Sam Ongeri – The persistent doyen

In formal circles he is know as Professor Samson Kegengo Ongeri, EGH, M.P., but he has always gone by the less formal ‘Sam.’ Most know him simply as Sam Ongeri and might be surprised to hear that ‘Sam’ in his case is short for Samson, rather than the more common ‘Samuel.’  It is refreshing that the oldest Senator in the country goes by ‘Sam’ but not terribly surprising. His gait and appearance belie his age, nor does his voice give it away. Ongeri was well into his 79th year when he ran for Senate; an age when many of his age-mates counterparts are well into retirement. His persistence throughout his career has led him to this point. His is an fascinating story.

Ongeri was born and raised in Kisii, the land of hills, ridges and valleys where rich volcanic soils beget ensure bountiful crops of tea and coffee. It is the land and where maize, beans, potatoes, and of course, the green—the bananas plantains that are a staple food of the region—grow aplenty, painting the county the land a picturesque green.

Ongeri’s His early education was in his home area, at Gesusu Primary School during pre-independence Kenya, at the very height of Kenya’s fight for self-rule. And even though he ventured far from home in the quest for further education, then to work, Kisii and its affairs must have been engraved in his heart, for it was here he returned to begin a political career. Nyaribari Masaba, the constituency he has represented in Parliament for a total of three terms, and Kisii, the county he now represents in the Senate are his very roots and home backyard.

It was medicine that caught his interest after he completed his secondary school at Bugema Missionary College in Uganda (now Bugema University), so he was soon bound for India, where he qualified as a medical doctor, then as a surgeon at the University of Bombay. He would further his medical education in London, Scotland and Kenya. Looking back, but his career was destined to be as varied as it would be and colourful one. ‘Professor’ was to be a big part of his identity when he became a lecturer at the School of Medicine at the University of Nairobi in 1973. He stayed there for 15 years.

Ongeri’s life may have seemed at the time to revolve around medicine. He was teaching medicine, and had married a fellow medical professional, Elizabeth Ongeri, who had a successful nursing career. Incidentally, the medical professional couple have two daughters in the medical field, one a dentist and the other a researcher. Besides, the family boasts a top notch topnotch Wall Street banker and an engineer. Ongeri’s, no doubt, is a successful and diversely gifted family.

And speaking of diversity, even in his day as a medical professor, Ongeri concurrently wore another hat so unrelated that it testifies to his complexity. For ten years, beginning in 1974, he was Chairman of Athletics Kenya, the governing body for athletics in the country. In 1987, the All Africa Games were held in Kenya, at the Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani, a memorable event for the country both as a host and in the stellar performance of its sport men and women. Ongeri was on the organizing committee for the historic event.

The following year, 1988, Ongeri launched his political career, running successfully for parliament on a KANU ticket. Kenya was still a single party state at the time, but his loyalty to KANU was real, remaining strong for close to two decades. Nyaribari Masaba was a new Constituency in 1988, so Ongeri had the distinction of being its first ever Member of Parliament. Interestingly, although this was the first of three wins for Ongeri as MP for Nyaribari Masaba, he never won a consecutive election, hence never served more than four consecutive years. Like a game of knots and crosses played with his friend and political rival Hezron Manduku, who also happened to be a medical doctor, they alternately alternatively lost to each other. Manduku won in 1992, Ongeri in 1997, and Manduku again in 2002 on a FORD-People ticket, losing once more to Ongeri in 2007, who remained a KANU man to that point.

As Ongeri revealed when he eulogized Manduku, who passed away in 2019, the two men went way back and were good friends, having met in 1969 when Manduku worked as an intern under Ongeri at Kenyatta National Hospital. Their wives trod a similar path. Manduku’s fiancee, Florence Moraa, who was a nurse, worked as an intern under Ongeri’s wife, Elizabeth. The couples, became close friends, and the Ongeri’s were invited to be masters of ceremony at the Manduku’s wedding in December that same year. They would later became political rivals, but always remained friends. “We enjoyed flooring each other and we knew it was never personal,” Ongeri said.

The year Ongeri joined the Kibaki Cabinet was no ordinary year.

