Simeon Nyachae was an untiring go-getter. Over the years good fortune ushered him into the realms of power and fame. His journey in the public and political life saw him serve the Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki governments.
No doubt a child of privilege — the son of colonial chief Musa Nyandusi — he served with dedication, much as his critics harbour contradicting views.
The presence of Nyachae, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-People (FORD-People) leader and supremo of Gusii politics in the Kibaki Cabinet, was a very unlikely political development. But as he later revealed, it was an act of grace that not only saved Kibaki’s government from collapse but also his Presidency. That would be odd for a politician who had protested Kibaki’s choice as the Opposition Presidential candidate and even left the Rainbow Alliance in a huff to contest against him in a campaign in which he spewed choice epithets against Kibaki.
A bit of background will suffice. Nyachae was one of the most powerful figures during the administration of President Daniel arap Moi. Having served as Provincial Commissioner (PC) in Central Kenya and Rift Valley where he established himself as a no-nonsense power hawk, he was tapped into the high echelons of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) government’s public service. During his days as a provincial administrator Nyachae distinguished himself as a brave and principled man.
He was tasked to read founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s speech during the burial of firebrand Nyandarua politician J.M. Kariuki whose controversial murder was blamed on the Kenyatta regime. The former Member of Parliament’s (MP) death remains unresolved to date. Following his death, Nyandarua residents composed a song dubbed Maai ni Maruru (the waters are bitter) to express their anger. Nyachae who was the Rift Valley PC swiftly banned the dirge because of its underlying political overtones. No Cabinet ministers, even those who would have ordinarily represented the President, were willing to read the President’s speech at the MP’s funeral. Notably, Kibaki was the only Parliamentarian who attended the funeral ‘as a friend’ during which he condemned the assassination.
Amidst the tension, Nyachae not only read Mzee’s speech but also condemned the killing. Some of his statements displeased members of the Kenyatta administration who murmured that the PC had crossed the line. Nevertheless, the act thrust him further into the public limelight.
When Kenyatta died in 1978, Moi retained Nyachae and appointed him to senior positions in the Public Service.
He rose through the ranks to become the Permanent Secretary (PS) in charge of National Development Coordination and eventually Chief Secretary, making him one of the most influential individuals in that position since independence. During that time, the position was a potent mix between politics and bureaucracy with the line in between blurred. There was a feeling by Moi and members of his inner circle that Nyachae was becoming too powerful and that his powers had to be tamed. Never before had a public servant become so larger than life, frequently exploiting State bureaucracy to reprimand even Cabinet ministers. So influential was Nyachae that he was christened the ‘prime minister’.
Moi diluted the position to Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet by the time Nyachae was retiring in 1987 after attaining the age of 55 years. After he retired, Nyachae concentrated on his businesses. He has vast interests in horticulture, banking, real estate, insurance, milling and confectionary.
Nyachae’s relationship with Moi, however, deteriorated during his retirement. This was largely due to his strong personality and a narrative by individuals around Moi that he (Nychae) was working with forces keen to remove his former boss from power. His businesses were sabotaged and his attempts to vie in the 1988 mlolongo elections were thwarted when his name was ‘found missing’ from the KANU party list.
In his book, Walking in the Corridors of Service, Nyachae revealed that his major reason for joining politics was to protect his business interests. He singles out a case in which the KANU regime accused him of intending to use his wealth to destabilise the Moi government. There was a feeling within the KANU power circle that he was an arrogant enemy whose unbridled ambitions had to be nipped in the bud.
Facing what appeared to be a formidable opposition, Moi persuaded him to run for the Nyaribari Chache Parliamentary seat which he won decisively during the 1992 polls. Moi then appointed him to the Agriculture docket and later to Finance.
But in 1998, Nyachae landed in trouble after he stated publicly that the government was bankrupt. Subsequently, Moi transferred him to the Industrialisation Ministry, which he considered a demotion. He resigned in a huff.
