Described by critics as a carryover from a bygone era, William Ronkorua ole Ntimama was another unlikely member of the Kibaki Cabinet. A self-educated man who used his power of the tongue and warlike posturing to sustain himself at the top of Maasai land political hierarchy, Ntimama was one of only three ex-KANU (Kenya African National Union) ministers who Kibaki did not include in his first Cabinet which he formed on 3 January 2003, as the new leader tried, to chart a new beginning.
Others excluded were Joseph Kamotho, who had been President Daniel arap Moi’s point-man in Central Province, an Opposition hotbed since the return of multiparty elections in 1991, and Joseph Nyagah, the son of independence politician Jeremiah Nyagah.
This slight — for a man who considered himself the king of the Maasai — was too much and he never seemed to recover from it.
After a year on the backbench —unfamiliar territory for a larger-than-life figure who had been Minister for virtually his entire Parliamentary career then spanning 15 years — Ntimama found his way into the Cabinet after Kajiado South Member of Parliament (MP) and Kibaki’s ally in Maasai land, Geoffrey Mepukori Parpai, died.
Fifteen years as chairman of the powerful Narok County Council and another 15 as MP and Minister had made Ntimama larger than life, and his word held sway in many parts of Maasai land.
Unsurprisingly, the Public Service Minister was one of the seven ministers who campaigned against the proposed Constitution in the 2005 referendum that split the government down the middle.
Others were Raila Odinga (Public Works, Roads and Housing), Kalonzo Musyoka (Environment), Anyang’ Nyong’o (Planning), Ochillo Ayacko (Sports), Najib Balala (National Heritage and Culture) and Linah Jebii Kilimo (Immigration and Registration of Persons).
After the government lost the referendum, Kibaki sacked the entire Cabinet — a first in Kenya’s history — and excluded the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rebels on reconstituting it.
But if Ntimama missed the first Kibaki Cabinet by design, he found himself in the Government of National Unity, the coalition government formed in 2008 following a truce between the President and Odinga, his challenger in the 2007 General Election.
It would appear, however, that Ntimama never forgave Kibaki for the 2003 snub, saying in an interview in 2013 that the coalition government achieved a lot, in spite of, not because of President Kibaki.
Ntimama’s harsh assessment was starkly different from that of the other ministers interviewed for this book, perhaps a pointer to how deeply hurt the ‘King of the Maasai’ was by Kibaki’s decision to exclude him from the first Cabinet despite his leadership of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) campaign in his region.
The man with deep infectious laughter had reasonable expectation that he would be appointed, if only for regional representation, seeing as Kajiado already had a Minister —George Saitoti, MP for Kajiado North and a former Vice President. Instead, Kibaki appointed Parpai, also from Kajiado, leaving Narok unrepresented.
Still, Ntimama considered the Kenya Heroes Bill 2012, which provided for the recognition of Kenyan heroes as one of the most important achievements during his time in the Kibaki Cabinet.
The Bill sought to establish criteria for the identification, selection and honouring of national heroes; to provide for the categories of heroes; and to provide for the establishment of the National Heroes Council and the building of National Heroes Acre at Uhuru Gardens in Langata in Nairobi.
Ntimama was also proud of the expansion of public libraries during his tenure. This was hardly surprising for a man who once held the unofficial record of having the biggest home library in Kenya.
“When I was the Minister of National Heritage we built a big library in Narok where I donated all the books. They are mostly history and literature books. If you go there, you will find them at Ntimama corner,” he told an interviewer in 2016.
He traced his outsized love for reading to his self-education. “What many Kenyans may not know is that I am a self-taught man. I never saw the inside of a secondary school class. I joined the teaching profession after my elementary school certificate.”
Born in 1927 in Melili area, Narok, Ntimama was raised in a polygamous family where his mother was the second wife. He attended Ole Sankale Primary School in Narok where he did Kenya African Primary Education examination (KAPE).
