Newton Wanjala Kulundu, the medic-turned-politician, was easy to underestimate.
The Member of Parliament (MP) for Lurambi, a constituency carved out of the then larger Kakamega District (now Kakamega County) at independence, had a somewhat laboured manner of speech that underlined humble beginnings and rural schooling. It wouldn’t be a misnomer to claim that Kulundu lacked the eloquence associated with those who choose politics as a career.
Kulundu, the politician, could also be combative and undiplomatic. But those who interacted closely with him assert that that the politician was remarkably different from Kulundu, the Kibaki minister. The man in the board room was calm and collected. He exhibited admirable intellect, a keen ear and flair for managerial skill and ability that enabled him to build consensus and enforce an overriding thread of the Kibaki Presidency — reform and progress.
His, sometimes, combative nature is understandable. Kulundu hailed from the Abanyala community, a small but fiercely proud Luhya sub-tribe spread across Kakamega and Busia counties. Barring the Bukusu and Tiriki communities, the Banyala have one of the most intricate circumcision ceremonies among the Luhya and they place a big premium on a rite of passage that transforms young men into warriors.
After years of experience in public service and the private sector, Kulundu rose to Parliament on the shoulders of giants. Lurambi Constituency’s pioneer and two-term MP, Jonathan Welangai Masinde of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), is remembered as one of the most eloquent politicians to emerge from western Kenya, as was the highly regarded trade unionist, Wasike Ndombi, who became MP in 1979.
Ndombi earned admiration and respect for his principled stand on national issues, challenging the government in Parliament and consistently defending the rights of workers. Indeed, his name is often mentioned alongside the ‘Seven bearded sisters’ — a group of anti-establishment MPs who kept government on its toes in the late 1970s and 1980s. And that is high praise.
It is from this background that Kulundu stepped on to the national stage in 1997, the echo of his illustrious forebears, perhaps, ringing in his ears.
Born in 1948 in a small village in Kakamega, Kulundu went to Navakholo Primary School before proceeding to Namirama Intermediate School. He sat his Ordinary and Advanced level examinations at Government African School Kakamega and Kenyatta College before enrolling at the University of Nairobi for a bachelor’s degree in Medicine. He capped his academic studies with a master’s degree in public health in California, United States.
Thereafter, he worked for the Ministry of Health, East Africa Industries and Brooke Bond Kenya before taking up politics.
Contesting on a Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-Kenya) ticket in 1997, he defeated Javan Ommani of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and joined Parliament, where he chaired the Parliamentary Health Committee. Five years later, he was re-elected under the banner of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and was appointed Minister for Environment and Wildlife in January 2003.
The environment sector was, to say the least, in shambles. Years of illegal logging, charcoal burning and encroachment had decimated the indigenous forests that guard the water towers of the Mau Forest Complex, the Aberdare Range, Mt Kenya, and Cherengani Hills and Mt Elgon. So entrenched was the lawlessness that crooked individuals had turned chunks of the Aberdares and Mt Kenya forests into marijuana plantations. Water levels in major rivers, hydro-electric dams and the water reservoirs that serve Nairobi were at an all-time low. Power cuts and water rationing were the order of the day.
In Nairobi, an American investor was waving a government permit to build a massive hotel in the fragile Karura Forest. From one forest to the other, it was a tale of excisions, illegal exploitation and woe.
Kulundu’s Assistant Minister was the Tetu MP, world acclaimed environmental and political activist, founder of the Green Belt Movement and, later, Nobel Laureate, Wangari Muta Maathai.
A towering figure in academia, the women’s empowerment movement, forest conservation and politics, Maathai was an author and woman of many firsts whose personal force, influence and intellectual reach transcended Kenyan and African boundaries.
Maathai, Kenya’s and Africa’s first woman Nobel Peace Laureate, was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, and to chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and to become an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively.
