When he recounts President Mwai Kibaki’s leadership style, Paul Nyongesa Otuoma paints the picture of an impresario of unrivalled brilliance. The former Funyula Member of Parliament (MP) who served in three ministerial dockets in Kibaki’s administration is, however, quick to note that the President’s well-coordinated government had an unfortunate interlude in 2008 after a disputed election that triggered violence in parts of the country.
Otuoma attributes this blight on Kibaki’s leadership to the road accident in 2002 that the President was involved in and a cabal of politicians who surrounded him as soon as he took over power. The 2008 post-election violence, explains Otuoma, was a crescendo of unmet political expectations from his first term in office after Kibaki fired Raila Odinga and his team from the government.
The father of four first was elected to Parliament as the Funyula MP in 2007 on an Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) ticket and later appointed Minister for Fisheries in President Kibaki’s and Prime Minister Odinga’s Government of National Unity in 2008.
His re-election in 2013 was challenged by John Okello, a voter who filed a petition seeking to annul Otuoma’s election as the Funyula legislator. The court ruled that Funyula constituents duly elected Otuoma and that the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IEBC) followed due process when it declared him the winner. The petitioner had lined up about 20 witnesses to support his allegation that Otuoma’s election was not free and fair because it was tarnished by electoral malpractices and irregularities.
Born on 15 September 1966 in Busia Otuoma to Chrispinus Nyongesa Otuoma, a civil servant, and Mary Nyongesa, Otuoma went to school in Khalsa Primary School in Nairobi in 1974 where he sat for his Certificate of Primary Education examinations in 1980.
When Kibaki ousted President Daniel arap Moi with a resounding victory in the 2002General Election, the wave of optimism that had swept across the nation would lure Otuoma back to Kenya
He transitioned to Eastleigh High School for O’ levels from 1981 to 1984 and later joined Nairobi School for A’ -levels, finishing in 1986. Otuoma, a keep-fit enthusiast who plays rugby for leisure, is an alumnus of the University of Nairobi where he attained an undergraduate degree of Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Masters in Business Administration.
Like most university students in modern-day Kenya, Otuoma didn’t immediately find a job after graduation. He worked as a waiter at a popular fast-food restaurant in Nairobi at the time. In 1992 he took a second job at Agromed Limited who were then agents for Bayer, a multinational pharmaceutical.
His two-year stint would later pave the way for him to join the veterinary pharmaceutical department of Bayer AG as a sales representative. That was 1994. Otuoma gradually rose through the ranks and relocated to South Africa in 2000 where he was in charge of business development for East and Central Africa for Bayer.
When Kibaki ousted President Daniel arap Moi with a resounding victory in the 2002 General Election, the wave of optimism that had swept across the nation would lure Otuoma back to Kenya in 2003 to set up a chemicals distribution company called Mwanga Agrovet. He has doubled as a Keg distributor in Nyanza and the western region for Kenya Breweries Limited through his Kisumu-based company called Nyando Limited.
The veterinary doctor says his resolve to join politics and vie for the Funyula Parliamentary seat was inspired by the need to contribute towards rebuilding the country. “At one point in your career progression, you reach a level where you are a professional but you no longer execute. Instead, you work through people to make things happen. Whether in the public or private sector, the principles of management are the same,” said Otuoma during an interview for this article.
In 2007, when he won the Funyula seat for the first time, ODM declared its Presidential candidate, Odinga, the winner, and called on President Kibaki to concede defeat and prepare to hand over the instruments of power. The ensuing civil strife would lead to post-election violence that necessitated the formation of a coalition government between the warring political forces. Otuoma later joined the Cabinet as Minister for Fisheries Development in 2008.
“At the time we were focused on uniting the country. During the peace negotiations, there were talks on which side of the coalition would steer the different ministerial dockets. But I was not part of those negotiations,” revealed Otuoma. The talks would later beget the National Accord and Reconciliation Act of 2008 that temporarily re-established the office of Prime Minister, along with the creation of two deputy prime minister positions.
This would later lead to the power-sharing agreement between President Kibaki and Opposition leader Odinga, who became the first Prime Minister under the Government of National Unity. “There were challenging moments. We were coming from a very acrimonious electioneering period and parties that had a dispute were now working together,” Otuoma explained.
Otuoma vividly remembers the first meeting they had with Kibaki after the formation of the coalition and lauds the President’s ability to manage the government during a turbulent phase. “His ability to bring the two sides of the coalition together and make the government work despite the political challenges is something generations need to reflect upon,” Otuoma said.
During his first encounter with the President, Otuoma recalls Kibaki’s insistence that ministers were to be cognizant of the fact they were not serving him as the appointing authority, but the country. He applauds Kibaki for giving him a free hand to run his ministry. There were instances, he recalls, where ministers would have tussles with permanent secretaries working under them, but Kibaki never interfered.
“There were no phone calls from him to influence ministerial decisions. There is a nugget of wisdom that I picked from him that has been my guiding principle in politics; that we should not personalise our positions, that we only hold public offices in service of the people,” said Otuoma. In expounding on this maxim, he remembers an anecdote Kibaki shared about being appointed as a Cabinet Minister after having served as the Vice President under President Moi.
At the time, Kibaki’s friends and confidants saw this as a demotion and advised him to turn down the ministerial appointment. He recounts that Kibaki intimated that he took the new assignment in stride and saw it as an opportunity to serve Kenyans in another capacity.
