Mukhisa Kituyi – Master of the hunt

Just like the young David felled Goliath with just five stones, to the disbelief of onlookers, so was a modern-day ‘David’ from Kimilili determined to fell a giant of his own; not with five stones, but with tsibili tsibili, the two-finger multiparty salute.

His name was Mukhisa Kituyi. Born and bred in western Kenya’s Bungoma District ― now Bungoma County ― he had studied at Makerere University in Uganda and in Norway, and worked in organisations such as the Christian Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Norwegian Agency for International Development (NORAD). But politics was in his blood and it was just a matter of time before he threw in his bid.

As the Executive Director of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), he was at the very helm of the vehicle that re-introduced multipartism in Kenya. When the party split into two (FORD-Kenya under Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba’s FORD-Asili) in 1992, Kituyi aligned himself with Odinga and later that year won the Kimilili seat from Elijah Mwangale, a veteran who had been the constituency’s Member of Parliament (MP) for 23 years and had held four Cabinet portfolios: Labour, Tourism and Wildlife, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture.

Kituyi was still several years shy of his 40th birthday when he felled Mwangale. It was no wonder he earned the moniker wakifumbusia, a Lubukusu reference to a hunting dog that flushes prey from its hideout, making way for the kill. He would bring development to Kimilili by flushing out the unfortunate culture of giving handouts to the needy and replacing it with development projects, he promised during his campaign. And so he began the first of his three consecutive terms as MP for Kimilili Constituency.

Kituyi was still several years shy of his 40th birthday when he felled Mwangale. It was no wonder he earned the moniker waki fumbusia, a Lubukusu reference to a hunting dog that flushes prey from its hide out, making way for the kill

A political career spanning 15 years, and a successful one at that, is nothing to sniff at. And Kituyi’s was remarkable, at one point serving as Opposition Chief Whip. But it wasn’t until his third term as MP that he and President Mwai Kibaki finally coincided in government. By this time Kituyi had joined Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition-Kenya (NARC-Kenya) party, and had once more been elected to represent Kimilili.

What was it that Kibaki saw in Kituyi? Perhaps the wakifumbusia spirit in one recognised it in the other, for the President had made serious development promises that he would keep with the help of a like-minded Cabinet that would include fellow intellectuals such as Kituyi. Indeed, together with fellow liberationists, Kibaki had himself just felled his own giant, President Daniel arap Moi, whose reign had lasted all of 24 years. There was something of a commonality then, between him and his newly appointed Minister for Trade and Industry, a tenacity and determination that was not easily quenched.

They say a politician is born, not made. The politics running in Kituyi’s veins went way back. Admitted to the University of Nairobi to study political science and international relations, he had been part of a student leadership that was expelled from the university in 1979, at a time when political science was studied cautiously but not practised by its students. Just a year before, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who chaired the literature department at the University, had been detained for his play, Ngaahika Ndeenda. Events unfolded. Student’s rioted in protest. The government responded by banning the Student’s Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU). The passports of lecturers viewed as radicals, such as Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Micere Mugo, Anyang’ Nyong’o and Okoth Ogendo were seized. The intolerance towards and clampdown on persons deemed as ‘dissidents’ was, thus far, unprecedented.

Kituyi found himself out of school. His early fight for democracy was already requiring tenacity of him, a tenacity that saw him start over when, thanks to the student union he was admitted to Makerere University for the same course a year later. He completed the course, not just successfully, but with honours.

This was a young man who had clearly set his sights on exemplary performance, and it was no wonder that in the fullness of time, a president who had exemplary plans for Kenya would recognise in Kituyi a gem worthy of a position in an exemplary Cabinet. A president whose alma mater was Makerere as well, having graduated with a BA in Economics in 1955 before proceeding for further studies at the London School of Economics. Kibaki will be remembered as the President whose ideas about education involved liberating the minds of learners so that they may contribute to the resolution of Africa’s perpetual poverty.

In 2002 when President Kibaki was elected, the long fought for freedom finally came to Kenya’s public universities. The President ceased to be the chancellor of all public universities, thus liberating not only the institutions, but the minds of the students as well. When Kituyi had dared to dream of this day 23 years earlier, it is unlikely that he could have dared dream he would be in the Cabinet of the very government that would start the country on this journey.

“As we move deeper into the 21st Century, our universities must join the leaders of their nations in the search for answers to Africa’s persistent challenges of   poverty and disease in the midst of plenty,” Kibaki would later say in his remarks at Makerere University’s 90th birthday celebrations in 2012.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Kituyi was still a young man; he still had a long way to go when, alongside his comrades, Otieno Kajwang’ and Rumba Kinuthia, he was thrown out of university. Not only did he graduate with honours, he obtained master’s and doctoral degrees from Norway’s University of Bergen, but he would retain the zeal for democracy he had demonstrated as a student at the University of Nairobi. And he would be counted among the ‘Young Turks’ when the second liberation movement began.

A luta continua, as they say. The struggle continued.

