If ever the Mwai Kibaki administration that swept to power in 2003 needed a face to symbolise a new beginning, then Najib Balala, the former Mayor of Mombasa, fit the bill perfectly.
In picking the Member of Parliament (MP) for Mvita, Mombasa’s inner city, President Kibaki chose a performer and an early bloomer who had held senior elective positions in the country by the time he was joining Cabinet at 35.
Having just defeated Sharif Nassir, the Mombasa politician and defender-in-chief of the ancien régime that had just been swept aside after ruling the country for 40 years, the young politician was named Minister for Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services.
Balala was — alongside Ochillo Ayacko (Rongo MP) and Raphael Tuju (Rarieda MP) — the youngest member of the Cabinet which was full of veterans many of whom, though advanced in age, had spent a long time on the backbench during the KANU (Kenya African National Union) era.
This deliberate attempt by the new government to infuse youth and drive and start with a clean slate attracted international acclaim.
Writing for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in September 2003, high-ranking US diplomat Johnnie Carson commented on Kibaki’s takeover, pointing out that Kenya’s very successful Parliamentary and Presidential elections of December 2002 had opened the door for a new government and a new era in the country.
In his paper ‘From Moi to Kibaki: An Assessment of the Kenyan Transition., Carson, then Senior Vice-President, National Defense University, Washington, DC, said that Kibaki brought in a number of young, well educated, first-time ministers “who are likely to move ahead rapidly in the years to come”.
He then named Balala, Tuju, and Mukisa Kituyi as young and promising.
Balala considers the spearheading, from January 2003 to June 2004, of the Gender Commission Bill that helped mainstream women’s issues in the country, one of his most important contributions while in this docket.
Later, he was moved to the Ministry of National Heritage where he served from June to November 2005. His most important contribution from his time at this position was, he considers, the development of what became the Antiquities and Monuments Act, 2006.
He prides himself for securing the country’s cultural and archaeological resources which had largely been in the hands of a family of palaeontologists that had helped found it in the early 1900s.
Before this, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) that was formally founded in 1910 — and whose role is to collect, preserve, study, document and present Kenya’s past and present cultural and natural heritage — was largely controlled by the Louis Leakey family.
The Act gave the government control over the rich national heritage and opened the door for the European Union to finance the framework of the National Museums of Kenya Support Programme (NMKSP) that changed the face of NMK as not only the custodian of national heritage, but an interactive ground for events and social gatherings.
The Act, for the first time, consolidated the laws relating to national museums and heritage to provide for the establishment, control, management and development of national museums and the identification, protection, conservation and transmission of the cultural and natural heritage of Kenya.
The rehabilitation changed the face of NMK from a backwater repository where mostly schoolchildren used to go and learn about the country’s history and material culture, to a modern and outward-looking institution that responds to a broader array of visitors’ needs while providing quality services and products.
Balala’s first stint in the Kibaki Cabinet, however, was soon cut short when he joined a group of rebels in the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government led by Raila Odinga that was opposed to the draft Constitution. The government fronted the document and all the ministers who campaigned against it were sacked following its defeat. They included Balala, Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka and Anyang Nyong’o.
The campaign against the draft Constitution attracted so much following under the Orange symbol that it turned into a political party — the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Balala was the first to publicly announce that ODM was going to become a political party at a rally in Kisumu in 2005.
The MP later put up a brief, but spirited campaign for the ODM Presidential ticket running on the slogan Nina jibu (I have the solution), a play on his first name, Najib.
His opponents for the ODM party ticket were the current ODM leader, Odinga, former Vice President Musalia Mudavadi, Eldoret North MP (now Deputy President) William Ruto and former Cabinet Minister Joseph Nyagah.
While he later stood down in favour of Odinga, he mounted colourful campaigns with expensive billboards and flyers that dotted various parts of Nairobi.
While all along Balala had been a celebrated Mombasa leader, he had sprung to the national limelight in 2002 when he joined KANU rebels in opposing President Daniel arap Moi’s attempt to influence the choice of his successor.
These rebels formed the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which would later join Kibaki’s National Alliance of Kenya which had brought together the Democratic Party (DP), Charity Ngilu’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Kijana Wamalwa’s Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-Kenya). All these hitherto disparate political outfits joined forces under NARC that defeated KANU and brought President Kibaki to power.
It was under NARC that Balala contested the Mvita seat against the coast KANU supremo Nassir. Balala won by a landslide in the first attempt.
His major advantage was that he had been elected Mayor of Mombasa in 1998 against a strong wind of Nassir’s influence, and had learnt how to win favour with Mombasa residents.
As the Mayor of Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, between 1998 and 1999 Balala initiated programmes to market the coastal city as a leading tourist destination. He started regular clean-up programmes and embarked on fighting the cartels that held Mombasa hostage.
While his modernisation programmes picked up, the deep-rooted cartels finally won as they soon bundled him out of Mombasa’s City Hall.
