Hellen Sambili – The quiet pioneer

She joined 15 other women elected to Parliament in the December 2007 elections, after she swept aside five male candidates and made it on a ticket of an almost inconsequential political party, the United Democratic Movement (UDM). Instructively, since its establishment before the 1997 General Election, Mogotio Constituency has been dominated by the independence political party — the Kenya African National Union (KANU) — and was therefore considered a KANU zone.

Yet this feat by Sambili could appear offhand, if looked at casually and not placed in perspective. One, she had only months earlier decamped to the UDM after narrowly losing in the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party nominations. Two — and perhaps more important — she rode to victory in an election considered the most violent in Kenya’s history. An estimated 1,500 people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes in the violent aftermath of the disputed elections.

Women and children bore the brunt of the violence. And this explains why Sambili’s win could be regarded as epochal in a sense — she defied the violence and electoral bribery, and humbled Kenya’s patriarchal custom to win, becoming the first Tugen (a subset of the Kalenjin ethnic community) woman elected to the National Assembly Sambili was the sole UDM legislator in the Tenth Parliament (2008–2013).

This achievement, as it were, marked Sambili’s tumultuous journey in politics, nay government. But more importantly, as will be seen later in this profile, it also underlined President Mwai Kibaki’s humility, resilience and inherent ability to navigate egos in the coalition Cabinet of the Government of National Unity.

To be able to lead such a government comprising the Opposition and the ruling party, one needed to be resilient, humble and compassionate, yet firm. From decades in government and in politics, Kibaki had ably developed the requisite father-figure image that came in handy in managing a jumbled Cabinet during his tenure as Kenya’s third president.

To succeed in this situation, Kibaki had to plan carefully and, above all, be surrounded by competency.

Indeed, as a protégé of the first President, Jomo Kenyatta (1963–1978), Kibaki was conscious of the fact that people are appointed to key public positions on merit, character, competence and on the strength of their potential to achieve. Yet again, he knew that you have to empower the less privileged to also become part of the greater bureaucratic ecosystem. This is the only way you can reap maximum benefit from people.

Sambili’s standing in society came in handy as Kibaki — and his coalition partner, Prime Minister Raila Odinga — weighed Cabinet appointment options. Before joining politics, Sambili (born in 1959) was an education scholar at Egerton University, one of Kenya’s public universities. She had taught in high schools (including Moi High School, in Kabarak), where she shaped careers and the minds of the youth, and prepared them for the future.

It is against this background that she was, in 2008, appointed the Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs in the Government of National Unity Cabinet, joining 12 other women chosen as either full ministers or assistant ministers. Others included Charity Ngilu (Water and Irrigation), Sally Kosgei (Higher Education, Science and Technology), Martha Karua (Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs), Naomi Shaban (State, Special Programmes), Esther Murugi Mathenge (Gender and Children’s Affairs) and Beth Mugo (Public Health and Sanitation).

A greenhorn, both in politics and political administration, Sambili found the going a bit tough when she was in charge of the Sports and Youth Affairs docket. As discussed later in this article, her successes in this position were peppered with controversies and slipups, forcing President Kibaki to step in to restore order at one point. In August 2010 the President moved Sambili to the East African Community (EAC) Affairs portfolio. This new development put her on a new tangent, for it was seen as a promotion.

Not long after, she assumed another responsibility in an acting capacity — that of Higher Education, Science and Technology — following the suspension of William Ruto from the Cabinet over corruption allegations. It was a case of the ‘rise and rise’ of Sambili, the first Tugen woman to be an MP and a Cabinet Minister.

The fact that she held two substantive Cabinet positions at the same time was evidence of the trust the President and his coalition partner had in her, and of her capability as a leader. The two leaders had the option to choose from 40 ministers and 52 assistant ministers but instead settled on Sambili. However, there’s a subplot to her intriguing story. Sambili is a political dribbler adept at changing or transforming her playing style to suit a particular game, even scenting trouble or good tidings from afar. She has a knack for positioning herself for convenience and for the impossible.

Once in Parliament following the December 2007 elections, she appeared to go lukewarm on her political party and instead appeared to align herself with ODM. This political move catapulted her to the Cabinet that drew members from the Odinga-led ODM and President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU). And that wasn’t all. Despite owing her political career to Daniel arap Moi’s family — she considered Moi a mentor — Sambili switched her allegiance to Ruto who then wasn’t on good terms with the retired Head of State. She also later dumped Odinga, who had facilitated her appointment to the Cabinet.

And in 2016 KANU, the party that sponsored her re-election, threatened to kick her out following her dalliance with the ruling Jubilee Alliance. “We all know she has a rich history of party hopping and we were not surprised by her latest move to join Jubilee,” said the Mogotio Branch Secretary, Mr Ezekiel Cheruiyot, according to an article in the Daily Nation. Instructively, Sambili had ditched UDM, the party that sponsored her to Parliament in 2007 and moved to KANU, the vehicle she used to retain her Mogotio Parliamentary seat.