Kituyi, who once hid Raila Odinga in his house to save him from arrest by the Moi regime would come to know, along with other liberationists, the smell of tear gas and the rankness of a police cell. But there’s no stopping an idea whose time has come. And multipartism would and did come.

It was 2002. Kibaki was President and Kituyi was Minister for Trade and Industry. But the economy Kibaki had inherited was on its knees. In his first speech as President, Kibaki made his intentions clear. “The economy, which you all know has been under-performing since the last decade, is going to be my priority,” he said, emphasising the new government’s resolve to put in place policies geared towards economic reconstruction, employment creation and rehabilitation of collapsed infrastructure. At the time, the economy was in dire straits. Trade and industry would certainly be key to raising it from the ashes. And Kituyi was just the man to help achieve this.

Kituyi’s single term as Minister for Trade and Industry was an active one. His initial team in 2003 comprised of Assistant Minister Petkay Miriti and Permanent Secretary (PS) Margaret Chemengich. Assistant Minister for Trade, Abdirahman Ali Hassan, joined the team in the 2005 reshuffle, while Miriti continued as Assistant Minister for industry and PS David Nalo took over from Chemengich. Together they took trade and industry to a new level, making a major contribution to the growth of the economy.

Kituyi’s role and emphasis on trade diplomacy in the region, the continent and beyond showed results.

For example, during the first half of 2003, under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade scheme, Kenya’s exports to the United States, mostly clothing and textiles, were nearly double what they had been the previous year. AGOA provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for Kenyans, both directly and indirectly in manufacturing industries. This growth was possible because Kenya was quick to identify apparel as a promising sector. In just three years Kenyan exports to the United States increased sevenfold, from US$ 40 million to US$ 280 million. It was also under AGOA that Kenya learned to compete with trading powers such as China and India.

Certainly, trade and industry stood to benefit from a government that understood the importance of infrastructure. Industry, trade and infrastructure are inseparable, as Kituyi pointed out several times over the years. It may not take an economist to figure out that roads affect trade, but a top-notch economist like Kibaki understood the extent to which Kenya’s failing infrastructure affected the growth of industry and trade. In his 2005 presentation, Building on AGOA: Improving Africa’s Trade Capacity,’ at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (WWICS), Kituyi emphasised the need to improve infrastructure. He illustrated this with an example of the difficulty faced by cotton trade between Kenya and Tanzania.

“North-western Tanzania is the main cotton-producing area of East Africa. The region is about 220 miles from the border with Kenya. Yet in order to reach Kenya, the cotton must first be transferred by rail to Dar es Salaam on the coast (a distance of about 625 miles), and then shipped by sea to Mombasa (another 190 miles). Finally, the cotton is again loaded onto railroad carts to make the last 310 mile leg of the journey to Nairobi. Small wonder, then, that the transportation cost of a container from northern Tanzania is about twice as expensive as the cost of shipping the same container of cotton from India to Mombasa,” he said.

Unfortunately, or so it may have seemed at the time, Kituyi lost his Parliamentary seat in the 2007 elections, at a time when being an MP was a prerequisite to a Cabinet appointment. But it was really just a bend in the road to his destiny. Like a plant that has grown too big for its pot and must be transplanted into a garden where it can spread its roots and flourish, Kiyuyi was headed to a wider arena.

It was yet another a luta continua moment, but in a different medium away from politics  a fight for the long overdue development of a region and continent. Kituyi was destined to play a major role in the growth of African trade through the formation of a formidable trade bloc.

For the next four years he served on a Team of Experts to advise the East African Community on challenges and opportunities for advancing the East African federation, and during the final year he was a consultant for the African Union Commission, helping develop the structure for a pan-African free trade area. In 2012 he was a fellow of the Africa Growth Initiative of the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, a non-profit organisation that conducts research in search of innovative ways of solving societal problems, when he was appointed as the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) beginning in September 2013. At the completion of his four-year term he was re-appointed for a second term that ends in 2021.

After Kituyi’s second term at UNCTAD ends, will he rejoin the national political arena? His sharp mind and experience in development would most assuredly be an asset. He has not been silent on matters of Kenyan governance, remarking for example during an interview on Jeff Koinange Live that, “We have created for ourselves a behemoth called ‘political bureaucracy’ with thousands of MCAs, nearly 400 MPs, senators, and so on. They are such a drain on the recurrent expense of government, between them and servicing existing debt, we virtually have no money for development investment.”

Kituyi speaks with the astute common sense that brings to mind Kibaki’s ‘Working Nation’, when politics was pushed to the back seat and the development agenda took the wheel.

“Politics is a bastard. Politics does not respect rationality all the time. If we were rational economic beings, we would say ‘let us cut down the number of counties.’ But political pressure out there is against reducing the number of counties,” Kituyi said.

“Why are you asking me to run for a public office because I’m clever, when you are in the same breath telling me that clever people don’t get elected?” he quipped in response to a question on Kenyan’s voting behaviour. “Unless there’s a shift of gears, it’s an exercise in futility,” he concluded.

Kituyi continues to carry himself with the self-assured confidence of a development warrior ready to fight for his cause  economic development for a country, a region and a continent.


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