Nyong’o had fallen out with Raila Odinga and refused to join his National Development Party (NDP) that swept nearly all the Parliamentary seats in Luo Nyanza. The two were part of a group of Young Turks who worked with elders such as Jaramogi Oginga, Masinde Muliro and Ahmed Bamahriz to found the FORD party. The others in the group were Mukhisa Kituyi, Paul Muite and Gitobu Imanyara.
After the original FORD broke up ahead of the 1992 elections, the political scientist found a natural and ideological home in Jaramogi’s FORD-Kenya and was elected as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Kisumu Rural.
But the fallout in FORD-Kenya pitting Odinga and Wamalwa — who had become the party chairman after Jaramogi’s death in 1993 — against each other forced Nyong’o to team up with ideologues in the league of Apollo Njonjo to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1996. Nyong’o and Njonjo had taught together at the University of Nairobi.
The quarrels in FORD-Kenya started immediately after the death of Jaramogi and an attempt by Odinga to take over the party that was unsuccessful.
The SDP, as Thandika Mkandawire the respected Malawian economist and public intellectual would probably argue, was meant to assemble progressive intelligentsia to mobilise democratic social forces to struggle intellectually and politically — to develop national democratic and developmental states.
According to Nyong’o, who had established himself in the Kenyan public space as a radical progressive scholar, the party was meant to articulate the interests of the Kenya working class peasants away from the suffocation of populist, sectarian and even tribal interests that have characterised political movements in Kenya since independence. He argues that SDP was purely an ideological party that “would eschew tribalism as an organizing principle for political party formation in Kenya”. They then approached Charity Ngilu to be the Presidential candidate but she emerged fourth in the 1997 contest won by Daniel arap Moi, followed by Kibaki and Odinga.
“In hindsight the mistake we made was to enter the presidential election in the first place,” he wrote in The Star newspaper in 2019.
“Although our candidate, Charity Ngilu was a marketable candidate, the choice of a President in Kenya is, however, more influenced by tribe or a coalition of tribes more than any other factor.”
“Ngilu therefore became more of a Mkamba candidate than an SDP candidate in the political psyche of the ordinary Kenyans. In a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation, we would have done much better,” he avers.
And true, for not supporting Odinga, a son of Nyanza, who was running for State House and supporting a rival Presidential candidate, voters in Kisumu Rural Constituency punished him by kicking him out Parliament.
But Nyong’o got a lifeline when SDP nominated him to Parliament, an easy decision because he was the chairman of the party’s politburo. This background is significant because it helps explain why the nominated MP was in Kibaki’s corner while other Luo politicians formed part of the March 2002 Kenya African National Union (KANU)-NDP merger and eventually moved to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after Odinga fell out with Moi. Having working with many of the politicians in LDP which was chaired by then Kisumu Town MP, Joab Omino, Kibaki found an invaluable ‘errand man and comrade’ between himelf and LDP as the Opposition searched for a single Presidential candidate under intense pressure from Kenyans who wanted KANU kicked out of power.
Odinga had inspired a mass exodus of politicians from the KANU government and founded LDP while Kibaki was leading the umbrella opposition NAK party. Simeon Nyachae had also fallen out with President Moi, joining FORD-People. FORD-People and the LDP signed a political alliance and were set to announce the deal at a rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Teams from the two parties were meeting at Serena Hotel, just adjacent to the rally venue and Nyong’o had been tasked to persuade Kibaki to attend. The general feeling was an Odinga-led revolution was fast unfolding with Kibaki still out of reach.
Wamalwa, his old friend, had proposed Nyong’o as the chairman of the NAK negotiating team with the LDP. It helped that Omino, another Nyong’o friend, was the LDP chairman.
“We were aware that major political differences were unfolding and we felt that the NAK leaders were being left behind. We wanted Kibaki to go to Serena where the other leaders were meeting but he was very reluctant. He simply didn’t want to go,” recalls Nyong’o.
“I called Ngilu but Kibaki insisted that we could not go to Serena without Wamalwa who could not be found on phone. We managed to find Wamalwa through Musikari Kombo. It then took a rant by Ngilu for Kibaki to agree to meet the LDP leaders at Serena.”
