Just like Kipkalya Kones, Musa Cherutich Sirma was another old wine in new wineskin, a carryover from a bygone era whose inclusion in the Kibaki Cabinet was courtesy of his closeness to Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the President’s partner in the Grand Coalition Government formed after the disputed 2007 elections.
Unlike Mr Kones, however, who was appointed right at the inception of the restive coalition in early 2008, Mr Sirma joined the Kibaki administration only in 2011 after the tectonic shift within the Odinga side of the government saw his erstwhile allies led by William Ruto, the ambitious MP for Eldoret North, purged for disloyalty. In appointing Mr Sirma to his Cabinet, President Kibaki had brought to his
government a hardline defender of the old order he dislodged in the euphoric 2002 election that ended Kanu’s 40-year-grip of the country. In fact, long before the Constitution was changed in 2010 to introduce devolved governments under the command of a county chief, Mr Sirma, the pioneer Eldama Ravine MP, had been nicknamed Governor of the Rift Valley for his brinkmanship.
The combative and ebullient politician had earned the moniker after he teamed up with 16 other legislators from the Kalenjin-dominated constituencies to ‘encourage’ sections of the community feeling lost after Kanu was beaten in the election. With Daniel arap Moi retiring after 24 years in power and his preferred successor Uhuru Kenyatta defeated, the community that had voted overwhelmingly for the
Kanu candidate found itself smack in the opposition and in dire need of a guide in the uncharted waters outside government.
The country was reeling under a new political dispensation following the resounding defeat that the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) had handed the independence party at the ballot in December 2002. President Mwai Kibaki of the Democratic Party (DP) and his coalition partners, Michael Kijana Wamalwa of Ford Kenya, Raila Odinga of LDP, and Charity Ngilu of the National Party of Kenya, had taken office with gusto promising to teach the retired President and his Kanu hawks a lesson or two in matters governance. In their boisterous assumption of office, some senior Narc officials had betrayed a sense of arrogance and vindictiveness against members of the outgoing regime. It fell on Mr Sirma and his ilk to ‘defend’ the community, as he put it in an interview last year. “I was branded the Rift Valley governor after the 2002 elections because I was in the forefront speaking for the people from the region who had been sacked in numbers by the Narc government. I spoke for all and everyone knew I was their defender,” he told a television interviewer.
As it turns out, Mr Sirma was not only a defender of other people’s interests. After college, he was employed as a forester, a position now known as ecosystem conservator in the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), in the environment ministry, working in his hometown, Eldama Ravine, and in Nakuru in a senior capacity. It was while in this position between the late 1980s and mid-1990s that he owned a sawmill in the Mumberes area of Eldama Ravine, a clear conflict of interest for the man charged with preventing trees from being cut down. Besides, he was accused by critics of using his position and influence with relatives and friends in high places in the Moi administration to get a licence to run the then lucrative business.
Mr Sirma, now the director of the betting company Mozzart, is related to the Moi’s through his mother. Most of the more than 100 sawmills were in the Maji Mazuri, Solian, Poror and Mumberes areas around Eldama Ravine. It was at this time that forests in the country were being decimated by saw millers and loggers, leading its forest cover to drop below the internationally recommended 10 percent. In the early 2000s, a consignment of sandalwood believed to belong to the politician, was seized in Nakuru by forest officials led by Edward Charana, then District Forest Officer. At the time of the seizure, Mr Sirma was the Eldama Ravine MP and an assistant minister. Throughout his 10 years as elected MP, he dodged questions about his handling of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), which he had mandated his younger brother to oversee.
His political nemesis claimed he favoured areas where he drew huge political support and people close to him, including relatives. “He used CDF, bursaries and other funds as a bait. Those opposed to his style and leadership were denied access,” says an Eldama Ravine town businessman, who declined to be named because of his close association with the former legislator. It was while in his second term as MP for Eldama Ravine constituency in 2003 that Mr Sirma and other senior legislators, among them Henry Kosgei of Tinderet and
William Ruto of Eldoret North, crisscrossed the Kalenjin Rift Valley to reassure a people who felt orphaned by Moi’s exit. The team of 17 included first-term MPs such as Baringo Central’s Gideon Moi and Nick Salat of Bomet. Mr Sirma, as well as the latter two, have since fallen out with Deputy President William Ruto and are now on opposite sides of what is playing out to be a tough Uhuru Kenyatta succession battle.
