Soita Shitanda – Public spirited servant

Peter Soita Shitanda epitomized what it meant to be a Cabinet Minister in President Mwai Kibaki’s government. Like his boss, he was nearly obsessive with his work and knew the ins and outs, the hits and misses and most importantly, the buttons to constantly keep under the pressure of his thumb. And, like the President who appointed him, when he pressed these buttons, the lives of the people he was appointed to serve would inevitably be affected positively and almost always changed forever.

One of the most definitive legacies attributed to the Kibaki administration was the country’s development of infrastructure projects that had been pushed aside for decades, and as the Minister for Housing, Soita Shitanda was in the middle of all this change and today, legacy housing projects baby sat and delivered by the Kibaki administration sit proudly to point to a legacy worth immortalizing.

Shitanda was not always a bricks and mortar guy. Perhaps, if fate had its way, he would be the numbers guy and chose a path in life that would lead him away from the rough and tumble of politics and into the clean cut, tie wearing life of audit and finance where everything is defined by strict codes that have to make sense on an excel sheet.

But by the time he died aged just 57, Shitanda’s path in life was everything but linear. His journey had taken him through the rough and tumble of politics and through the power that comes with being a trusted lieutenant of the head of state.

Born in 1959, Shitanda attended Tande Primary School before joining Malava High School for his secondary education where he struggled to lose his playful side that more often than was advisable came out of his years in high school.

But underneath this playful demeanor was a steel frame. And teachers soon realized that the young boy had a demeanor around him that would almost coax the best out of those around him. So the teachers, led by his headmaster then decided to officially place responsibility on his shoulders. The school administration made Shitanda a house prefect. From there on, he remained diligent and hardworking, qualities that defined most of his years in public service.

Unlike many of his peer, his early years did not have the undertones of a career in politics. He, like many young men at the time was looking to make a success out of whatever life threw at him. After his secondary education, he left Malava for the Kenya Polytechnic where he spent a year on bookkeeping courses. After that, captivated by the world of numbers, Shitanda joined the Strathmore University for his CPA 1.

With the accounting bug having bitten and latched on to him, Shitanda furthered his education. The next destination of his journey was the United States of America where for three years he pursued his Business Administration degree over three years – between 1993 and 1996.

But, as he pursued his education, Shitanda had already had a taste of government, and the sort of influence that a government job had. While he was in Strathmore, Shitanda worked as a trainee at Office of the Attorney General.

After a year with the AG, he moved on across the street from Sheria House to the Ministry of Finance, interacting with the moneymen as an employee of the accounts department. The transient nature of government jobs had him move from the ministry of finance to the Investment Promotion centre.

By this time though, as a successful young man from Malava, delegations had already been sent to him. There was a feeling that there was need for new blood to take over the mantle of politics in the region. Elders reached out to a son of the soil who had left the nest and found success away from home.

At the national level too, the politics of the day was quickly changing. There was a clamour for new faces. The electorate wanted new blood with new ideas. There was a general feeling that the political system that had remained static for far too long. And therefore electorate was demanding nothing short of sweeping change. New political parties had been founded. Shitanda read the mood.

In fact, the late eighties were characterized by a clamping down on dissenting political voices. Leading opposition figures were arrested and detained, often with no charges. Pro-change voices and people who expressed views from that contradicted those of the government that Shitanda worked for became marked men.

The 90s saw renewed energies on the political front. New parties were formed and for the first time in decades, Kenya held its first multiparty elections in 1992 in which the incumbent Daniel Arap Moi won. But already, a certain group of the elite in politics, business and even in government had got a sneak peek at what the future held.
And towards the end of 1997, Shitanda left his position at the Investment Promotion Centre. He dipped his toe into the then shark infested waters of politics and liked the feel. The water wasn’t too cold after all!. Neither was it too hot. It was just right and although he didn’t know it at the time, he became one of the sharks dominating those waters by representing Malava Constituency as Member of Parliament for the next 15 years. And when push came to shove he behaved like any other modern day politician – he acted in his best interest and looked out for himself.

