Noah Wekesa – NARC helmsman who missed his ark

As the biblical story goes, Noah was chosen to perpetuate the human race, leaving his wicked contemporaries to perish in a deluge. Tasked with building an ark to house the chosen few, the patriarch also let in all animals, male and female, according to God’s commandment.

Fast-forward to the story of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), the movement that swept Mwai Kibaki to power, and Noah Makhalang’ang’a Wekesa, the burly veterinary surgeon, becomes the builder who was nearly left out of his ark.

A former KANU stalwart who gravitated towards opposition politics in the dying days of the Moi administration, Dr Wekesa was a central cog in the NARC machine, having chaired caucuses such as The Summit – the top organ of party elders – as well as earlier formations that worked on opposition unity ahead of the 2002 elections.

Though he would later be appointed Minister for Science and Technology, then Forestry and Wildlife, a combination of regional juggling and the politician’s seeming lack of charisma, kept him out of the Cabinet in the early years of Kibaki’s rule.

First, Wekesa came from the same district as Kipruto Kirwa, the articulate Cherang’any MP, who was the most prominent NARC legislator from the Kalenjin end of Rift Valley. As did Vice-President Kijana Wamalwa.  Both Kirwa and Wamalwa had long earned their place at the high table.

Kibaki was as straight as they come. The fact that he never dished out money during campaigns also attests to this. I think Kibaki debunked the notion that you need a lot of money to be the President of this country

Secondly, besides Wamalwa, there were many NARC luminaries in neighbouring Bungoma and Kakamega counties, including the cerebral Mukhisa Kituyi, well-grounded Musikari Kombo, and the charismatic Soita Shitanda. There was also Vihiga’s Moses Akaranga, who had felled former Vice-President Musalia Mudavadi in Sabatia in 2002, to think about.

Yet Kibaki and Wekesa’s paths had crossed decades before. In his quest to become a veterinary surgeon, Wekesa went to Makerere University for studies, where he met Kibaki, who had carved out a reputation of being a brainbox extra-ordinaire. Kibaki had become the first person to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (1st Class Honours) at the University of London’s Makerere College in 1955.

Born on 21st August 1936 in Lwandeti, Kakamega County, Wekesa first went to Lokhokho Primary School in 1945, before transferring to Kivaywa Primary School. He later moved to Lugulu Intermediate Primary School, where he sat for the Kenya Primary Education Examinations in 1951.

Wekesa proceeded to Kaimosi Secondary School and then to Kakamega High School where he studied for the Cambridge School Certificate. He joined the University of Makerere in Uganda for diploma studies in veterinary medicine. His encounter with Kibaki at Makerere was short-lived, as the latter soon left for further studies in London, even though Wekesa’s educational trajectory would later partially mirror that of his hero.

Wekesa applied for and won a scholarship to study for a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine and surgery at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1960, graduating in 1966.

Wekesa, a former ardent rally driver and tennis player was, like Kibaki, a self-effacing political submarine. Thus, when the pivotal task of building the political vessels that would twice sail Kibaki on his voyage to the presidency, it was a labour of love.

This is how Dr Wekesa became a part of the parliamentary and civil society team of twelve who founded the National Alliance for Change (NAC). At the same time, he was elected chairman of the NAC Coordinating Committee, and once acted as chairman of the Council of National Alliance Party of Kenya. He was one of the ten elders appointed to spearhead the unification of the NARC and the National Party of Kenya (NPK). The efforts zeroed in on bringing together Simeon Nyachae, Charity Ngilu, and Kibaki, all former presidential candidates in the 1997 General Election, to put up a united front against outgoing President Moi’s choice – Uhuru Kenyatta.

Dr Wekesa would later co-chair a combined NAK Coordinating Committee and the NARC summit. He was handpicked by Wamalwa to be his representative in a committee that brought together MPs Shem Ochuodho (Rangwe), and Matere Keriri (Kirinyaga Central)

Willy Mutunga, who later became the first Chief justice under Kenya’s 2010 Constitution was the chairman, but he resigned citing a conflict of interests since he was also chairing the non-governmental Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC). Mutunga recommended that Wekesa takes over the chairmanship of the committee, which would later birth the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK). This is how Wekesa ended up working closely with Kibaki.

“It was a committee fraught with many challenges, mostly lack of quorum. But all indicators were that Kibaki and Wamalwa would work together,” Wekesa recalled, adding that he and Kombo would later prevail upon Wamalwa to cede the NARC presidential candidacy to Kibaki.

Wekesa says Ngilu was also instrumental in bringing Wamalwa and Kibaki together. At a time when Wamalwa had started experiencing bouts of illness, Wekesa added, Kibaki would often call Dr Wekesa’s home in Trans Nzoia to check on Wamalwa’s well-being and his availability for political meetings.

