Suleiman Shakombo – President’s coast pointman

Suleiman Rashid Shakombo was a totally unknown entity in Likoni before he entered the political arena in 1997. He left the Provincial Administration and, backed by an unfamiliar party, unseated Khalif Salim Mwavumo who was from the more familiar Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-Kenya) party that five years earlier in 1992 had defeated the candidate from the seemingly invincible independence party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU).

Shakombo became the first and only person in the country from the previously unheard of Shirikisho Party of Kenya (SPK) to ever win a Parliamentary seat. Here emerged a savvy operator in local and national politics, pundits thought with discerning eyes.

Shakombo confirmed the perception when, shortly before the 2002 General Election, he strategically and publicly defected to the ruling party KANU without notifying SPK, only months to the polling day, triggering a crisis within the fledgling party. The matter ended up on the desk of Chief Justice Bernard Chunga for direction on whether a Constitutional court should resolve the puzzle that had deprived the party of its sole voice in Parliament.

But the Chief Justice who at the time entirely owed his appointment to the Executive was in a dilemma-as Shakombo had shrewdly defected at State House where he was President Daniel arap Moi’s guest, and was welcomed into KANU by the Head of State himself. Similar cases had hit a cul-de-sac before and there was nothing that Chunga could do. His hands, as the saying goes, were tied.

Left without an option, SPK replaced Shakombo as Chairman with the fiery and combative Mashengu wa Mwachofi. The party hoped the upcoming General Election would produce other Members of Parliament (MPs). A mirage? No new MP has been forthcoming from the party for more than a decade later.

KANU’s calculations were wanting; the party did not know who it was dealing with. Come election time Shakombo changed course, walking to Mwai Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition, NARC, that seemed poised to cause a political tsunami countrywide, leaving no doubt that it was destined to take over power from KANU.

Shakombo was familiar with power from his days in the Provincial Administration where he rose to the rank of District Commissioner and Deputy Secretary. He was reaching out to power when he shifted to KANU, but soon realised that the party’s grip on State House was being loosened by the surging NARC tsunami. He was an astute reader of the political barometer and, come 27 December, he comfortably retained his seat, on a powerful party ticket.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Shakombo worked hard to catch the President’s eye, seizing every opportunity, including availing himself at the airport in Mombasa and remaining visible throughout Kibaki’s tours of the coast whenever the President visited.

He was adept at playing his cards right to realise his dream. Perhaps nothing illustrates that trait better than his decision in the wake of Karisa Maitha’s death in 2004. He joined hands with MP for Changamwe Ramathan Seif Kajembe to protest when a Mombasa court tried to stop the nomination of Ali Hassan Joho by NARC to contest the Kisauni Parliamentary seat after a voter challenged its validity. Maitha was the MP for Kisauni.

The duo (Shakombo and Kajembe) led a NARC team from the coast that lodged a successful appeal to the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) to give direction on the issue. ECK, then led by Samuel Kivuitu, went to court to ask for a review of the decision with both the parties present. Said ECK Deputy Chairman Gabriel Mukele who was tasked to see the matter through: “We have instructed our lawyer to file an application before the same judge for a review”, reported the Daily Nation on 7 December 2007. He added that with the by-election only nine days away, he hoped the review would take place as soon as possible. Joho got the green light to contest and won the by-election.

Shakombo waited patiently for three years before his dream came true. Towards the end of 2005 he was appointed Minister of State for National Heritage and Culture in the Office of the Vice President. That done, it did not take long before he cut a prominent figure in the politics of the coastal region, quickly becoming a force to reckon with in the post-Maitha era even with the more experienced Transport Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere also on the scene.

Shakombo impressed President Kibaki as a performer at the constituency level. Though the launch of construction work at the bypass to the Mombasa South Coast, also known as the Dongo Kundu project, was the primary reason for the President’s presence, he did not hesitate to praise Shakombo who was present, lauding him and his Constituency Development Fund (CDF) team for making good use of the kitty, particularly in the building of girls’ schools. He singled out Mtongwe Girls Secondary School whose official opening ceremony he performed alongside the launch on 5 November 2007.

On 6 November 2007 the Daily Nation quoted President Kibaki as saying the government would support the school by ensuring physical facilities such as laboratories, dormitories and classrooms were built. “At the moment, the province is faced with a shortage of secondary schools, hence CDF should be used to create room for more enrolment of Form One students,” Kibaki stated.