Shitanda’s retaining of the Housing docket was no fluke. After years wading through Kenyan politics, Shitanda grew into a shrewd operative who knew the country’s political landscape as well as he did his constituency.

Shitanda was appointed as an Assistant Minister in the Office of the President after the 2002 watershed elections that saw Kibaki win the presidency in a landslide victory backed by some of the finest politicians the country has ever produced. At the time, which was characterized by good vibes only from not just the political class, but by the entire country, Shitanda took up his appointment with zeal.

These good vibes though, only lasted three years. In 2005, Shitanda found himself in the middle of a journey that defined his relationship with the president for the next seven years. And although this journey began in mutiny, it ended in loyalty. Loyalty to himself and to the man who had brought him into the enchanting embrace of the Cabinet.

On December 9th 2005, President Kibaki made sweeping changes to his government, which at the time was going through a fractious time and was split right in the middle following a highly divisive referendum on the constitution.

By the time the referendum was done, the Kibaki administration was split into two factions – those who supported calls for a new constitution and those who were opposed to it. The president was opposed to the constitution as was while a huge part of his government supported the constitution.

So when the public overwhelmingly voted for the constitution, his administration found itself in an existential crisis. How was he to move forward with cabinet ministers who openly opposed his views on the constitution?

The solution was simple, reshuffle his cabinet to get rid of those who openly went against him.

On that ninth day of December, that was exactly what he did. The backlash though, made things significantly worse. At the time, Shitanda was a key member of Ford Kenya, a critical player in the Rainbow Coalition that had catapulted Kibaki to the presidency. After the reshuffle was announced, Ford Kenya chairman, Musikari Kombo led his party in a mass walkout from the Cabinet. He pulled out of government with five assistant ministers: Soita Shitanda, Noah Wekesa, Moses Wetang’ula, David Were and party secretary-general John Munyes.

Dozens of others from different political parties declined their appointments. Amidst this confusion though, a statement from the Presidential Press Service insisted that the swearing in would take place.

An erstwhile Kibaki supporter and then Kangema MP John Michuki, called a Press conference declaring 24 hours in politics was a long time. This proved to be true.
After a night of horse-trading, Shitanda, and other ford Kenya legislators were back in government, taking up their appointments with fervor. True to Michuki’s words, 24- hours proved to be a long time in politics, with this came the years long relationship between Kibaki and Shitanda.

2007 was one of the most hotly contested general elections the country had ever seen, second only perhaps to the 1992 first multi-party elections. As the election date drew closer, it was clear that the polls would be too close to call between the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and his erstwhile opponent Raila Odinga, who had managed to coalesce an impressive coalition of leaders around him.

To beat Odinga, Kibaki had to bank on a few loyal voices for that final push to retain a second term. One of those he turned to was Shitanda, whom he had appointed to his cabinet in 2005 following a midterm cabinet reshuffle.

Shitanda’s task was simple. Odinga’s coalition was in talks to bring on board Western Kenya’s most dominant party Ford Kenya as a partner in its quest for State House. If this happened, the odds would stack up more for the Kibaki re-election team.

Kibaki himself was a good student of history. Prior to his election as president in 2002, he had been on the losing side at least twice before. He took lessons from the losses to heart, and more importantly, took notes on how the formidable opposition was beaten twice by an incumbent who seemed to be on the ropes and ready to throw in the towel.

So Shitanda, and a few other leaders from Western Kenya hatched a plan that would pay back to the faith that Kibaki had showed them. And there could only be one solution. A second walkout. This time, not from government, but from the party that had taken Shitanda and many others to parliament.

For Shitanda, it was time to sever ties with a party that had stood with him since he first won the Malava Parliamentary seat in 1997. Sometime in 2007, Shitanda registered a party that would break the dominance of Ford Kenya in Western Kenya barely months into the General Elections.

Like many other splinter groups that had come before them, with his mother party one of the two splinter groups of the original FORD, Shitanda never looked too far for another vessel that would define his next step in politics.

Shitanda registered New Ford Kenya, becoming its de facto leader as the country went into the elections. In the chaotic polls that followed, his party only managed two elected seats, one for himself as Malava MP for what would be his last stint at the legislature and the other being the election of Bonny Khalwale as Ikolomani MP.
This was to come with the reward of holding on to his housing ministry docket for the rest of Kibaki’s presidency.

