Immigration Minister Gideon Konchellah, a former military officer, surprised friend and foe alike when he went before a Commission of Inquiry to disown the so called Artur brothers who he described as “dubious international crooks”. Observers expected him to cover up the situation to save the government’s face.
The saga came to light in early 2006 when Artur Margaryan and Artur Sargsyan entered the country claiming to be businessmen and management consultants. But none of that was visible as they went about town partying with abandon and breaking the law. Though landing from Dubai, they said they had come from Armenia and claimed to have blood relations with the Kenya’s Prime Minister. Their passports, however, were only stamped Dubai as their country of origin. It later would emerge they operated from Dubai but travelled on fake papers from their country of origin, Armenia.
The spotlight descended on them when the offices of the Standard Media Group at I & M building in the city centre, were raided by hooded men said to have been led by a Caucasian-looking man. Opposition Leader Raila Odinga told Parliament he had impeccable evidence it is one of the Artur brothers who had led the attack at the media house.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came when the two brothers stormed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) brandishing guns and threatening airport staff and passengers. They were immediately arrested and deported back to Dubai.
President Kibaki appointed a Commission of Inquiry to establish the truth of the matter. The commission was headed by former Commissioner of Police Shedrack Kiruki.
Appearing on day one of the commission hearings was the Cabinet Minister for Immigration, Konchellah. Going by past experience, everyone expected the minister would go round in circles and cover up for the government officials who either let down their guard or were compromised into allowing the Artur saga to happen.
However, Minister Konchellah was disarmingly honest when he appeared before the Commission of Inquiry. He narrated the facts as he knew them and — more importantly — admitted that mistakes had been made and lapses had happened.
He began by describing the Artur brothers as ‘crooks’ who had entered the country on forged documents. He also readily admitted that there could have been laxity or complicity in government systems for the mistake to happen. The Minister said appropriate action was taken as soon as the facts came out in relation to the saga.
Asked by the lead counsel, Dorcas Oduor, when as Minister he came to know about the duo, he said he first heard about them while on an official duty in western Kenya when members of the press accosted him on an issue that was in the media that morning. “I asked my officers about it and they said these were people who may have come from the former Russian republics, but said they didn’t have full information because the files were in Nairobi,” he told the Inquiry. “So, I told the media the said foreigners could have come from Armenia or Czech. The press jumped on it and said that I had categorically stated they were from Czech. When I returned to Nairobi, I checked out the facts and called a press conference to clarify. I said the two were nationals from the republic of Armenia and not Czechs as earlier indicated,” he told the Inquiry, and regretted that the media houses deliberately left out the clarification yet they had erroneously introduced the Czech angle.
He told the Inquiry he personally took charge on the matter when the Principal Immigration Officer informed him the Commissioner of Police had requested that four people — Artur Margaryan, Arthur Sargsyan Arman Damidri and Alexander Tashchi — be deported for security reasons. Pursuant to Section 3 (1) (f) of the Immigration Act, the Minister considered the information and facts given and immediately requested the Principal Immigration Officer to prepare the required deportation orders. The papers were completed and the Minster signed them the same day.
The Minister said though investigations established the Artur brothers were Armenian citizens, they were deported to Dubai as that is where they had come from before landing in Kenya.
The Minister went further to tell the Inquiry that the brothers were “dubious international criminals”, but candidly admitted they could only have entered Kenya and stayed for several weeks with the knowledge and/or connivance of “criminal elements” in the government. He promised prompt action would be taken on those found to have abetted the serious breach of law and security.
He was particularly angered that the men could evade checks and make their way into an international airport carrying guns and, to rub it in, brandish the weapons when a Cabinet Minister was within vicinity of the facility. Trade Minister Mukisha Kituyi happened to have just arrived from official duty abroad at the time of the incident.
A few weeks after the Artur drama, Tom Cholmondeley, a descendant of the colonial settler Lord Delamere, killed an innocent stonemason, Robert Njoya, at the Delamare family’s expansive Soysambu ranch in Naivasha. The act sparked national outcry and demands that action be taken on the spoilt, murderous son of privilege.
In an act of solidarity with common wananchi (citizens), Minister Konchellah attended Njoya’s burial. At the function, he implored the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General to expeditiously get to the bottom of the matter and dispense justice as per the law. He also called for national land reforms as a way to address land conflicts such as one that led to shooting of the stonemason on grounds that he had “trespassed’ on private land.
Previously such bold statements wouldn’t have been expected from a Cabinet Minister. But during Kibaki administration, there would be no such gag and ministers, like other citizens, could freely speak their mind without looking over their shoulders worried about who was listening.
It was on Minister Konchellah’s watch at the Immigration Department when a law, the Refugees Act 2006, was enacted to deal with issues to do with refugees in the country.
The Act established the department of refugees to handle administrative matters concerning refugees in Kenya, and gave it the mandate to coordinate activities and programmes relating to welfare of the refugees. It also provides for establishment of the office of the Commissioner for Refugees, and the Refugees Appeals Board.
Previously Kenya relied on archaic colonial era legislation, the Control of Alien Act, a hostile law that treated refugees as bothersome and unwanted intruders. The domesticated law would change that to conform to the international conventions on treatment of refugees.
Shortly after enactment of the law, Konchella addressed hundreds of refugees at the City Stadium where he outlined Kibaki’s government policy on refugees in a speech titled: ‘Kenya standing with refugees for a peaceful Africa’.