He later joined Kahuhia Teachers Training College and was deployed to teach Kiswahili and History at his former school—then known as Government Maasai School. He also taught elsewhere in the region even as he studied privately for his O’ level examination.
In 1953, he approached Carey Francis of Alliance High School to allow him to sit for the exam as a private candidate. He was allowed only four weeks to prepare, according to members of his family, but excelled, beating full-time students.
After Alliance High School, he went back to teaching and enrolled for a diploma course in Law in the UK through correspondence.
“I acquired a diploma in Legal Studies from Oxford University, which I studied by correspondence. It is this situation as a self-taught student which made me a voracious reader. Being an independent student, you have to be much disciplined. I stopped pursuing higher education when politics and family came in,” he said in an interview for the Daily Nation.
He later became a District Officer, a member of the African District Council, a member of the Legislative Council and chairman of the Narok County Council.
He ran against Justus Ole Tipis, in 1978 and 1983, for the Narok North seat, but was unsuccessful both times. Still, he continued his activism.
For his warlike utterances, Moi detained Ntimama in 1983 for 102 days. It took Tanzanian Prime Minister Edward Sokoine, a fellow Maasai, to get him released by trading him with the 1982 coup plotter, Hezekiah Ochuka, who had fled to Tanzania.
Even with this cloud of infamy hanging over his head, Moi appointed him chairman of various parastatals including the National Housing Corporation (NHC), the Kenya Grain Growers Cooperative Union (KGGCU) and the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC).
In 1988, during the infamous mlolongo (queue voting system), Ntimama finally defeated Tipis and was promptly appointed Supplies and Marketing Minister. This marked the beginning of his long journey in the Cabinet where his dockets included Local Government, Home Affairs, Transport and Communications and Office of the President in charge of Public Service.
Ntimama would team up with KANU stalwarts Kipkalya Kones, Nicholas Biwott and Henry Kosgey to rally the Rift Valley region against the return of pluralist politics.
They formed a pro-small-communities platform — called Kamatusa which stood for Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu — that advocated for federalism as a counter to the pro-multiparty agitation.
Despite his detention in 1983, his acerbic utterances continued to be a subject of investigations into the next decade and beyond. For example, the Report of the Judicial Commission Appointed to Inquire into Tribal Clashes in Kenya, popularly known as the Akiwumi Report after its chairman, named the politician as one of the masterminds of the orgy of killings in 1992 targeting the Kikuyu in Narok.
Ahead of that year’s General Election, about 300 families were evicted from Enoosupukia, with authorities claiming it was an illegal forest settlement and a water catchment area held in trust for the Maasai by the local county council. In truth, he wanted the residents to leave because their ethnicity suggested they would not vote for him.
Ntimama was also opposed to campaigns to have the Maasai plan their families, arguing that power was obtained through numerical strength.
“Those who are preaching to us about family planning should keep off. Our people will continue to give birth until they catch up with major tribes,” he would tell the media during rallies in Narok as the first multiparty election approached.
In January 1995, at the behest of some powerful forces in KANU, he teamed up with John Keen, another veteran politician, to give Saitoti a hard time in national and Kajiado politics. He was an on-again-off-again supporter of the VP whom he dismissed as a non-Maasai.
In 1996 the relationship between Ntimama and Moi started deteriorating, ostensibly after he was blamed for taking sides in a boundary dispute between his populous Purko and the Keekonyokie sections in Narok. Around this time, Moi dressed him down during a meeting at Ntulele.
After that incident, his access to Moi was curtailed, a development that was a blessing to Julius Sunkuli, the Kilgoris MP and an Assistant Minister in the Office of the President. Sunkuli was later transferred to the Internal Security Ministry as a Minister.
Ahead of the 1997 General Election, when his relationship with Moi was at an all-time low, he survived stiff competition from Jackson Mwanik during the KANU nominations.
As a KANU zone, Narok was among the electoral areas where one was assured of victory after winning the party nominations. But even after re-election, whenever Moi visited Narok, he would ask residents to work with Mwanik even in the presence of Ntimama, clearly illustrating how their once solid friendship had crumbled beyond redemption. Pundits from the region opine that Ntimama had become too powerful to be tamed — even by Moi.
