President Mwai Kibaki’s wife, Lucy Kibaki, was known as a person of influence who would not hesitate to call out individuals she believed were driving the country the wrong way. She was also said to have some measure of influence concerning government appointments, which is how Mohammed Abdi Kuti, a medical doctor and first-time MP from one of the remotest parts of Kenya, became part of the Cabinet.
It all started with a request from a group of village women and a local Muslim preacher. “Months after her husband’s election as the President of Kenya, Mama Lucy Kibaki visited a group of women in Isiolo for a meeting. I was invited to the meeting despite being in the Opposition party, KANU (the Kenya African National Union),” recalled Kuti, who is now the governor of Isiolo County.
It was about eight months after the 2002 General Election in which KANU, the party that had been in power for almost 40 years, suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Kuti, then a 36-year-old doctor who had made a name for himself by caring for the sick in a region where the ratio of doctors to the general public is the lowest in the country, was elected to represent Isiolo North Constituency. “The women, under the patronage of a local preacher known as Sheikh Ahmed Sett, told Mama Lucy they were handing me over to her so she could assist me to join her husband’s government,” he recalled.
It sounded like a joke, especially considering that Kuti was an Opposition MP. In addition, there was his age – wasn’t he a bit too young for such a weighty appointment? But just two weeks later, President Kibaki appointed Kuti as Assistant Minister for Health. He has been credited with being one of the people who played a big role in initiating several reforms in the first years of the Kibaki presidency. These included putting systems in place to fight corruption – such as the Kenya Anti- Corruption Authority (now known as the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission) and the Kenya National Human Rights Commission – and setting up an efficient monitoring unit to boost performance in government offices.
The government’s defeat in the November 2005 referendum on changing the Constitution of Kenya turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Kuti. The referendum happened at a time when the country was deeply divided on the
merits of the draft Constitution and the process by which it had been put together. Led by Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka, the Liberal Democratic Party, most KANU leaders, Christian clergy, the Kenya National Union of Teachers
and seven Cabinet ministers drove the ‘No’ campaign against the draft document. On the other hand, the President, and the rest of the Cabinet and government campaigned in favour of the changes to the Constitution. The ‘No’ campaign was symbolised by the orange fruit while the ‘Yes’ side used the banana as its symbol. Kuti was one of the vocal leaders of ‘Team Banana’, which ended up being decisively out-voted by the Orange side. He recalled the way Odinga made fun of him in Kiswahili during the campaigns: “Kuti na mpira… anaenda kufunga… anakanyanga maganda ya ndizi… anaanguka! (Kuti has the ball… he is about to score a goal… he steps on a banana peel and falls!).”
Although Kibaki accepted the results stoically, the defeat signalled widespread restructuring of Kenya’s political system, including the dropping from Cabinet of all the Orange leaders. An analysis of the referendum polls established that the majority of youths had voted against the draft. “When President Kibaki realised that most youths had voted against the government, he decided to form a ministry dedicated to them. Subsequently, I was appointed Minister for Youth Affairs,” Kuti said. The newly-crafted ministry drafted several wide-reaching youth empowerment
policies and initiatives. The programmes included the National Youth Enterprise Fund, Chora Bizna, National Youth Policy and National Youth Council. There were also policies to strengthen the copyright protection of works by local musicians, and a National Youth Employment Summit (YES) Kenya 2006, which brought together almost 2,000 people in a week-long event attended by the President and senior government officials.
“President Kibaki was very passionate about youth empowerment. We held meetings with him three times a week while coming up with the youth policy and the youth fund,” said Kuti. “The National Youth Policy is aimed at ensuring that youths play their role, alongside adults, in the development of the country. The goal of the youth policy is to promote their participation in community and civic affairs, and to ensure that youth programmes are youth-centred. The policy proposes guidelines and strategies that can be used to facilitate participation of the youth in national development,” Kuti wrote in his foreword for the Kenya National Youth Policy 2006. The policy spelled out employment creation, health, education and training, sports and recreation, the environment, arts and culture, the media and participation, and empowerment as the strategic areas that needed to be addressed so that Kenya’s young people could effectively play their role in nation building.
Among the issues the policy addressed was the definition of youth – a seemingly small but highly divisive matter that had remained undefined since independence. Whereas most international organisations place youths between 15 and 24 years of age, the Kenya National Youth Policy put them in the 15 to 30 bracket. It also classified youths into priority target groups to easier tackle challenges unique to each group. The priority groups are youths with disability, street youths, youths infected with HIV and Aids, female youths, unemployed youths and out-of-school youths. The policy also gave rise to the National Youth Council, a State body established to coordinate youth activities and organisations.
On 8 December 2006, Kuti gazetted the Youth Enterprise Development Fund with a strategic focus on enterprise development as a key strategy aimed at increasing opportunities for, and participation by Kenyan youths in nation building. The Fund was launched by Kibaki on 1 February 2007 with a KES 1 billion seed capital. By June 2019, the Fund had cumulatively disbursed loans amounting to KES 12.8 billion to more than one million youths across the country since 2013. “When we created the Fund, financial institutions were charging as much as 26 per cent in interest rates. We capped the rates for the Fund at 8 per cent, hich was the lowest in the market,” Kuti recalled. To lessen the influence of politics on the Fund, it was distributed through financial intermediaries.