In the speech, delivered during commemoration of the World Refugee Day, the Minister said: “This is a celebration of the strength that the refugees demonstrate show daily, overcoming the challenges they encounter from the outbreak of insecurities in their countries of origin, and the hardships they have to bear and overcome in their host countries.”
Konchellah also took the opportunity to make a historic announcement that Rwanda and Burundi nationals living in Kenya would no longer be taken as refugees since the two countries had since been admitted to the East Africa Community, hence become “Kenyan brethren by adoption”.
Hardly a month in office, Konchella learnt first-hand how entrenched cartels in cahoots with corrupt government officials work to sabotage even the most well-meaning of governments.
Officers in the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons informed him that about 4 million Kenyans couldn’t be issued with national identity (ID) cards because the government had run short of the security paper on which the IDs are printed.
He was informed that the shortage came about because a local company contracted to supply the security paper and paid millions in taxpayers’ money to do so had failed to deliver because it did not have the capacity to do so.
It so happened that 10 years earlier, a French company had won the contract to supply the requisite paper and been given a government office at the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) building from where to operate.
However, five months before coming to office, the Minister was told, the French contract had arbitrarily been terminated and awarded to a local company. The local company had supplied the ‘required paper’ only for the same to be rejected by the government computers which had been ‘configured’ to only accept paper supplied by the French firm. In the end, the government awarded the contract to the British company, De la Rue, a time-tested and credible establishment.
In an interview for this profile, Konchellah disclosed that in wake of the debacle with the ID issue contract, he sought audience with the President for guidance on how to handle pending contracts signed with the Kenya African National Union (KANU) regime but inherited by the Kibaki administration.
The Head of the State instructed the head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (KACA), Justice Aaron Ringera, to audit all such projects and give a report on the way forward. He further instructed the anti-corruption body to probe any possible loopholes in the Immigration and Registration of Persons Ministry and recommend how to seal them.
The report was made and handed to the Minister. In it were recommendations, including that, first and foremost, the law on registration of persons and immigration be reviewed to address emerging issues of terrorism, human trafficking and cybercrime. The report also recommended ways be sought for capturing and storing security related data. It further recommended issuance of new generation passports.
Recommendations made by Justice Ringera are yet to be fully implemented.
The three-time Member of Parliament (MP) for Kilgoris has a reputation as a come-back kid. After the 2007 debacle where two-thirds (22 out of 33) of the Kibaki Cabinet — including Vice President Moody Awori — lost their seats, Konchellah was one of only four who bounced back in the 2013 elections. Others were Maina Kamanda who elected as MP and Mutahi Kagwe and Kivutha Kibwana, who returned as Senator and Governor respectively.
Elected on Deputy President William Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) wing of the Jubilee coalition, Konchellah dropped something of a bombshell when he told a press conference that he felt let down that the first Jubilee Cabinet announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto included people with a history of corruption.
“Some of those appointed are the most corrupt Kenyans I know,” he said. He regretted that much as the President may have acted in good faith, he would soon be let down by some of his nominees. True to the prediction, five of the Cabinet secretaries appointed in Jubilee’s first Cabinet would step down on graft allegations. They included David Chirchir (Energy), Felix Kosgei (Agriculture) and Kazungu Kambi (Labour). Others were Michael Kamau (Transport) and Charity Ngilu (Water Resources). Much later Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich would follow suit.
Konchellah would be elected MP again in 2017, but faced a petition from his perennial rival, former Cabinet Minister Julius Sunkuli. He won round one at the High Court, but lost the second round at the Court of Appeal. He had the last laugh, however, when the Supreme Court upheld his election.
Gideon was born into one of the four famous families in Narok County. Others are the Ntimamas, Ntutus and Sunkulis. His uncle, John Konchellah, was in the African delegation at the famous Lancaster House constitutional talks that preceded independence for the Kenya colony. At independence, he was elected first MP of the the Narok West Constituency. He was long-serving assistant minister in both the Jomo Kenyatta and the Daniel arap Moi governments.
Before William Ntimama made his way on to the scene, the elder Konchellah was the undisputed kingpin of Narok politics, and competed for overall crown of Maasai politics with Kajiado contemporaries, John Keen and Stanley Oloitiptip.
His wife Grace Konchellah, was first Maasai lady broadcaster and for many years worked at then then Voice of Kenya (VoK). Later she was appointed cultural attaché at the Kenyan Embassy in Paris. She is author of the inspiring book: The Maasai Girl
Their first-born son, Bill Konchellah, is world famous athletic champion whose 800 m world record of 1.43.06 minutes in 1987 lasted until 2009 when it was broken by another Kenyan from Narok, David Rudisha. His younger brother, Patrick Konchellah, is also in the world charts as the 2004 Commonwealth games champion gold medallist.
So is their sister, Ruth Konchellah, who wears another hat: a warrior against female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriages. She was in the news when she and former US Ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, went through traditional Maasai marriage rites. The American had to travel to her rural home village at Ololchani in Transmara west and pay the bride price (enkaput) of 20 cows. The media dubbed the occasion: ‘Love served in African calabash!’
Bill’s son, Gregory Konchellah, followed in the family footsteps and is 800 m and 1500 m world athletics championships. He became a Bahrain national in 2003 and changed name to Yusuf Saad Kamel. His cousin, Felix Konchellah, son of Patrick, also has flown the Kenya flag abroad by representing the country at the 2019 world junior athletic championships in Poland.
Konchellah continues to serve the people of Kilgoris in Parliament.