Eldama Ravine and Mogotio constituencies were established after the former Baringo South Constituency was hived from Baringo district in 1995 to create Koibatek district. Mr Sirma, then the District Forest Officer, threw his hut in the ring for the new constituency and won on a Kanu ticket in the 1997 General Election. His entry and victory in the race was widely believed to have been influenced by powerful forces in the Baringo, among them Hosea Kiplagat, the long-serving Kanu executive Chairman in the district and an aide of President Moi.
A holder of a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science from Mount Kenya University, Sirma was born on July 17, 1961 and comes from the Lembus sub- tribe of the Tugen group. He went to Baringo High School and Njoro Boys High School for his O Level and A Level education, respectively. He later joined Egerton College (now Egerton University) for a diploma course in forestry where he graduated with a distinction. Mr Sirma’s appointment as minister for East African Cooperation in the dying days of the Government of National Unity under President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga did not surprise many. Already a nominated MP in Odinga’s ODM party, he was an avowed loyalist of the PM, who under the terms of the National Accord adopted following the 2007/2008 post-election violence had a say in Cabinet composition.
Moreover, even after nearly all the Rift Valley legislators who supported Odinga in 2007 had left his camp and were bitterly opposing him at every opportunity, Mr Sirma was one of the few MPs who stuck with him. Others were Henry Kosgey, Sally Kosgey, Magerer Lang’at and Franklin Bett. Mr Odinga seized the moment of a mini-Cabinet reshuffle in August 2011 to purge ministers who were deemed loyal to William Ruto, who had emerged as the leader of the restive Rift Valley after Moi’s exit from State House. By then, the political relationship between Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto, an important ally in the 2007 election campaigns, had soured beyond repair. Mr Sirma was thus appointed minister for East African Cooperation and Regional Development replacing Prof Hellen Sambili (a Kanu MP from neighbouring Mogotio thought to be a Ruto sympathiser).
I was branded the Rift Valley governor after the 2002 elections because I was in the forefront speaking for the people from the region who had been sacked in numbers by the Narc government. I spoke for all and everyone knew I was their defender Mr Sirma’s critics from Ravine and Mogotio chided the appointment as akin to a man snatching a cloth from a woman and wearing it, in a figurative reference to the ministerial flag.
Nonetheless, Mr Sirma, who was deputised by Peter Munya and whose Permanent Secretary was John Ambuka, a career administrator, took his ministerial assignments at the Cooperative House-based offices on Haile Selasie Avenue in good stead despite facing strong opposition from Mr Ruto’s allies who saw him as a traitor. In May 2012, Mr Sirma got the rare opportunity to present the East African Community’s budget speech as the chairperson of the Council of Ministers of the East African Community. In the speech, whose theme was ‘Implementation of the Common Market and laying the foundation for the Monetary Union’, Mr Sirma, who served for only 18 months, implored the five EAC states to deal decisively with the non-tariff barriers he identified as the biggest impediment to successful trading within the bloc.
“A major challenge is the removal of Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) or restrictions other than customs duties or tariffs and other specific market requirements that make importation or exportation of products difficult and costly within the region namely weighbridges, police roadblocks, non-recognition of the EAC certificates of origin, lack of mutual recognition of quality marks, re-testing of products, delays by statutory boards in releasing the results of analysis of samples and delays in issuance of import licences among others,” he said.