For some time, donors had put pressure on Moi to open the country’s democratic space by withdrawing funds. The economy was in tatters even as Moi continued to put on a brave face. Then Nyachae did the unthinkable. He convened a conference of public officials in Mombasa during which he revealed one of the biggest secrets of the Moi administration: he made the infamous declaration that the country’s economywas “in the intensive care unit due corruption”. The effect of the declaration was palpable anger from Moi. Nyachae’s statement had not only buttressed the Opposition argument that Moi had run down the economy but emboldened donors against the President. There was a persuasion in the Moi power circle that Nyachae was keen to embarrass the President. He was an ‘enemy within’. It is a fact that the Nyachae was not keen to advance the values and democratic principles advocated by the Second Liberation stalwarts of the time. In any case, he had been a foremost persecutor of voices demanding for the kind of freedoms that were being pursued by the democratic and constitutional reformists of the period while he served as provincial administrator.
Nyachae was a man keen to use his privileged background, solid connections in the provincial administration and wealth to assert himself.
Moi took Nyachae’s declaration in Mombasa on corruption in the KANU government as a personal affront to his authority
After falling out with Moi, Nyachae quit KANU to join FORD-People which he used as a platform to test his political stamina and advance his ambitions. This would put him in direct confrontation with Moi, and accidentally, Kibaki. There has been this argument that had it not been the controversy under which Kibaki was declared the joint parties’ Presidential candidate for the 2002 elections, effectively diminishing Nyachae’s State House ambitions, there were never fundamental political and ideological differences between the two political heavyweights. That is why their story remains that of comrades put asunder and brought together by a common dominator — the political ambitions of Raila Odinga. At the same time ass Nyachae quit KANU, Odinga had led a massive walkout of influential stalwarts from KANU following a disagreement with Moi occasioned by the choice of Uhuru Kenyatta, then a political greenhorn, as his preferred successor. Odinga and his group which comprised former Vice President George Saitoti and Cabinet ministers Kalonzo Musyoka, William ole Ntimama, Deputy Speaker Joab Omino, Moody Awori, David Musila among others founded the Liberal Democratic Movement (LDP) with which they waged war against Moi.
Nyachae had signed a political agreement with the LDP and a rally had been planned at Uhuru Park to make the announcement. Then Odinga made a declaration that would radically change Nyachae’s political fortunes and create animosity between the two politicians that was they have never been able to reconcile.
Musila in his memoir, Seasons of Hope, recounts that day. According to Musila, Nyachae was extremely upset with KANU and he wanted to work with the LDP to teach KANU a lesson. Kibaki, the then Opposition chief, FORD-Kenya leader Kijana Wamalwa and Charity Ngilu of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) were working together under the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK). And there was a strong push by Kenyans for the Opposition to unite as they, stood a real chance of removing Moi from power. As an emissary of NAK, says Musila, Ngilu had reached out to the LDP indicating that they were ready to join what was then mooted as the Rainbow Alliance.
“The morning of September 22, 2002 dawned bright and beautiful and we met at Nairobi Serena Hotel at 10:00am. Simeon Nyachae joined us that morning to enjoin his party in our agreement to work together as the Rainbow Coalition,” wrote Musila.
In attendance were, Odinga, Saitoti, Kalonzo, Nyachae, Awori, Nyachae and Ntimama. And an hour to departure to Uhuru Park, Kibaki who was unexpected, made a surprise appearance. Anyang Nyong’o reveals that Ngilu persuaded Kibaki to to join the LDP luminaries following a warning that the revolution was fast evolving and that the train was almost leaving the station.
According to Musila, the elders retreated to discuss Kibaki’s request to join the coalition ahead of the Uhuru Park rally.
“We left the room, having welcomed Mwai Kibaki on board. Nevertheless, we were emphatic that we continue meeting to deliberate on our single presidential candidate,” narrated the former Assistant Minister.
Many Kenyans would remember the sea of humanity at the Uhuru Park on that day. The crowd had made it a clear that it wanted a single presidential candidate. When Odinga spoke he said Kibaki tosha (Kibaki suffices), recalled Musila. The crowd approved and Kibaki became the Opposition Presidential candidate.
Nyachae was angry. He felt betrayed by Odinga. Nyachae had proposed that the Opposition candidate be chosen through secret ballot by delegates. And, as Nyachae would himself reveal, the Odinga declaration caught him by surprise.
Initially, he said that the announcement didn’t give him sleepless nights.
“However, when the remark was repeated a number of times on radio, I rang Omino but he was not clear what Mr Odinga meant. I didn’t pursue the matter further,” the former minister wrote in his autobiography.