Indeed, Sambili’s tenure as Sports and Youth Affairs Minister was very colourful — and tumultuous — in equal measure. She often met and welcomed heroic athletes on their return home at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). She was at the airport in March 2010 to welcome back the national cross-country team that had swept all the medals at the World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

“We are extremely happy to have these kinds of results and this is a great day for Kenya,” remarked Sambili, according to a report in the Daily Nation. “There’s need to revise (upwards) the bonuses these athletes are getting.”

The Minister, in conjunction with the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and a group of local artistes, released the video for the song Umoja, that encourages the youth to foster peace and understanding in the country through dialogue..

During her tenure, Sambili proposed the official age definition of youth be raised from 30 to 35 years. In March 2010 she organised a summit on youth empowerment that was opened by President Kibaki.

However, she didn’t have good working relationships with her juniors at the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs. At one time in July 2009, a disagreement with her two assistant ministers (Kabando wa Kabando and Wavinya Ndeti) had to be referred to President Kibaki for arbitration. She also had a tense relationship with her Permanent Secretary (PS), Kinuthia Murugu.

Apart from this, Sambili’s decisions and appointments were continuously challenged. In May 2009 the Sports Stadia Management Board countered her decision to appoint Benjamin Sogomo as its chief officer.

These divisions and lack of coordination angered Kibaki. By November 2009, he was fed up and said as much. “If we are to move forward as a united country, the government position should be seen as superior and overriding individual views and party positions,” the Daily Nation reported Kibaki as saying. Odinga, pressed down by dissent at the hands of Ruto, and Sambili’s failure to cultivate a cordial working relation with her juniors, also weighed in, thus: “We are yet to see a seamless working relationship among ministers, assistants and permanent secretaries … In a number of ministries, ministers still refuse to delegate duties to their assistants and (permanent secretaries) still refuse to refer to their ministers”.

The reprimand by the two followed a closed-door session between the assistant ministers and President and Prime Minister in which Sambili’s conduct was “discussed at length”, the Daily Nation reported.

At times, Sambili let her political inclination get in the way of work, best evident in her refusal to have the Nyayo National Stadium renamed to Coca Cola National Stadium when this soft drinks’ company proposed to funding the stadium in exchange renaming rights.

Although the deal fell through, Kibaki supported Sambili and ordered that the word ‘Nyayo’ be retained. Despite the President’s public spat with Moi, in particular during his days as Vice President, Kibaki always respected the elderly Moi and never antagonised or humiliated the old man. And this is to do with his loyalty to friends and foes, and to his principles and philosophy.

Some analysts believe Sambili’s missteps at the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs arose from the fact that she lacked prior experience in political administration, and that she wasn’t savvy as a politician. This may explain the absence of such controversies in her later ministerial positions.

During her tenure as acting Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, Sambili stressed the role of research in economic development. “A major contribution of university education to national development is through conducting research and ensuring utilisation of research findings,” she said in February 2011, as reported in the Daily Nation.

Instructively, Odinga and Kibaki appointed her to this position, fully recognising that she is a scholar. No wonder, she strived hard to help streamline this sector. “Under the current law, no institution should offer any education and training services without prior inspection and registration. In addition, no person should purport to be managing an education or training institution without approval in writing by the minister responsible for the sub-sector of education and training,” the Daily Nation reported her as saying in November 2010.

She moved to streamline the higher education sector by closing what she perceived as bogus colleges. She closed 400 middle-level colleges.

As stated earlier in this profile, Sambili has a knack for scenting fortunes. She probably was the first government official to recognise the role China could play in Kenya’s economic development. That was as early as 2010, when she served as the Minister for East African Community. For example, in January 2011 she appealed to the Chinese to assist the region in infrastructural development. “Possible areas of partnership include development of renewable power generation projects such as geothermal and wind plants and cross-border electrification power interconnection,” she said when she hosted a visiting Chinese delegation in her office, and reported in a story published by Capital Business.

Sambili and her PS David Nalo pushed for respective national budgets of EAC member countries to be read concurrently, on the same day. Captial Business reported these sentiments. “This is an issue that we have to deal with squarely because the Constitution is very ambitious with very good provisions but in certain sections, we have a challenge,” the PS said. And according to Sambili, “the (Kenyan) budget should be implemented within the framework of EAC and secure the spirit of the Constitution which is to deliver services to the people in accordance with the Bills of Rights”.

Despite her sterling performance at the EAC Affairs Ministry, Sambili found herself in the political crossfire between arch-rivals Odinga and William, and as they say, when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. That’s how she was edged out of the Cabinet in August 2011, alongside Ruto. Her position was taken up by Musa Sirma. Media analysts claimed she had failed the loyalty test.

In 2013 the Sunday Nation branded her “the iron lady of Kalenjin politics”, after she defied the United Republican Party (URP) wave and retained her seat on a KANU ticket after dumping UDM. “In a region where women have generally shied away from competitive politics, Sambili has remained an example and a role model for aspiring young women politicians,” the Sunday Nation said.

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