While Wangari is better known locally for her work as a political and environmental activist, what made her a powerful and endearing global figure was her ability to link environmental conservation to good governance, democracy, peace and improved lives for women and, by extension, the community at large.
Her legacy as an intellectual who thought globally and acted locally is not only reflected in her work as a political activist during Kenya’s ‘second liberation’, her fight to save Uhuru Park and Karura Forest, both in Nairobi, or her Green Belt Movement whose mission remains alive. Her greatness is seen in the 38 per cent forest cover in her native Nyeri County and the conversation of the once parched Makuyu–Embu stretch of the Nairobi–Nyeri highway into a lush, inviting landscape covered with fruit trees; both fruits of the agroforestry campaign she tirelessly championed as Environment and Wildlife Assistant Minister.
Contesting on a Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-Kenya) ticket in 1997, he defeated Javan Ommani of KANU and joined Parliament
As minister and assistant, theirs was an uneasy ideological relationship. One was a scientist who was passionate about trees and forest conservation and was not only more knowledgeable on the Ministry’s mandate, but an authority of global repute on matters environment. A resolute and firm campaigner for a strict forest protectionist regime that excluded any form of human activity, Maathai was opposed to the ‘shamba system’ where communities cultivate crops in government forests — a policy shift that was obviously at odds with Kulundu’s innate political instincts because kicking farmers out of forests would disenfranchise voters.
Nonetheless, together they fired and suspended forest officers deemed corrupt, toured the besieged forests, spearheaded the destruction of marijuana plantations in Mt Kenya Forest, banned the ‘shamba system’ and laid the ground for the establishment of the Kenya Forest Service Act of 2005.
Hailed as one of the most stringent wildlife laws in the world, the Act made it difficult to for ministers to excise government forests for development projects as had been the norm in the past. It also set up the Kenya Forest Service, a better resourced State parastatal to take over management of governments from the struggling, and some said, corrupt Forest Department.
The wildlife sub-sector was no different. While Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) was regarded as one of the best established and most efficient wildlife management institutions in Africa, the reality was that the organisation was listless and broke.
The belief that KWS could generate sufficient revenue internally and from donors had backfired. Tourism had turned out to be an unpredictable enterprise that was dependent on numerous variables — like political stability and the vagaries of extreme climate and weather. KWS was also hampered by ideological wars fronted by powerful and deeply entrenched external forces. And, following the exit of the forceful Richard Leakey and David Western, the organisation had become a limping, if wounded giant, and the vultures of the conservation world were now hovering above in the sky.
As Minister, Kulundu set up a new board and tapped Evans Mukolwe to take over the reins as KWS director.
It was a curious choice. Mukolwe, headhunted from the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, was a former Director at the Kenya Meteorological Department with no grounding in wildlife management or conservation science. But his appointment was a pointer to the strategic employment of highly skilled and experienced technocrats from the private sector and international organisations to buttress the public service.
Although Kulundu and Mukolwe served relatively short stints, their rein is significant in two ways.
First, the two set into motion the repeal of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act (Cap 376 of 1976) which was deemed out of date and incapable of dealing with present and future wildlife conservation and management challenges. The repeal, though urgent and overdue, had been hampered by incessant bickering and vicious conservation politics mostly centred around whether sport hunting, banned in 1978, should be allowed to resume in Kenya.
This, the two men did, by inviting 300 wildlife conservation stakeholders, including community leaders, scientists and conservation experts drawn from government, academia and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) community to a three-day national conference in Mombasa. It was the first such indaba in Kenya’s history and notably, National Assembly Speaker Francis Ole Kaparo attended not as a leader of a legislative arm of government, but a senior Maasai elder.
And so a journey that began with bitter ideological rivals facing off across the table culminated in 2014 with the enactment into law of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013. This act provides, inter alia, stronger participation of communities in conservation and reinforces the role of science and research.