It was 2008, a year different from any Kenya had ever seen or is likely to ever see again. It was a year of rebuilding after the post-election violence that had rocked the country. The coalition government was in place and the Cabinet was finally named. Ongeri, who had been an educator for many years, was named Minister for Education, forming a team with Assistant Ministers Prof. Patrick Ayiecho Olweny and Andrew Calist Mwatela and Permanent Secretary Prof. Karega Mutahi.  Education was an important Ministry for the Kibaki government, which had initiated the Free Primary Education programme in January 2003, one of the new government’s first and most important programmes after it was elected in December 2002. For the first time in Kenya’s history, the gross primary school enrollment topped 80 per cent, and has continued to climb over the years.

These were heady times for education in Kenya, not just for children but for adults as well who had previously missed out in their youth and now took advantage of the opportunity for free education. It was during this time that a the most world famous student in the world, Kimani Maruge, donned his uniform at the age of 84 in 2004 to join the first grade at Kapkenduiywo Primary School in Eldoret, alongside two of his grandchildren. Maruge of course earned himself a place in the Guiness Book of World Records, a trip to New York to address the United Nations on the importance of free primary education, and a movie based on his story.

It was in this environment, dangling between hope and despair that Ongeri came to the helm of the Education Ministry.

Ongeri was not a new face to Kibaki. Indeed the two had served together on the Moi Cabinet from 1988 to 1992 during Kibaki’s final term as a Cabinet Minister, which happened to be Ongeri’s maiden term in parliament. Ongeri served as Minister for Technical Training and Applied Technology, when and Kibaki was Minister for Health at the time. Now in 2007, Ongeri’s party, KANU, was allied to Kibaki’s PNU Coalition on whose ticket Kibaki ran for re-election in 2007.

Schools re-opened after the post election violence and learning gradually resumed, but the after-effects of the violence that had rocked the country reverberated in the minds and collective psyche of school children and were played out on a different battleground – schools. It was a tough year for education. Violent strikes. Buildings razed to the ground. Destruction and death. Within the month of June alone, close to 300 violent school strikes were reported. The Ministry of Education, with Ongeri at its helm, battled to bring the situation under control. It developed manuals on safety and peace in education for use in schools as part of the curriculum.

The Ministry banned the use of mobile phones in schools by students and ordered the removal of music systems and DVDs from school buses. It was a tough initiation for Ongeri during a difficult time in the country’s history, but hard times don’t last forever do come to an end. The 2008 school unrest eventually settled down.

Ongeri was Education Minister when Kenya’s Constitution 2010 was passed. The new Constitution which, among other revolutionary measures, introduced devolution of government to the counties, had a marked impact on education as well. Education was, for the first time, guaranteed as a right in the Bill of Rights.

As Minister for Education, Ongeri was concerned about, not just universal primary education, but also the quality of education. He raised concerns about the adulteration of both English and Kiswahili with sheng, resulting in a poor grasp of the two languages by students. He put a stop to a practice that had plagued children for decades, instilling terror and shame in those who were its victims. Academically weak children had traditionally been held back for a year while their classmates proceeded to the next grade in the new year. Ongeri issued a directive to headteachers to stop the practice, as studies showed it was not beneficial.

Ongeri also took a practical view to handling students whose exams results had been cancelled for irregularities. When the Kenya National Examinations Council instituted a two-year two year wait to re-take the exam on secondary school students caught cheating, Ongeri revoked the ban, saying that the ban was irregularly done and ordering the council to find other disciplinary methods to handle the matter. This meant the students could register and retake the exam the following year.

Beyond Kenya, Ongeri made his mark on the continent when he chaired the Conference of Ministers of Education of the African Union (COMEDAF) during his tenure as Kenya’s Education Minister. It was during this period that the Pan African University was launched, in 2011, comprising of five host universities spread throughout the continent, including a campus hosted at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya. The Pan African University is the brainchild of the Heads of State and Government of the African Union, aimed at revitalizing higher education and research in Africa.