From his speech, it was clear that Kibaki had found in Shakombo a dependable ally who came close to what he had lost in the late Karisa Maitha who was a trusted, loyal, committed and reliable supporter at the Coast. The President seemed more comfortable with Shakombo than with Mwakwere the MP for Matuga, the only other Minister from the coast, a diplomat of long standing who first served in the Foreign Affairs docket when Kibaki took over, before being moved to Transport.

Shakombo seized the moment to praise the government for settling more than 2,000 residents on 5 local settlement schemes and initiating a local electrification project that had greatly benefited residents.

It was during his tenure as Minister of State for National Heritage and Culture (2016 to 2017) that a historical artifact removed from Kenya years before and exhibited in a United States museum was returned. Remarked Mr Shakombo during a ceremony at the United States International University (USIU) to mark the return of the artifact in September 2006: “Today is a day of victory for Kenya as we unveil and celebrate part of our heritage that had been stolen and has now been returned. It is the first time such an object has been brought back to Kenya.”

He explained that the wooden effigy was known among the coastal Mijikenda communities as kigango, erected in honour of important deceased elders. It was acquired by Illinois State University between December 2001 and January 2002 and handed over to the Illinois State Museum.

Shakombo promised to have it returned to its owners, the Kalume Mwakiru family from Chalani Village of Kilifi District (now Kilifi County). He said the government would not relent in its campaign to push foreign museums to repatriate valued cultural items stolen from Kenya.

He told the gathering that a Bill on the protection of national heritage was awaiting the President’s assent to become law. He also revealed that the government would set up a KES 58 million memorial centre for Nandi freedom hero Koitalel Samoei, the supreme chief of the Nandi people who led resistance against British rule and was assassinated by the colonialists in 1905.

A practising Muslim, Shakombo defended the government against allegations that it was against Muslims when it tabled the Terrorism Bill in Parliament in 2007. He said in Mombasa during a fundraiser for members of the Darul Hikmah and Mrkaz Da’wash that the Bill was already in force in Uganda and Tanzania. He accused leaders making such claims of spreading hatred among Muslims through their reckless utterances and using Islam to gain political mileage.

A defender of the Kibaki regime to the hilt, Shakombo took on Opposition Leader Raila Odinga when in October 2006, he (Odinga) criticised the President for issuing title deeds, saying doing so was tantamount to reducing the status of the Presidency. The Minister rose on a point of order and praised the President for touring Coast Province and issuing title deeds to residents. He dismissed as cheap Odinga’s assertion that the President should not do the work of clerical officers.

“Is the member in order to imply that Coast people are not respectable enough to be given title deeds by the President?” Shakombo was quoted in an article published by the Daily Nation on 6 October  2006.

He agitated for the honour of national heroes, resulting in the erection of statues such as those of Tom Mboya and Dedan Kimathi in Nairobi. He also advocated for the construction of a cultural and educational centre in memory of Koitalel arap Samoei in Nandi and was passionate about the protection of the Miji Kenda Kaya forests as a national heritage.

That Shakombo had the President’s ear was never in doubt. During a function to lay the foundation for the expansion of National Museum of Kenya headquarters in Nairobi in March 2006 attended by the President, he complained that the institution was facing brain drain due to poor salaries. Kibaki responded by announcing that salaries would be harmonised with those of other research institutions to ensure skilled staff were retained.

“I can assure you we shall do everything to keep you. Please do stay, we need your expertise,” the Daily Nation quoted the President saying to cheers from the workers.
Shakombo was respected and trusted by his colleagues at the coast, a fact demonstrated by their gesture in February 2003 to elect him chairman of the Coast Parliamentary Group to petition the government to revive collapsed industries in the region, among them the Ramisi Sugar Factory, Kilifi Cashew Nut Factory and Tiwi Bixa factory.

He was among the coastal leaders who strongly agitated for the replacement of former Kenya Ports Authority Managing Director Brown Ondego, a professional from upcountry by someone from the region, culminating in the appointment of Abdulla Hemed Mwaruwa on 14 January 2006. This followed several petitions to President Kibaki by coast leaders demanding that the Mombasa based parastatal be led by one of their own.