News that Kibaki and Wamalwa had struck an agreement, thanks to the political brokering of Wekesa and his cohorts, spread like a bush fire. Raila Odinga was keen to join the team and, once again, Dr Wekesa was charged with co-chairing the committee that helped form NARC, with then Kisumu Town MP, Joab Omino.

This led to the formation of the NARC Summit, a political grouping that comprised Moody Awori, Wamalwa, Ngilu, Najib Balala, Odinga, and Kibaki with Wekesa as the coordinator.

“I was the only member of The Summit that was not appointed to the Cabinet immediately after our 2002 victory,” Dr Wekesa explained.

But how did the veterinary surgeon end up in politics? On his return from the University of Edinburgh, Dr Wekesa joined the Ministry of Livestock and Agriculture as a divisional veterinary officer in Ol Kalou, then the former South Nyanza and Kisii districts, before he was promoted to the provincial veterinary officer in Nyanza. He was shortly after promoted and deployed to Kisumu in August 1969.

It was earlier, while in Homa Bay that Wekesa first met Vice President Moi who was inspecting government projects in 1967. They would cross paths again when Wekesa became the Kisii District Veterinary Officer. Wekesa recalls that the job was not interesting professionally, because it was an administrative role, whereas he was interested in animals since he was a vet.

Thus, Wekesa took a leap of faith and resigned from the government on 3rd October 1969 to set up a private veterinary practice in Kitale. It was then that residents approached him to make his first stab at a parliamentary seat for Kitale West in 1983, which he did unsuccessfully.

Wekesa resumed his private veterinary practice in Nairobi. But he could not rid himself of the political bug and would often participate in fundraisers in Kitale. He later approached James Nyamweya, a former minister in Jomo Kenyatta’s Cabinet, who was then head of a boundaries commission, to carve out a new constituency from Kitale West and Kitale East. So, from being one of the first Africans to start private veterinary practices in both Kitale and in Nairobi, in 1988 Dr Wekesa became the first MP for Kwanza Constituency.

The then President Moi appointed Wekesa an Assistant Minister for Livestock and Agriculture and charged him with the Livestock docket. To avoid conflict of interests, Wekesa sold his private veterinary practice.

Come 1992, and in line with his notable loyalty streak, Wekesa opted to defend his seat on a KANU ticket, despite the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-Kenya) wind that was then sweeping across western Kenya, an area predominantly inhabited by the Luhya. He lost to George Kapten of Ford-Kenya.

Impressed by Dr Wekesa’s loyalty, President Moi recommended him for the district chairmanship of KANU. His tenure as the chairman was short-lived as Moi would soon tactfully edge him out of the party in 1996 on suspicion of being sympathetic to FORD-Kenya.

Feeling slighted despite his loyalty, Dr Wekesa attempted to run for the Kwanza seat on the Ford Kenya ticket in the 1997 elections, but Wamalwa prevailed on him to leave it to Kapten, urging him to instead run his Presidential campaigns with the promise of being nominated to parliament. This was, however, not to be.

As fate would have it, Kapten died in December 1999, paving way for a parliamentary by-election in 2000. Wamalwa then backed Wekesa for the by-election which he won to become the Kwanza MP – once again.

After the NARC victory in 2002, Wekesa was confident of an appointment to the cabinet. Indeed, he had earlier received a call to go to Nairobi in readiness for the announcement. On the day President Kibaki named his Cabinet, Wekesa listened attentively to the line-up, but his name was not on the list. He felt betrayed, having been instrumental in the formation of NARC.

Little did he know that a day after leaving for Nairobi, Wamalwa had visited his home in Kitale looking for him. “Wamalwa was angered by my travel to Nairobi to pursue a cabinet appointment on my own, he had instead recommended to President Kibaki the appointment of Kipruto Kirwa as the Minister of Agriculture,” he revealed.

Though dejected, Dr Wekesa called the President and said he was pleased with the Cabinet line-up, words he confesses were difficult to utter. As a consolation, he was made the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee in Parliament, a position he gladly accepted considering his professional background.

After Wamalwa’s death in August 2003, Mukhisa Kituyi, then Minister for Trade and Industry, called Wekesa to inform him that he would be appointed to the cabinet. On the day of his swearing in ceremony, as he was preparing for the occasion, he received another call from Kituyi informing him that he would not be appointed as a minister after all, but rather as an assistant minister.

Taken aback by the change of events, Wekesa requested Matere Keriri, then the State House Comptroller, for an audience with the President. He was granted an appointment. Upon his arrival at State House, however, he was informed that he would only see the President after his swearing in. He left a message for President Kibaki and left State House.

His decision was followed by an official letter explaining his reasons for turning down the appointment and requesting to remain the Chairman of the Parliament Committee on Agriculture. He would later receive a call from a Kibaki confidant who explained the intrigues behind him not getting a ministerial appointment and prevailed on him to accept the job. Three weeks later, he was sworn in as the Assistant Minister in the Agriculture Ministry, in charge of the Livestock docket – his area of training.

