Philip Leakey was the first Minister of European descent in President Daniel arap Moi’s Cabinet. This was not his only first. In 1979, he became the first white Member of Parliament to be elected in independent Kenya. He was MP for Langata Constituency from 1979, when the first General Election under Moi was held, to 1992 when the ruling party, KANU, lost all the seats in Nairobi to the Opposition.
The youngest of three brothers, Leakey was born on 21 June 1949 to archaeologists Louis Seymour Leakey and Mary Leakey. He first contested the Langata seat in 1974 and came in second. Five years later he tried again, this time beating Achieng Oneko to become MP.
Leakey was appointed to the Cabinet in 1992, when Njoroge Mungai resigned from the Cabinet to join the Opposition. Before this he was an assistant minister in several portfolios over the years: Environment and Natural Resources (1981), Foreign Affairs (1985), Environment and Natural Resources (1986), Supplies and Marketing (1987), Tourism and Wildlife (1988), Technical Training and Applied Technology (1989), and Education, Science and Technology (1989).
Whereas the credit for anti-poaching activity has often gone to his elder brother Richard, Leakey was probably among the first leaders in the world to voice concern over the destruction of African wildlife. In 1988 he received a report by tour operators that revealed the extent of poaching in Kenya and warned that the country would lose tourists as a result of the destruction.
In 1980 he had said wildlife and humans had to co-exist and that there should be a continuous wildlife management programme in Kenya. But he downplayed the crisis when he stated that poaching was at its lowest ever at the time.
As a Nairobi leader, he was naturally concerned about the plight of city residents, especially those who lived in Kibera, which was part of his constituency. He advocated for the resettlement of Kibera residents.
“If the people there were given certificates of ownership, they would develop the plots and the slums would go,” he told Parliament in April 1987.
Unlike most politicians of those days, Leakey was able to focus on the long term. He spoke and dealt with issues that may have appeared irrelevant at the time but which are now big on the global agenda.
Leakey joined Nairobi MPs when they accused the Nairobi City Commission of tribalism and nepotism at City Hall. The MPs said they were “shocked, appalled, disgusted, disappointed, horrified and dissatisfied with the manner in which the recent recruitment of employees by the Nairobi City Commission was done”. Other MPs included Charles Rubia (Starehe), Clement Gachanja (Dagoretti), Andrew Ngumba of Mathare, Godfrey Muhuri Muchiri of Embakasi, Bahati’s Fred Omido, Samuel Kivuitu of Parklands and Kamukunji’s Maina Wanjigi.
Notably, he was among the first leaders to face the issue of human trafficking. In February 1986, he received reports about eight job-seeking Kenyans stranded in Yemen after their employment agent vanished with their travel documents. They had no accommodation or money.
According to a Daily Nation report of 18 February 1986, the jobseekers had been promised monthly salaries as well as food allowance and free accommodation to take up jobs as electricians and mechanics. Instead, they were labourers in a factory, living together in a single room, and had not been paid for three months.
“An Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Philip Leakey, confirmed yesterday they had received the telex message and were trying to establish the truth about the eight Kenyans. If the case is found to be genuine, he said, the Government would assist them return home,” read the press report.
And in December 1982, while he was Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Leakey asked Kenyans to establish oil distribution companies so as to stem the repatriation of foreign exchange. Kenya, he said, had been independent for 19 years and “should try to get oil directly from suppliers and refine it at Mombasa instead of getting it through foreign companies”.
In March 1992, just two months after he had been sworn in as Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Leakey claimed that the US government was bankrolling the Opposition to fan tribal clashes in the country.
“You look everywhere in the world where Americans have been involved, be it in Latin America, Asia, Africa or even the Middle East, there has been chaos.”
He did not substantiate the claims and there was no evidence to back up his statement. Had he been Minister for Foreign Affairs, the US Embassy in Nairobi would have responded to his sentiments. Instead, the embassy declined to “dignify” him by responding to his allegations, said its spokesperson.
Leakey repeated the statement eight months later.
“Somali opposition leaders have sold their country to America and that has caused the strife in that country. Our President has refused to budge to the American wishes and that is why they want him out,” he told a political rally in Kariokor Market in Nairobi.
After he became a Minister, Leakey fought attempts by powerful countries to have the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters relocated from Nairobi. After he left the ministry, questions arose about irregular deals. In a 1994-1995 report, the Controller and Auditor General questioned the tender award for the proposed Mazingira House. A contractor abandoned the project despite an initial KES 80 million being paid. The project had been projected to cost KES 280 million and was handed over to the ministry by the contractor in May 1992. The ministry had also paid KES 6.8 million to other consultants involved in the project.
When his older brother co-founded the Safina Party of Kenya in 1995, effectively joining the Opposition, it put the younger Leakey in an awkward position — his brother on one side and his position as a ruling party MP on the other.
The Weekly Review, in a story headlined “Leakey Versus Leakey”, stated: “From the time Richard made his high-profile entry into Opposition politics… Philip made it clear that he was not on his elder brother’s side.”
Ironically, KANU welcomed Philip as a Kenyan but treated Richard (an Opposition leader) as a foreigner. At one time, Philip led a delegation of people of European descent to State House to express their loyalty to Moi and KANU.
“Richard is my brother but an opponent politically… he is opposing me and we will remain opponents until he gets smarter politically…” the press quoted him as saying.
The ruling elite would use his presence in Kenya’s politics, especially as the MP for Langata, to have the world know that the country was truly multi-racial. The Weekly Review of 1 September 1989 stated: “While Leakey might be living proof of the sort of multi-racial society Kenya has evolved into after the bitterness of the colonial era, he is much more than just a novelty in Parliament, working hard to protect his political turf in Langata while dispelling the impression that the capital city is awash in political polities.”
Leakey retired from politics after he lost the Langata seat and runs an export company with his wife.