Though operating in an environment marred by belligerence and infighting, Otuoma recollects that decisions were not made based on affiliation but policies whose soundness was evaluated critically in the interest of the nation. “I liked the idea of performance contracts. We were running on programme-based budgeting to make sure there were resources for proposed projects. One of the main challenges that the Kibaki administration faced when they took power in 2002, was issues of pending bills,” he explained
Otuoma revealed that at the time accounting officers such as permanent secretaries and undersecretaries would attend ministerial meetings to cascade the proposals down to implementing officers. He said that because the President gave ministers free rein over their dockets, they were also no incidents of policy makers interfering with procurements officers or other officials lower in the command chain.
Though there was a push to have both sides of the coalition to appoint the respective permanent secretaries for the dockets they were responsible for, they finally resolved not to meddle with civil servants and the structure of government. Permanent secretaries and accounting officers, Otuoma explained, were not appointed based on political affiliation, but on merit.
“Thought it happens in other jurisdictions where political parties in a coalition, based on the key issues in their manifestos, appoint civil servants. This was not the case in the Kenyan context, permanent secretaries were appointed by the President,” he revealed.
Otuoma said the ethos he picked from the private sector, where he was a leader with little or no supervision, guided his style of leadership when he joined the public sector. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t achieve it,” he asserted. He recalled having access to Francis Muthaura, the Head of Civil Service, who was always at hand to sort out any bureaucratic challenges that could hinder the implementation of government projects.
“Muthaura was very good in coordinating government functions, he was accessible and had prompt answers to your challenges,” said Otuoma. Kibaki, he says, was a very accessible President with Cabinet meetings held weekly “without fail”. As members of Kibaki’s Cabinet, they were always conscious that they would have to report the progress of any assignments at the next Cabinet meeting, he recounted.
After these meetings, , there was always a circular to ministries and permanent secretaries on deliverables that needed implementation that was sent the same afternoon even before the ministers got back to their work stations, narrated Otuoma. “Ministers appointed boards to parastatals under their ministries and gazette the appointments promptly,” he said.
While at the Ministry of Fisheries Development he had a cordial working relationship with Ntiba Micheni, a former Director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Nairobi and they jointly made far-reaching policy changes that helped develop aquaculture and the Blue Economy. “We had a harmonious working relationship and worked jointly in developing the Fisheries Management and Development Bill,” he reported.
Otuoma who first tabled the Bill to the Cabinet before sponsoring it in Parliament, said Kenya had until then relied on precolonial era laws. His successor completed the assignment. Before formulating the Bill, Otuoma and officials under his docket went benchmarking tours in Israel and Indonesia to study what the two countries were doing in aquaculture. They would later visit almost every constituency in Kenya setting up fish ponds to demonstrate the feasibility of fish farming.
The Bill, which was later signed into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2016, provides for the conservation, management and development of fisheries and other aquatic resources to enhance the livelihood of communities that depend on fishing. Besides offering guidance on the import and export trade of fish and fish products, fish quality and safety among other provisions, the Act also established the Kenya Fisheries Services and the Kenya Fisheries Advisory Council.
The roles of the Kenya Fisheries Services include ensuring the appropriate conservation, development of standards on management, sustainable use and protection of the country’s fisheries resources. The Act also ensures that Kenya’s marine resources are used for the benefit of Kenyans, especially coast residents, and protects marine resources from exploitation by foreigners.
Otuoma is keen to debunk the perception that Kibaki was hands-off. He said his engagement with the third President of Kenya points to a leader attuned to the workings of his government. “I remember taking Prince Edward (Earl of Wessex) to President Kibaki’s private office at State House. During a private conversation, Kibaki said he had to keep abreast of decisions made in parliament as they at times have adverse effects on the operations of the government or are not feasible,” Otuoma added.
Though Otuoma appreciates the concept of separation of powers and the fact that all arms of government might not read from the same script, during the interview he cautioned that there was need for some level of synergy and consultation for methodical implementation of government policies. He, however, pointed out that he had challenges working with Karega Mutahi who served as the Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry for Local Government between 2010 and 2013. “My leadership and interpersonal skills helped me tackle the hurdles,” he said.
One incident that demonstrated to Otuoma that the President kept tabs on both government operations and national politics was when he approached the Kibaki as the Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs requesting to conduct Kenya Football Federation (KFF) elections to end wrangles at the sports body.
Since Otuoma had cited finances as a challenge, Kibaki made sure some of the funds were available. After the elections, the same group of football officials was back at the helm of KFF. On the day of the elections, Kibaki and Otuoma were in Australia for a Commonwealth meeting.
When Otuoma approached Kibaki with the news, the President informed him that he knew of the intricacies of the election. Otuoma would later learn that former Kenya African National Union (KANU) politicians had vested interests in the outcome of the KFF elections and Kibaki was privy to that information.
Despite the political intrigues during his tenure at the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry, Otuoma oversaw the formulation of the Sports Bill, now an Act of Parliament, that led to the establishment of the Sports Fund. Otuoma says he worked closely his James Waweru, the PS.
Before the enactment of the Act, most sports bodies were registered as societies and the government had little or no say in their regulation. The Act also led to the creation of Sports Kenya which is now in charge of sports facilities and talent in the country. “As a result of the Act, any organisation involved in sports in Kenya is registered under the Sports Act,” he said.
While in charge of the Ministry, Otuoma also oversaw the ratification of the African Youth Charter, the first legal framework in favour of youth development. The framework was provided to the continent by the relevant stakeholder in youth affairs, to support national policies, programmes, and actions in favour of youth development.
Otuoma, who currently serves as the Chairman of the Privatisation Commission, said President Kibaki came up with policies and made sure they were implemented. He cited this as one of the reasons why revenue collected more than doubled during Kibaki’s administration. “He discouraged people from going to State House with envelopes, that helped him stem endemic corruption that was rife in government,” Otuoma explained.