That is how the Democratic Party (DP) chairman ended up being declared the Opposition Presidential candidate at Uhuru Park and went ahead to win the historic 2002 Presidential election. Nyong’o would thereafter be appointed the Minister in charge of Planning and National Development.
The economy was battered due to plunder and corruption by the Moi regime. The new Minister had the onerous task of helping the newly elected President to steer the new government’s economic recovery strategy and he thinks he did a good job.
“The agitation for election of the NARC government revolved around expansion of democracy and we had to make it the centerpiece of our manifesto. Our idea was that people had to benefit from democracy. That what was contained in our manifesto which I drafted with former Mathira MP Matu Wamae. We thought that people must write their own history. It was supposed to be a balance between democracy and people empowerment,” he recalls.
When he was appointed to the ministry, Nyong’o says he was astounded to learn that there was no document to guide planning. There was a document from the World Bank on poverty reduction which civil servants led by Permanent Secretary (PS) Joseph Kinyua wanted implemented.
“I said we can’t implement a World Bank document as policy. The civil servants were baffled. Once elected, we had the challenge and responsibility of turning the promises in the document on which we had been elected into reality by changing it into a policy and an action plan,” he says.
Nyong’o then assembled at a team of technocrats, consisting of Harry Mule, a former PS who had worked under independence Planning Minister Tom Mboya and Kibaki. Others were economist David Ndii and Caleb Upon who was Nyongo’s research assistant at the Africa Academy of Sciences. They helped craft the Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation (ERS) which was launched in June 2003 by Kibaki. Nyong’o also credits his PS, David Nalo, for helping steer the recovery process at the ministry. The strategy revolved around three main pillars.
First, sound micro-economic management of the economy which entailed keeping the currency stable, reducing inflation to single digits and maintaining a prudent debt profile by reducing domestic borrowing.
The other was rehabilitation and improvement of physical infrastructure including roads, harbours, ports, railway and ICT through public private sector investments.
There was also a keenness to revitalise the agriculture, livestock, fishing and environment sectors and to entrench democracy and good governance. They also developed a special programme for the arid and semi-arid areas.
One of the key planks for the success of the ERS was the involvement of the private sector. Nyong’o called a meeting of actors in the sector in Mombasa and explained his vision for economic recovery. That is how the Kenya Private Sector Alliance was born with industrialist Manu Chandaria as the founding chairman.
“My ministry mobilised the nation as well as development partners and rallied them behind the economic strategy which eventually proved to be to be a major success of the Kibaki presidency,” he writes in a Leap Into the Future, a Vision for Kenya’s Social Political Transformation.
“I had very good ideas on how we could reach double digit growth within the fifth year of our government but this required very bold steps; heavy investment in public works, a radical reform in the civil service and drastic cuts in public consumption. We also needed to take democratic governance seriously and not use the language of democratic governance as rhetoric,” he writes.
The recovery strategy was a huge success. He says the government stopped borrowing from banks by floating treasury bills and bonds whose interest rates were not very attractive. Banks and mortgage houses became awash with cash.
The real estate sector grew by leaps and bounds. According to Nyong’o, there was an unprecedented bonanza in the growth of the housing sector in Kenya.
But a major point must be made here. There was economic recovery, but he argues that the desired economic growth and employment creation was disrupted by corruption driven by the power elite around Kibaki. The major one was the Anglo-Leasing scandal that was unearthed by then Ethics and Governance PS John Githongo in which Kenya lost billions of shillings to fictitious tendering of security contracts. The net effect of the scam was that it ended donor confidence in the NARC government and created divisions in Cabinet ahead of an equally polarising referendum on a proposed Constitution. Nyong’o thinks that corruption, poor governance and lack of trust emanating from the ignored pre-election agreement with LDP greatly hampered the recovery effort. He reckons that had there not been fissures in the coalition perhaps Kenya would have leapt into the future sooner.