Their second achievement is no less remarkable. Since its formation, KWS had been heavily dependent on foreign donors, which meant government officers often worked under suffocating Caucasian excesses, with the foreign NGOs, experts and consultants calling the shots. Kulundu and his new director quickly convinced the Presidency that the lofty ‘self-sustenance’ dreams of KWS were not viable and that as an essential public service institution, the organisation deserved full government budget support. Until then, the government had mainly supported management of roads and training of rangers.
One case that stands out is the historic translocation of 400 elephants from the Shimba Hills ecosystem to the Tsavos in 2005. Previously, all animal translocations were funded by foreign donors with their experts tagging along. This operation, the biggest ever in the world, was fully funded by the government at over KES 300 million and executed with military precision by the KWS Animal Capture Unit without the assistance of a single foreign expert. This not only strengthened President Kibaki’s philosophy of financial independence, but imbued an amazing sense of pride and self-belief within the cadres of KWS.
It is also worth noting that this historic translocation coincided with another first — the recruitment and training of 1,000 game rangers. This was thus far the largest cohort of game ranger recruits in Kenya’s history, again fully funded by government.
By the time this translocation was going on, however, both men who had planned it had long moved on — Mukolwe sacked on allegations of corruption (the court later dismissed the charges and awarded him damages) and Kulundu on transfer to the Ministry of Labour and Human Resource Development.
In the background of these spectacular achievements, however, lay the hand of formidable Permanent Secretary, Peter Gakunu. A holder of an MBA and a Master’s degree in Economics from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and Statistics from Makerere University, Gakunu left the International Monetary (IMF) to serve as Economic Secretary and Director of Planning at the Ministry of Finance and Planning under President Moi’s ‘Dream Team’. Later, he joined President Kibaki’s government as PS in the Ministry of Environment and as Senior Advisor in the Cabinet Office in charge of economic reforms.
An international public servant of the first order, Gakunu, is an expert in formulation and coordination of government policy, planning and monitoring; and collaboration with bilateral and multilateral institutions; among others. These credentials no doubt placed him in the driving seat behind Kulundu’s and Maathai’s achievements at the Ministry.
At Labour, Kulundu had two assistant ministers — David Sudi, the KANU MP for Marwakwet West and Sammy Leshore, Samburu East MP and the first person of disability to serve in the Cabinet. His PS was Nancy Kirui.
Kenya’s labour industry has a history of unrests. Once more, his ability to engineer reform came to the fore.
In eulogising Kulundu after his death, President Kibaki described him as a politician and Cabinet minister who distinguished himself as a man of courage and whose contribution to the country he was proud of.
The Secretary General of the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), Francis Atwoli, spoke of a man, “who never failed to make changes especially in the labour industry as long as they suited the workers” and had “among other things transformed the Tom Mboya Labour College in Kisumu to a vibrant institution that helps trade unionists”.
But it is Saboti MP Eugene Wamalwa who, perhaps, best summed up the man when he said Kulundu was, “one person who would take a stand and prepare to face the consequences of his decision”.
It had come to pass that while the political ground in his constituency shifted towards the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) towards the end of his second term as MP, Kulundu stood firm behind his party and chose to seek re-election as a candidate of Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) in 2007. It was a rare show of spine and principle for a Kenyan politician, and the consequence of that decision was a loss at the ballot to ODM’s one-term candidate, Atanas Manyala Keya.
Kulundu died three years later in 2010.
Sadly, when Kulundu’s name pops up today, Kenyans rarely remember his achievements as Cabinet minister, but his acerbic public spat with former KWS Director and Head of Public Service Leakey — who he accused of being “arrogant” and “trying to control the KWS from outside the Civil Service”. This and his altercation with US Ambassador, Michael Ranneberger.
Ranneberger bristled famously and refused to shake his hand when Kulundu accused the United States and the United Kingdom, in his presence no less, of needling developing countries about human rights abuses when they were in fact “the greatest violators of human rights”.
Diplomatic, Kulundu certainly was not. But he spoke his mind, stood firm in his convictions. And most of the time, he got the job done.