2013, after serving in the Government of National Unity as Cabinet Minister and MP for Westlands, Gumo exited the political scene, satisfied that he had done what he could during his professional and political life. “I have decided to retire from politics peacefully,” he said in 2013. “I know if I decided to run for any seat I can easily win. I am now 66 years old and I think I have done enough. I also need my own time so that I can travel around the world and my country and enjoy myself… I appreciate the phrase ‘leaving while it’s still sweet.”