The Samson of legend was an epic figure, the strongest man that ever lived; one who is said to have torn down the doors and posts of a city gate bare handed before breakfast and carried them to the top of a hill. But that Samson also had his share of struggles and disgraces. And so too his modern day namesake, Samson Ongeri.
In 2009, Ongeri found himself in the hot seat when a mega scandal over a large sum of money slotted for free primary school education and subsidized secondary education broke. The theft of money meant for children’s education shocked the nation. Donors withheld cash. Education ministry officials were suspended. The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission began its investigation of the scandal. And Ongeri was under pressure to step down, the scandal having broken while he was Minister.

Ongeri is not shy about his participation in public service at a seniorage. His International Youth Day message to Kenyan youth on August 12, 2020 went viral, both for its delivery in sheng’ and for its content

Civil rights activists, led by renowned activist Okoiti Omtata of the Kenyans for Justice and Development Foundation, demanded that the president fire Ongeri. They emphasized the seriousness of their demand by sneaking into Jogoo House one night with a chain and padlock, and locking his office. Ongeri did not resign.
Twice, and publicly, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, whose office was responsible for supervising all Ministers, called for Ongeri to step aside for the duration of the investigations. Asserting his innocence, he stayed put, saying he had personally done no wrong but rather had initiated action against the responsible officials once the matter came to his attention.

His calls unheeded, Odinga, suspended Ongeri, alongside Agriculture Minister William Ruto whose Ministry was also embroiled in a corruption scandal, for three months to pave the way for investigations. President Kibaki overruled the suspension of the two ministers for lack of consultation.

At the close of investigations, several officials were arrested and charged for their roles in the corruption scandal.
Ongeri was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, in a reshuffle in March 2012, a position he served in for one year, until the conclusion of Kibaki’s term in March 2013. In this Ministry he headed the team of Assistant Minister Richard Onyonka and Permanent Secretary Thuita Mwangi. Mutula Kilonzo who had been Justice Minister was appointed to fill the position left by Ongeri as Minister for Education.

Foreign Affairs was not a far reach for the former diplomat. Ongeri had served as Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi for a four-year stint from 1993 to 1997. This was an appointment during the Moi era following a loss in the Nyaribari Masaba elections.

Ongeri had stayed put through the scandals, survived the reshuffle, but come 2013, he ran for Senate and proved true to his win-one-lose-one pattern. He was defeated in his first bid for Senate by Chris Obure, who he defeated in the subsequent elections in 2017. Ongeri donned his diplomat’s hat again in 2013 when President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed him Kenya’s Ambassador to UN-HABITAT before making his political comeback in 2017.

Elected Senator at the age of 79, Ongeri is not shy about his participation in public service at a senior age. His International Youth Day message to Kenyan youth on August 12, 2020 went viral, both for its delivery in sheng and for its content.

“Niaje Mavijanaa? Muko rada?” (Loosely in slang: What’s up dudes? Are you woke?), he greeted the Kenyan youth, in their own popular lingo.

He was seeking to dispel inter-generational tension or as he said, “tension baina ya ma-boys na ma-budaa” by reassuring the youth that senior citizens such as himself and young people can work together to achieve great development goals, as both have valuable qualities. Essentially he was proposing a blend of wisdom and power, of projection and actions, to achieve development goals.

Ongeri’s message was a reaction to the protests of young people who have expressed objections to his continued service in government positions in the wake of burgeoning youth unemployment in the country. Just two months prior, Ongeri had been elected Chairman of the powerful Senate County Public Accounts and Investment Committee, which oversights the expenditure of funds given to counties under the Division of Revenue and other conditional grants.

Delivering his message in sheng would hopefully be a stepping stone towards closing the gap.

Ironically, recall that back in 2011, as Education Minister, Ongeri decried the use of sheng by politicians to endear themselves to youth, hence adulterating both Kiswahili and sheng. With the passage of time he appears to have mellowed on this stance.

During his run for Senate, opponents had also raised the issue of his age, insisting he was overdue for retirement, but Ongeri was quick to respond, asserting his competence to serve. “I am as fit as a fiddle, ready to serve the Omogusii as the Kisii Senator,” he asserted.

In 2022, at the completion of his term as Senator, Ongeri will be 84 years old. Will he continue in public service or will he retire to other pursuits? If he persists in political competition, it will be up to his younger political opponents to figure out the secret to this Samson’s gargantuan persistence.

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