A Kenyan of Arab descent, Balala had emerged among the leading lights of the young generation of politicians that fought to take over the country’s leadership from the older generation that thrived in manipulating ethnic differences.
Yet despite these grand ideals, Balala did not escape accusations of ethnic profiling. After successfully defending the Mvita seat on an ODM ticket in 2007, he found himself in the spotlight for hate speech accusations.
Balala considers the spearheading, from January 2003 to June 2004 of the GenderCommission Bill that helped mainstream women’s issues in the country, one of his most important contributions while in this docket
In the heat of unrest that followed the contested election, Balala gave a press conference in which he suggested that areas that supported ODM — including Coast Province — could secede. He said Central and Eastern provinces that overwhelmingly voted for the Party of National Unity (PNU) would be isolated and the party’s sympathisers expelled from the coast.
So unsavoury were the remarks that when the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors were searching for the perpetrators of the 2007–2008 post-election violence, many observers believed that Balala would be among the suspects. He, however, escaped the net unscathed.
Balala was part of the top decision-making body in ODM — the Pentagon — a vehicle on which he rode to Kibaki’s inner sanctum — again.
The other members were Odinga, Mudavadi, Ruto, Ngilu and Nyagah. They were all appointed to key ministerial positions in 2008 following the truce between President Kibaki and the ODM leader who became Prime Minister.
Balala was appointed the Minister for Tourism and was credited with reviving the sector that had been brought to its knees by the post-poll violence.
True to his word, he had a sterling career in the docket. As Minister in charge of Tourism from 2008 to 2012, Balala was elected Chairman of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Commission for Africa (2011). In 2009 he had been voted the Best Tourism Minister in Africa by Africa Investor (AI), a lobby.
Along the way, the restless Balala fell out of favour with Odinga and gravitated towards Kibaki during the push and pull that characterised the Government of National Unity. He constantly chastised ODM for “lacking democracy and manipulating the party’s grassroots elections”.
Under the terms of the National Accord that brought together President Kibaki and Odinga, his challenger in the 2007 election, the Prime Minister had a say on who would serve in the Cabinet amongst members of his party.
And so in March 2012 Balala was sacked from his Cabinet job.
Odinga would later explain that he had no option but to let Balala go for failing to toe the party line, an accusation which the MP denied, insisting that he had lost his Cabinet post for standing by the truth that the party had no internal democracy.
In May 2012 Balala quit ODM and initially associated himself with the United Democratic Forum (UDF) party that had been formed by Mudavadi who had also quit ODM. At that time, he also hinted that he was ready to work with Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta — who was then the chairman of KANU.
But in September 2012, Balala launched his own party, the Republican Congress Party of Kenya, on which he planned to contest the Mombasa Senate seat.
On realising that his political support had gone down with the emergence of new players and the continued strong presence of ODM at the coast, however, Balala joined hands with Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA), Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) and Ngilu’s NARC to form a loose working relationship.
He was, however, prevailed upon to abandon elective politics and support the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket in the 2013 elections. In return, he was promised the post of Cabinet Secretary (Minister).
True to promise, President Kenyatta appointed Balala Minister for Mining in May 2013. This was a new territory for the politician and he said as much in an interview. He is credited with delivering the Mining Bill in 2014. The Bill provided the first institutional framework review of Kenya’s mining sector since 1940.
Balala was moved to Tourism in 2015 and reappointed to Tourism and Wildlife after the 2017 General Election. He oversaw
the drafting and launch of both the National Tourism Blueprint (NTB) 2030 and National Wildlife Strategy (NWS) 2030. He is keen to improve and modernise Kenya’s wildlife conservation sector, which he says is important because it is responsible for 70 per cent of the tourism earnings.
Born in September 1967, Balala attended Serani Boys Primary School in Mombasa, before moving to Kakamega High School in western Kenya where he did both his O’ and A’ levels. He later attended the United States International University (USIU) where he did a Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Relations. He later moved to the University of Toronto in Canada where he studied International Urban Management, and later Business Administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
After college in the early 1990s, Balala worked in the tourism industry before he joined the family business that dealt in tea and coffee trade.
While in the private sector, Balala held many key positions. They include Secretary of the Swahili Cultural Centre from 1993–1996 and the Chairman of the Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association between 1996 and 1999. He also served as the Vice Chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB), and Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Mombasa Chapter) from 2000 to 2003.
At 30 years old, he became the youngest Mayor of Mombasa ever. He was also elected Chairman of the Association of Local Government Authorities of Kenya (ALGAK).
While his heart was always in tourism, Balala was forced to join national politics when he lost the mayoral position.
Today, true to Carson’s assessment, nearly two decades on, Balala and Tuju are Cabinet ministers in an administration that succeeded Kibaki’s while Kituyi is Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
That Balala is still a Cabinet Minister and in charge of a docket he first served in nearly 20 years ago points to his political acumen that has enabled him to keep his ambition alive even as he humbles himself to serve under others.
His longevity is also testament to the wisdom of the man who first gave the first-term MP a Cabinet position, which he has mostly retained for 18 years.