Even though the period was characterised by suspicion among partner states, they managed to widen and deepen cooperation in the economic and social spheres. Owing to the importance of the Mara River in the tourism sector for Kenya and Tanzania, the two countries started a sensitisation on the need to conserve its catchment areas in the Mau forest complex, a role that Mr Sirma took with gusto. The forest – the largest in East Africa – had for two decades up to 2009 been under severe pressure from encroachment, with water in the major river declining to unprecedented levels. Conserving the Mau was a familiar, yet controversial role for the politician who had earlier opposed the eviction of settlers from the forest. “Tanzania was worried about the future of tourism in the Serengeti National Park. Mara River, which is the lifeline of both Serengeti and Masai Mara Game Reserve, was almost drying up. That is why Sirma and his Tanzanian counterpart set aside a day that is still known as The Mara Day to sensitise on the need to conserve the catchment areas. Subsequent meetings pushed the government to end settlements in Mau,” says Julius Munge, Mr Sirma’s former personal assistant who now works for the Baringo County government.
Our attempts to speak to the former minister for this book were unsuccessful, but some of his associates confided in us that he was not close to President Kibaki and could only meet with the Head of State in functions concerning his ministry, during Cabinet meetings and when accompanied by Mr Odinga. “Kibaki was forced by circumstances into picking ministers, some of whom he didn’t really know nor like, because of the accord which saw the formation of the coalition government. Sirma is one such minister,” said Joseph Kokoyo, a constituent of Eldama Ravine. The President’s inner circle viewed the minister with suspicion, especially, having campaigned for Mr Odinga against Mr Kibaki in the controversial 2007 elections. So tense were the negotiations at Kilaguni Lodge, where the Grand Coalition Cabinet was crafted, that insiders of the two leaders say Mr Sirma’s name was rejected alongside that of Zakayo Cheruiyot, a former powerful internal security permanent secretary in the Moi administration who had won the Kuresoi constituency seat in Nakuru and counted himself first among equals in the Cabinet composition.
“Kibaki’s handlers were bitter. When he was declared the winner, violence in areas inhabited by the Kalenjin in the former Rift Valley province erupted. The President’s supporters bore the brunt,” says a relative of Mr Sirma’s who was conversant with the intrigues surrounding the formation of the coalition government. As it turns out, the Kibaki Cabinet was the pinnacle of Mr Sirma’s political career. In 2013 he tried to regain his old constituency seat on an ODM ticket but failed to stem the Ruto-led United Republican Party (URP) wave that was sweeping through the Rift Valley. By the 2017 elections, Mr Sirma, whose surname means he who jumped over fire, had mended fences with Mr Ruto and vied on the dominant Jubilee Party ticket, but lost in the primaries. Then he contested the seat as an independent candidate using the symbol of a buffalo, his clan’s totem. He lost, again.
Not content with the results, he charged like a buffalo to the courts in Kabarnet town and filed a petition to overturn the outcome, citing irregularities in the polls. After losing the petition and subsequent appeals, Mr Sirma took a low profile until July 2019, when he surfaced at Baringo Senator Gideon Moi’s residence in Mogotio and declared that he had ditched DP Ruto and was joining Kanu to support the former President’s youngest son. Ironically, it was Mr Sirma who hosted a big rally in 2006 that installed Mr Ruto as a Kalenjin spokesman and blessed him through the famous Eldama Ravine Declaration to seek the highest office in the land through ODM. He has since regretted leading the Eldama Ravine Declaration that catapulted Mr Ruto to be the numero uno of the Rift Valley, saying he did not know that he was building up someone who would later turn against him. He contends that the declaration played a significant role in the DP’s political career and that all his subsequent achievements can be traced to it.
Granted, the former minister is a considerable grassroots mobiliser with an aggressive personality. He is good at crafting political networks and people who have worked with him say he can hold various campaign meetings deep into the night and be up early the next day to get updates and plot others. However, his often-stated weakness is a tendency to promote cronyism and fight petty wars with villagers and junior government officers. He can be unduly vindictive with anyone who dares to cross him. A case in point is when he disagreed with government officers in the district, disputes that often resulted in their transfers or dismissal from the line ministries.
Nevertheless, former President Moi had a soft spot for Mr Sirma and he tasked him with keeping the opposition out of Baringo and also expanding the Tugen’s interests in Nakuru.
After ditching Kanu in 2007, he together with other politicians from the Rift Valley, joined ODM. It is for this steadfast support even when the tide had changed for Mr Odinga in the Rift Valley that Mr Sirma found himself working for Mr Kibaki, the man he had so bitterly opposed from 2002 to 2007.