With equal vigour, Shakombo, in tandem, with Ananiah Mwaboza, then an assistant minister, vigorously campaigned to have a coastal professional replace Juma Lugogo, the founding Managing Director of Coast Development Authority (CDA) who died in 2005 after 13 years at the helm since the parastatal was formed in 1992. Their campaign was rewarded when Lugogo, who hailed from Nyali, was replaced Nesbert Mangale, also from the Coast.

Even as an ordinary member of the Coast Parliamentary Group that he once chaired, Shakombo was the one entrusted by Muslim leaders in 2007 to deliver a memorandum to President Kibaki requesting the government to issue the proposed Islamic University with an interim certificate. He promised to deliver the memorandum with the words: “We all know that Muslims are lagging behind in education in Kenya and that we need to work hard to address this problem,” he said, according to the Daily Nation.

Notably, Shakombo was among the leaders who in 2007 teamed up to champion the establishment of a university at the coast. The team comprising leading scholars from the region was tasked to agree on the name, location and infrastructure of the varsity that adopted the name Pwani and today sits in Kilifi County.

Shakombo was an important cog in President Kibaki’s campaigns at the coast in 2007. “We should elect President Kibaki a second time because he has an outstanding performance record,” he was quoted by the Daily Nation on 30 September 2007 during a campaign rally in Magarini Constituency addressed by President Kibaki, John Michuki, Mwakwere and Morris Dzoro among other leaders.

He always ran in the fast lane when it came to coast politics as evidenced by his open support for Sharif Ali Shekue to take over as mayor of Mombasa in 2006. “I have decided to support Mr Shekue because he is working with us as the Government.” He spoke at Mweza Primary School in his constituency following the launch of a KES 21 million rural electrification project.

His closeness to the President and the government of the day seemed to earn Shakombo enemies. In March 2007 gun shots were fired at his car shortly after he was dropped at his Mtongwe residence in Mombasa. His guards shot dead a suspect in the ensuing gun battle that left his driver wounded. Shakombo was quoted saying the attack was an attempt on his life by political rivals. “This confirms that these people were after my life. Why would a gangster shoot at a GK vehicle known in Likoni to belong to me?”, quoted the Daily Nation. He vowed that the incident would not cow him.

Shakombo said Miji Kenda Kaya forests regarded as holy grounds “will be protected better and made tourist attractions where visitors will have to pay to enter. Proceeds will benefit the local communities”, according to the Daily Nation on 22 November 2006.

He keenly pursued the return to the State of grabbed lands at the coast and other places. Mama Ngina grounds in Mombasa that today have been refurbished into an attractive popular seafront and Ras Kitau in Lamu stand out among salvaged public plots, courtesy of Shakombo’s effort through the Heritage Bill whose implementation he fast tracked. “We have given our notices, and we expect that the people involved will surrender them before the Government resorts to legal action because no development will be allowed to take place on the plots,” he warned, reported the Daily Nation.

Shakombo was among close Kibaki allies who lost their Parliamentary seats during the contested 2007 elections that erupted into unprecedented post-election violence when Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party refused to accept President Kibaki’s victory.

In March 2007 gunshots were fired at his car shortly after he was dropped at his Mtongwe residence in Mombasa His guards shot dead a suspect in the ensuing gun battle that left his driver wounded

After two years in limbo, President Kibaki appointed Shakombo as Chairman of Kenya Petroleum Refineries Limited in 2009, a post to which he was reappointed for a year by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2015.

Born on 10 February 1940 in then Kwale District (now Kwale County), Shakombo attended primary school in his native Kwale between 1949 and 1955 and secondary school between 1956 and 1959 after which he joined the Kenya Ports Authority as a Cadet Supervisor between 1960 and 1961, before landing a job with the Ministry of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security as a District Assistant at independence in 1963.

After serving for a decade, one year as a cadet supervisor (1960-61) and nine as a District Assistant (1963-1972), Shakombo was promoted to the post of District Officer (DO) in 1973. Five years later in 1978, he was promoted to District Commissioner (DC), serving in that capacity in many parts of the country until 1981 when he was elevated to the position of Under Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services.

He left government service to venture into politics and was MP for Likoni for 10 years from 1997 to 2007, two of them (2006 to 2007) as a Cabinet Minister. He lost his Likoni seat to Mwalimu Masoud Mwahima of ODM in the 2007 General Election.

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