Away from the national limelight, the 15 years he spent as MP are termed as some of the best years for Malava by his constituents. To date, even a casual look at his long defunct social media accounts show a man who is greatly missed by the people he served.

He was known to pay school fees for those in need and was famed for nurturing talent across the region with his famous Soita Cup, a must attend football tournament organized by Shitanda, a near fanatical football fan.

Through his cabinet appointment, Shitanda ceased to belong to the people of Malava and belonged more to the country. But even these new responsibilities didn’t keep him away from the village that bred and nurtured him.

To his death, he remained true to his roots, and was loyal to a fault. Also loyal to both his ideals and his relations. For instance, he kept the same driver for decades. His former constituents say he would not pass a familiar face on the road. Instead, he would instruct his driver to park the car by the roadside and spend a few minutes talking to both familiar and unfamiliar faces.

This loyalty and his personal touch with the people and of course his move to slit the Western Kenya voting block are perhaps the things that endeared him most to President Kibaki, who upon reelection, reappointed him to the ministry of Housing.

And together, the two went on to deliver some of the best conceptualized projects meant to address chronic housing shortages not just among civil servants but among the country’s urban populations.

While home, a hotel along the Malava – Kakamega Highway that he had built became his happy place. It is here that, even years after leaving his cabinet post, that he would meet people over hot meals and loud chatter.

On October 12th 2012 the two launched one of the flagship housing projects in the Ngara Civil Servants Housing Estate at only 5 per cent interest on loans advanced to the government workers.

Shitanda too had his fair share of dirt during his stint in government, after allegations of corruption and impropriety over fraudulent allocation of houses in other government projects such as the National Housing Scheme after it emerged that his wife was one of the beneficiaries of the housing schemes over her acquisition of a unit in Kakamega Town.

His assistant Minister, Bishop Margeret Wanjiru was allocated a house in a Nairobi upmarket estate. At the time, civil society groups claimed a conflict of interest with these two.

“When I leave Nairobi I will need a house to stay in in Kakamega. Do you want me to live in a slum when I leave Nairobi,” Shitanda said at the time, insisting that there was no foul play in dealings within his Ministry.

His Permanent Secretary Tirop Kosgey, was not mentioned in any allegations of impropriety.

Earlier though, as minister he sacked several high ranking officials from the National Housing Corporation for allocating themselves housing units, but never once did he conceptualize the possibility of taking political responsibility for the mess that had become the national housing project.

The last years of the Kibaki government were characterized by a feverish rush to wrap up projects for the people. But as Kibaki’s second term came to an end, Shitanda, like many others who served the country’s third president, found themselves trying to rediscover their lives before cabinet.

Towards the end of 2012, Shitanda too found himself in this space. The times, just like they had done in 1997 when he ventured out into politics, were changing. Fast. A new political dispensation had come into play and former political heavy weights such as himself woke up to finding themselves between a rock and a hard place.

When I leave Nairobi I will need a house to stay in in Kakamega. Do you want me to live in a slum when I leave Nairobi?

The gap between being Member of Parliament, a position he had served for 15 years and a cabinet minister were too far apart, with two positions in the middle. Could he consider stepping down three positions, past the newly created post of governor, past the Senate position and settle for MP?

For an ambitious man, this was too much of a sacrifice to make. His time with Malava was done. It was time to serve the people of Kakamega County, so he took a stab at the Kakamega Gubernatorial position, losing to Wycliffe Oparanya.

The final two years of his ministerial job were punctuated with bouts of illness that resulted in a Kidney transplant in India. He was however never to fully recover from this and the vagaries of diabetes that had slowly been chipping away at him.

And on 24th May 2016, Shitanda passed away at Nairobi Hospital bringing an end to an illustrious career for a man who shared an obsession for service with the president he served.

At the time of his death, Shitanda was the Chairman of the Board of the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC). For close to two decades, Shitanda was pressing all the right buttons in his political journey that started all those years ago with his appointment as House Captain at Malava High School.

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