According to Nyachae, a group of leaders had met at Awori’s Nairobi house to discuss a presidential candidate and he would later learn, they had come up with a structure of government in which he had been assigned the position of deputy prime minister. He rejected the offer and mounted a lone State House bid on a FORD-People ticket. His party came out with 14 MPs in a poll which Kibaki won by landslide, ending 24 years of KANU rule. Nyachae emerged third, with 700,000 votes and 14 MPs, mainly from his home area.
But the Nyachae reveals that he resolved to run fully aware that FORD-People stood no chance of winning the Presidency.
“We felt strongly that we had to go ahead as a matter of principle despite the signs that we were unlikely to win,” he wrote.
But, threatened with exit from power by a group of politicians led by Odinga who had threatened to move a motion of no confidence against him over differences arising from the 2002 pre-election power pact with LDP, Kibaki reached out to Nyachae to come to his rescue. It should be emphasised that Nyachae found his way into the Kibaki government as a member of the Government of National Unity in 2004 to reinforce a vulnerable Presidency. Kibaki had been informed that even his Cabinet ministers were keen to vote against him.
“If the vote carried the day, it would mean the President either resigns or dissolves Parliament, a move that was likely to plunge the country into chaos,” he recalled in his autobiography.
“So the President suggested a government of a national unity involving opposition politicians to avoid an impending catastrophe,” said the former minister.
The other who came alongside him were Opposition MPs Njenga Karume and Kipkalya Kones, then a FORD-People nominated MP.
Nyachae was appointed Energy Minister before being moved to Roads and Public Works in 2006. He remained a major cog in the Kibaki administration in the face of formidable opposition by members of ODM leaders who were waging war against the government after they we sacked from government after the defeat of the Wako Draft in the 2005 referendum.
Nyachae chaired the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Constitution which is blamed for altering the Bomas Draft during a retreat in Kilifi, triggering strong opposition by a section of politicians and members of the civil society.
The Bomas Draft had recommended a parliamentary system of government led by the President who was to appoint a Prime Minister. The premier would be a leader of the largest political party in the National Assembly. The PM would also coordinate government activities and appoint Cabinet ministers in consultation with Cabinet ministers.
The tough talking Nyachae also chaired the government team that campaigned for the failed Wako Draft during the 2005 referendum with Odinga pulling in the opposite direction. Odinga marshalled together a strong team of Kibaki Cabinet ministers who teamed up with KANU to defeat the document at the referendum, leaving Kibaki with egg on his face. Kibaki sacked the Odinga group from Cabinet en masse, sowing the seed that became ODM.
Nyachae, again, stuck with Kibaki during the 2007 polls. According to the former Nyaribari Chache MP, he wanted to retire from politics but Kibaki and a group of elders in government led by Vice President Awori and Karume who was the Defence Minister prevailed upon him to stay ahead of the 2007 General Election.
Kibaki was facing a formidable opposition from ODM which had settled on Raila as its Presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Raila was surrounded by politicians who had been sacked from the Kibaki Cabinet after the 2005 referendum.
Nyachae recalls that when the President was rallying his troops to launch his re-election campaign, word went round that he was preparing to retire from politics due to ill-health. Nyachae’s plan, he said, caused panic in Kibaki’s inner circle. There was fear that the move would weaken Kibaki who was facing formidable opposition that threatened to sweep him out of power.
According to the seasoned provincial administrator, the President took a personal initiative and called Awori and Karume for an ‘elders cup of tea’, at which they underlined the consequences of his possible retirement and implored him to stay until after the election.
Nyachae stuck with Kibaki and campaigned for him in the larger Gusii, but he was ‘retired’ from olitics when he lost the Nyaribari Chache seat in the 2007 polls. But in an interview with a local newspaper Nyachae described his defeat as “an act of God” to help him retire from politics and he advised his age mates to follow suit:
“Don’t wait until death beckons on you. There is time and season for everything.”
Nyachae died in Nairobi Hospital on February 1, 2021 at the age of 88, remaining a formidable politician and businessman right up to the end.
Eulogising him, President Uhuru Kenyatta said: “Throughout his many years of service to the nation, right from his time in the provincial administration through to his transition into business and politics, Mzee Nyachae exhibited exemplary zeal to succeed and as he exits from this world, he leaves behind a rich legacy of success.”