Nyong’o served in the first Kibaki Cabinet for only three years. He was among the group of Cabinet ministers sacked by Kibaki after the 2005 Constitutional referendum. He became the secretary-general of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) that almost removed Kibaki from power in the highly disputed 2007 Presidential election that resulted in bloodshed.
ODM felt strongly that it had won the election. The dispute that ensued would be mediated by former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan. It resulted in a power sharing agreement between Odinga and Kibaki. Nyong’o would return to the Cabinet — for the second time — in the Government of National Unity, this time as the Minister for Medical Services. But the circumstances leading to the election and ensuing violence had strained relationships between the ODM group and the Kibaki side. The coalition government was like a forced marriage with Kibaki and Odinga picking members for a shared Cabinet.
“I asked Raila to consider me for another ministry. I knew that if I went to Planning I will be forced to work closely with the President in the poisonous environment that had been brought about by the election outcome,” he recalls.
As ODM secretary general, Nyong’o has always denied fuelling the 2008 protests by his persistent calls for mass action saying he did not incite any violent action.
A cancer survivor, Nyong’o says he thrust his energies and focus in reforms in the health sector. He cites access to comprehensive medical insurance for inpatients as one of his major successes.
It would be remembered that the Government of National Unity had the onerous task of implementing the Agenda Four issues that had been identified by the Annan-led Serena Team, including enactment of the 2010 Constitution that gave birth to devolution and new legislative units, notably the Senate and County assemblies.
A strong champion of devolution in 2013, Nyong’o vied for the Kisumu Senate seat and won ending up as the chair of the Public Accounts and Investments Committee. In 2017 he was elected Governor of Kisumu County. The son of Canon Hesbon Nyong’o, a poet, the prolific writer gives lectures at universities while serving as governor.
Professor Nyong’o, a political scientist, has made a strong pitch that portends a radical departure from the current status quo — a parliamentary system of government.
He argues that the presidential system is ‘an ugly beast’ which Kenyans should abandon. The Governor proposes a Parliamentary system, saying it would improve Kenya’s political stability as elections under this model are not a cut-throat affair.
According to Nyong’o, the Presidential system promotes tribal political thinking that thrives on ethnic sentiments, fear-mongering rhetoric and a daredevil determination to remain in power at all costs.
He argues that there has not been a single Presidential election in Kenya’s history where most Kenyans have come out without being politically, morally or physically injured, except in 2002.
He cited the 2007 presidential poll which he says “will go down in history as the worst in terms of mismanagement, loss of life and near-total breakdown in the ability of the government to rule legitimately.”
“Some of us who have been involved in the democratic struggle for close to four decades strongly feel that Kenya cannot go on like this into the future. As I have argued, only insects and animals keep on doing the same thing every day.”
Born in Ratta, Kisumu, in October 1945, Nyong’o completed his undergraduate studies at Uganda’s Makerere University, where he was awarded a 1st class honours degree in political science. He served as the Student Guild president between 1969 and 1970. He thereafter proceeded to pursue graduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago in the US, obtaining master’s and PhD degrees in political science.
Nyong’o then returned home and landed a teaching job the University of Nairobi, where he was a professor of political science and a visiting professor in universities in Mexico and Addis Ababa until 1987, before taking up the position of head of programs at the African Academy of Sciences.
While undergoing cancer treatment in the US in 2013, Nyong’o was a Brundtland Senior Leadership Fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He taught a course in the Department of Global Health and Population titled ‘Leadership Development in Global Health and Policy-Making in Kenya: The Case of Four Parastatals’.
Away from the public eye, Nyong’o is a dedicated family man, deeply committed to his friends, beholden to Christian teachings, cultured and humble. It was surprising to learn that Woud Nyong’o, as his friends call him, wrote some of Anglican Bishop Henry Okullu’s much-quoted sermons, speeches for Jaramogi and the acclaimed speech by Vice President Wamalwa in 2003 at a retreat for MPs in Nanyuki following squabbles in the Rainbow Alliance. The speech was cobbled together in Wamalwa’s house and he promised to read it word for word. The VP, celebrated for his Queen’s English and who would die months later, delivered the speech with admirable precision and intonation — word for word.