Then came the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After Moi chose Uhuru Kenyatta as his preferred successor in 2002, Ntimama openly rebelled and threw his support behind Kibaki who was the NARC flag bearer.
The Minister, who had wanted Saitoti, his foe-turned-friend to succeed Moi, resigned and galvanised the Maasai votes for NARC. He won in that election and again in 2007 on an Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party ticket.
Ntimama lost the seat which he had held for 25 years to lawyer Moitalel Kenta in 2013. Ntimama would tell an interviewer that he regretted running in that election as it had broken his hitherto unbroken winning streak.
Explaining her father’s philosophy, Lydia Masikonte, also a politician, says Ntimama could be both fearless and fiercely loyal because one needed both to achieve one’s goals. For Ntimama these goals were Maasai land rights and the conservation of Mau Forest, the biggest water tower in the country — two causes on which he rode to remain at the top for a very long time.
One of the biggest newsmakers of the last 40 years, Ntimama was a darling of the press, not just for always making provocative statements that often made to page one, but also for never complaining of being misquoted.
Away from politics and farming, Ntimama liked watching football and wrestling besides visiting morans (traditional warriors) in manyattas (cultural villages). He encouraged moranism and differed with those who campaigned against saying it as an outdated cultural practice which stood in the way of education and development in the region.
It was with this baggage, therefore, that Ntimama arrived in the ninth Parliament, having won the 2002 election on the reformist NARC ticket, presenting President Kibaki with the dilemma of what to do with him.
Ntimama was the most senior Maa leader in NARC. However, he was too tainted to be accommodated in a government that laid claim to a new beginning.
Most of Kibaki’s associates believed that Ntimama — the warmonger — was not compatible with Kibaki, the gentleman of Kenyan politics.
It was with this in mind that Kibaki opted to appoint a little known, low-key politician from Kajiado South, a constituency that had stuck with him even during the heady KANU days.
Following the death of Parpai and the incessant grumbling from the LDP wing who complained that they had been short-changed in the sharing of Cabinet positions, Kibaki bowed to pressure and appointed Ntimama Minister for Public Service in 2004.
His stay in the Cabinet was, however, short-lived as he was kicked out with others in the Odinga group the next year as Kibaki purged the government of rebels.
After the 2007 General Election and the Government of National Unity that followed, Ntimama was again appointed Minister of State for National Heritage and Culture, courtesy of being in ODM. The post suited him as a self-styled defender of the cultural values of indigenous communities.
A chronicle of Ntimama’s contribution to President Kibaki’s legacy would, however, be incomplete if his biographer were to stick to his job description at the two ministries he served. Perhaps his more enduring role was to offer political backing for the conservation of Mau Forest, the country’s largest water tower which the KANU government kept dishing out for votes.
It was during the Kibaki Administration that the destruction of this forest, and others such as Embobut in Marakwet, was reversed.
The Minister applied pressure for those living in the forest to be evicted, arguing that 90 per cent of them were from “adjoining districts and have crossed boundaries, valleys and rivers to settle there illegally”.
Towards the end of his life in September 2016 aged 88, the Ntimama of old had mellowed and put on a more conciliatory aura. He, for example, took Maasai leaders to State House and promised to campaign for President Kenyatta ahead of the 2017 elections when Odinga, his bosom buddy and erstwhile political patron, was running.
Clearly, the metamorphosis of the man with indefatigable courage had come full circle. From an affirmed KANU stalwart, he became a rebel within and without government and in his last days he had returned to the fold.
So, while at the onset Kibaki had intended to form a government from a clean slate, political realities soon forced him to back down. In the end, part of his Cabinet became a perfect case of old wine in a new wineskin.
Even though he had moved from KANU to NARC, which won the 2002 General Election, perhaps no member of the Kibaki Cabinet had as much baggage as Ntimama, the ebullient and eloquent defender of the old order.