Five months later, Kibaki sacked his entire Cabinet, two days after losing the national referendum on what became the Constitution of Kenya 2010. The President sought to meet Kombo, the Chairman of FORD-Kenya and MP for Webuye, in his attempt to reconstitute the Cabinet.

The FORD-Kenya members advised Kombo, who had also lost his ministerial post, not to meet the President unless he was willing to accommodate more members of their party in government. They went to State House early the following day, where they offered to support Kibaki on the condition that Soita Shitanda, who was then the MP for Malava, and Noah Wekesa joined the cabinet. This is how Wekesa joined the Kibaki administration in 2005 as Minister for Science and Technology.

From this point on, Wekesa’s fortunes took a turn for the better. He was soon appointed Chairman of Ministers of Science and Technology in Africa in a conference held in Algiers, Algeria. President Kibaki also entrusted Wekesa with heading the Ministry of Education after George Saitoti was asked to step aside over his suspected role in the Goldenberg scandal.

Though most viewed him as a pacifying force, Wekesa is also known for standing for what he believed in. As Minister for Forestry and Wildlife, he disagreed with William Ruto, then Minister for Agriculture, and Henry Kosgey, Minister for Industrialisation, accusing the two of inciting Mau Forest settlers to resist eviction.

Five months to the 2007 General Election, Wekesa would be involved in another political tussle, as he tried to wrest NARC from the grip of Ngilu. When all efforts to reclaim NARC failed, Wekesa was appointed the Chairman of the Coordination Committee that brought together fifteen parties for the formation of the Party of National Unity (PNU), the vehicle Kibaki rode to State House for his second term.

Reflecting on his time as minister, Wekesa says that Kibaki abhorred corruption, the reason he asked his ministers to step aside when accused of the vice.

“Kibaki was as straight as they come. The fact that he never dished out money during campaigns also attests to this. I think Kibaki debunked the notion that you need a lot of money to be the President of this country.”

Wekesa’s time in the Cabinet was, however, not without controversy. At the Ministry of Education, Wekesa would soon fall out with his Permanent Secretary (PS) Karega Mutahi over the reappointment of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Commission for Higher Education. At one point he approached Moses Akaranga, a minister who had the President’s ear, to voice his displeasure with the conduct of his PS. Kibaki’s response was succinct and forthright: “Is not Wekesa the minister?” Kibaki asked Akaranga rhetorically, adding, “He can fire the Permanent Secretary or do whatever else he pleases.”

Over time Wekesa’s relations with Kibaki thawed and they would often have one-on-one meetings about any issues in his ministerial docket, according to the former minister.

During the Grand Coalition Government, Wekesa worked largely under the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga, whose direct involvement in the efforts to conserve the Mau Forest and other water towers cast a long shadow on the minister’s docket.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) department also thrived under his watch, although some of his critics attribute the prudent management of national parks and reserves to Dr Julius Kipng’etich. The two never got along and Kipng’etich resigned abruptly in 2011. Soon, the slaughter of wild animals in the country became the order of the day.

Some analysts claim that Kipng’etich’s departure forced some donors who were funding crucial conservation activities to pull out. Regardless of the real reason, Kipng’etich insists that he worked cordially with his former boss, although they differed on “certain issues pertaining the running of KWS.” Kipng’etich says of Dr Wekesa: “He was an affable personality. I worked with him well, but we failed to read on the same page on some issues pertaining my office.”

In an interesting perspective, Dr David Wekesa, a veterinarian who worked with the former minister in his days as the Provincial Veterinary Officer in the former Nyanza Province, says the former Kwanza MP would complain of not receiving the attention he needed from Kibaki, despite helping to cobble together parties to form Narc and later PNU to win two presidential elections.

“I think he either wanted to be admitted to the inner circle or be given a plum ministry,” says the other Wekesa who has no blood relations with the former minister.

The NARC ship had carried many political heavyweights often coming from neighbouring constituencies, giving President Kibaki much agony in accommodating them all in government and Wekesa was caught up in this dilemma.

Wekesa, a large-scale maize and wheat farmer, insists that he worked diligently and fought corruption in the ministries he led. Since losing his Kwanza seat to Ferdinand Wanyonyi in the 2013 General Election, he has unsuccessfully tried to make a political comeback.

In the end, President Kibaki’s good record of saving the country’s water towers must be shared by the man he entrusted the job, even though the feeling of slight for being nearly left out of the ark he helped build appears to have affected Wekesa’s performance.

Away from politics, Dr Wekesa, now the chairman of the Strategic Food Reserve, is remembered for demystifying the notion that flower farming is a preserve of a few opulent individuals.

He teamed up with Reuben Chesire, a onetime MP for Eldoret North, and put up a spirited campaign in the North Rift region to encourage middle-level farmers to take advantage of the nearby Eldoret International Airport and go into flower farming for export, efforts which bore fruit.

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