“Politicians wanted to be in charge of distributing the funds but we fought every effort to have them run the kitty,” he said, adding that the ministry was also able to employ youth officers in every district to coordinate youth affairs and distribute the funds. In April 2007 the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in partnership with Enablis Entrepreneurial Network East Africa launched the National Business Plan Competition dubbed ‘Chora Bizna, Enablis LaunchPad’. The competition was designed to “stimulate and celebrate entrepreneurship, provide inspiration and support young individual entrepreneurs in setting up businesses”. It generally aimed at turning great ideas into thriving sustainable businesses and targeted 11 million youths from across the country. The competition was also supported by the Kenya Pipeline Company, Lenovo and Kenya Commercial Bank.
Kuti said the involvement of young people in the running of government affairs contributed to a number of them supporting Kibaki’s 2007 re-election bid. “Here was a President whose government youths had voted against in the
2005 referendum and who within two years had created a strategy to reach out to them. It worked wonders in the 2007 General Election.”
The former Minister is convinced Kibaki won the disputed election. “I know there are people who hold a contrary opinion about what happened in 2007 but I believe Kibaki won,” he said. He was among ministers the President dispatched to various African countries to seek support when widespread violence erupted following the presidential
vote results. He remembers being given a confidential letter to deliver personally to President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh of Djibuoti. He travelled by private jet from Nairobi to Djibouti in January 2008. “I met the President, who also gave me a letter with instructions to deliver it personally to President Kibaki. It was the kind of message you guard with your life,” he recalled.
But a few days after returning to Nairobi, and before he could have a sit-down with Kibaki, the President announced a new half Cabinet. He was left out of the list. “I kept that letter for about three months and gave it to Kibaki after he re-appointed me to the Cabinet, this time moving me to the Ministry of Livestock Development,” he said. His new duties mainly involved taking care of the interests of pastoralist communities, who largely made a living from livestock. His Assistant Minister was Aden Duale, the immediate former Leader of Majority in the National Assembly, while Ken Lusaka was his Permanent Secretary. Lusaka would later become Speaker of the Senate.
Kuti’s tenure at the ministry faced one hurdle after another. It coincided with the severe drought of 2008-2009 in which thousands of animals died and a severe goat disease known as PPR wiped out large herds. It was the first time
the disease had struck in Kenya.
Following the drought, the government came up with a noble programme to save farmers the agony of losing more livestock. But it ended up being a huge PR disaster. The intention behind the ambitious programme was to cushion livestock farmers from the ravages of drought by buying their animals, slaughtering them at the point of purchase and distributing the meat as relief food to local residents. The programme was launched by Kibaki and Odinga, who by then was the Prime Minister, at a high-profile event in Loiyangalani in present-day Marsabit County on 18 August 2009. As part of the plan, Kenya Meat Commission (KMC) personnel would be stationed in the affected areas to purchase livestock at KES 8,000 per live animal. Kibaki’s government planned to pay KES 1 billion to offset the farmers.
But the programme was suspended barely two months later, after being hijacked by middlemen who were exploiting the farmers by buying their animals for as little as KES 500 and selling the same for KES 8,000 to KMC. Besides the middlemen, there were logistical problems in moving the badly emaciated animals from the far-flung arid and semi-arid districts to the KMC holding yard in Nairobi. The animals were meant to be transported by truck to KMC where they would be held, fed and slaughtered. The meat would then be sold to recoup the money paid to farmers. But many of the trucks transporting the cows had insufficient water and food on board, and many of the cows died before they reached the city.
“When photos circulated of animals dropping dead at KMC, all hell broke loose. Seeing hundreds of animals die became a very big issue… We had to do a lot of explaining to the Kenyan people,” he said. It was estimated that 600 animals died upon arrival at the KMC holding ground. Despite the setbacks, Kuti cited the establishment of abattoirs for meat exports in Wajir, Isiolo and Baringo districts among his successes. “We also contributed greatly to the successful ‘one family, one cow’ policy in Rwanda through provision of the first 100 heifers used in the project,” he
In the two terms he served in Kibaki’s Cabinet, the upgrading of the Isiolo-Moyale road to bitumen standards was one of his proudest moments. “It used to take us two days to get from Isiolo to Moyale. We now take about six hours. Before the road was done, locals used to say that after leaving Isiolo to the north, you had left Kenya. The beginning and end of Kenya used to be Isiolo,” said Kuti. The road upgrade was among projects contained in Vision 2030, the
economic blueprint that was at the heart of Kibaki’s development agenda. Kuti also cited the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor project as another initiative that will greatly change the face of northern Kenya.
Like many people from that part of the country, Kuti had a challenging upbringing. When he was still young, his family was forced to go into exile following the Shifta War, a secessionist conflict in which ethnic Somalis in the
former Northern Frontier District of Kenya attempted to secede from Kenya to join Somalia. “My father died while we were in exile in Somalia. When we returned to Kenya, I could not go to school for two years until Catholic missionaries in Isiolo came to my aid,” he said.
He attended St Kizito Primary School in Isiolo and did his O’ levels at Isiolo Boys High School before joining Kangaru School for his A’ levels. In 1985, he was ranked the best recruit in the National Youth Service (NYS) pre-university programme, receiving a cane of honour (he still has it) during the passing-out parade from the chief guest, former President Daniel arap Moi. In 1990, he graduated from the University of Nairobi with a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery. One of his favourite lecturers was Prof Sam Ongeri, who he later served with in the Cabinet. Kuti worked at the Isiolo District Hospital from 1992 to 1997 before starting his own hospital, Waso Medical Services. In 2002, when he first ventured into politics, he was elected MP for Isiolo North on a KANU ticket. He successfully defended his seat in 2007, and went on to win the Isiolo County Senate seat in 2013, under the devolved
system of government.
In 2017, he vied for the Isiolo governorship as an independent candidate and floored five other contenders,becoming one of only two governors in the country to be elected as independents.