Wilson Ndolo Ayah’s political fortunes took a turn for the better when President Daniel arap Moi appointed him Minister for Research, Science and Technology. The story surrounding this promotion is worth re-telling. It all began on a certain day in August 1987.
Ayah had been unwell and was resting at home when the change came: the State broadcaster, Voice of Kenya (since renamed Kenya Broadcasting Corporation), announced in its 1 o’clock news bulletin that he had been appointed to the Cabinet. And the rest is history, so to speak.
This development was a godsend. He had been appointed Assistant Minister for Finance barely three months earlier. The burden of helping Moi fix the country’s financial and monetary equation had been overwhelming. Now, as a full Minister, his work appeared cut out for him.
The appointment appeared to be the result of some political problems that the former Minister, William Odongo Omamo, faced which had resulted in his sacking. This left the Cabinet position vacant: Omamo’s loss was Ayah’s gain. When Moi appointed and relieved ministers of their duties, he usually replaced them with someone from the same ethnic community. This was called tribal balancing.
Ayah subsequently worked in several ministries, including Transport and Communication, Foreign Affairs, Research, Science and Technology, and Water and Irrigation. Interestingly, it appeared that he was moved whenever the incumbent was fired. He also served as KANU National Chairman for four years from 1992.
Born on 29 April 1932 in Kitambo, West Seme Location, Kisumu District, Ayah went to Ramba Primary School before joining Maseno School. He was later admitted to Uganda’s Makerere University (then the most prestigious university in East Africa), graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree before proceeding to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States for a Master of Science in Rural Economics/Sociology.
Soon after his return to Kenya, he joined Sterling Products as the marketing research manager until 1969 when he joined politics and was elected MP for Kisumu Rural Constituency. As soon as he entered Parliament, Ayah became Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the most powerful oversight committee in Kenya’s Parliament; it scrutinises public expenditure.
However, Ayah lost the next two elections — in 1974 and in 1979 — only returning to Parliament in 1983 as MP for the neighbouring Kisumu Town Constituency. In the 1988 General Election, Ayah again became the MP for Kisumu Rural, switching constituencies with Dr Robert Ouko, who became the MP for Kisumu Town Constituency. Only two years after appointing Ayah to the Cabinet, Moi moved him to the Ministry of Water Development. Not long after this he became the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, following the death of Ouko in February 1990.
This was a powerful position. As the country’s chief envoy Ayah had to oversee Kenya’s external image by ensuring that the nation enjoyed goodwill in the international community. Apart from taking charge of Kenya’s embassies abroad, he also made sure that Kenya honoured its international obligations such as treaties.
The period 1990 to 1993 was momentous for Kenya with the push for transformation from single-party politics to multipartism. Like other Africans elsewhere, Kenyans were clamouring for the return of multiparty democracy. Europe and America were in support of this, especially the US which, through its ambassador in Kenya, Smith Hempstone, practically supported the emerging Opposition.
For example, in May 1990 Hempstone informed Kenyan authorities that US economic assistance would be available only to those nations that supported democratic institutions, defended human rights and embraced multipartism. In response, Ayah labelled the ambassador a racist, accusing him of having a slave-master mentality.
But Hempstone remained unfazed and with support from his German colleague, Bernd Mutzelburg (German ambassador to Kenya from 1991 to 1995), would sometimes rope in other foreign diplomats to increase the pressure on Moi’s government to be more open, transparent and accountable, and to institute the much-needed democratic reforms.
The 1992 elections marked a turning point. For the first time in decades, Kenyans chose leaders from multiple political parties. Political pluralism had been reintroduced the previous year following the repeal of Section 2A of the Constitution that had declared Kenya a de facto one-party State. Moi, and by extension the ruling party, therefore expected Ayah to woo Luo Nyanza back to KANU.
At the time, the Luo ethnic community, then the third most populous in the country, was firmly in the Opposition under the leadership of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and later his son, Raila Amolo Odinga. Therefore, Ayah and all the other KANU MPs from Luo Nyanza were unable to retain their parliamentary seats because of the change in the political landscape. This loss marked the end of his political influence in the region. However, he remained in KANU even though the party had become unpopular in his backyard.
In the ensuing Cabinet appointments after the elections, Ayah was replaced by Kalonzo Musyoka; KANU did not nominate him to Parliament. However, he was elected KANU National Chairman after the previous holder, Oloo Aringo, left KANU for the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD)-Kenya party in 1992. But he faced legitimacy questions: “… to begin with, he is the only top official in the ruling party who rose to the post without facing an election … Secondly Ayah has to contend with the fact that he serves in a party that enjoys little support from his backyard of Luo Nyanza,” The Weekly Review news magazine reported on 5 May 1995.
Ayah played second fiddle to Moi (who also served as party President) in KANU and to the then influential Cabinet Minister, Nicholas Biwott. Ayah would face all the flak levelled against the ruling party but could not influence its decisions. “In fact, some of the more stubborn KANU supporters have had little time for Ayah, and view him as a man who has hardly any business occupying the post of chairman in the party,” said The Weekly Review in May 1995.
Civil servants, among them provincial commissioners, also appeared to dismiss the KANU chairman. Indeed, Nyanza PC Joseph Kaguthi differed with the political leadership on the best strategy to win the region back to KANU. The party’s Kisumu Branch officials felt the PC was undermining their boss. Ayah, ever the suave gentleman, took it all in his stride, leading the media to describe him as a refined politician; a gentleman.
Unable to convince his community to join KANU, he became an advocate for political defections. He switched to persuading Opposition MPs to join the ruling party, despite a public outcry about the high rate of political defections from the Opposition ranks. Ayah said it was absurd for a party not to lure political rivals. He even asked rival parties to cooperate with KANU to achieve collective voting on key issues.
In 1996, Ayah was again appointed to the Cabinet to replace Dalmas Otieno, who had been sacked as Minister for Transport and Communication for criticising a Government decision to abolish the sugar import ban. Otieno argued that imported sugar would kill local production, a position that ran contrary to the Presidential directive.
Ayah hit the ground running. His first order of business was to deal with the road carnage that was claiming many lives. He ordered that speed governors be installed in all passenger vehicles that could seat seven passengers and above, and in all commercial vehicles with a tare weight of over three tonnes. He also had to defuse a row involving Kenya Airways (KQ) and Aero Zambia over flight schedules and landing rights. Zambia was uncomfortable with the KQ approach to business. Ayah led the delegation to Zambia to resolve the issue. His tenure was also marked by a strike by air traffic controllers over working conditions.
Ayah’s other achievements included launching a policy paper in 1997 to help regulate the Kenya Posts and Telecommunication Corporation (KPTC). He noted that the market place was changing and new technologies were being developed that were shaping the communication sector on a global scale. A year later, the Kenya Roads Bill was drafted to create an autonomous body to manage, regulate and control the road transport sector. It became the Kenya Roads Act 1999 after sailing through Parliament.
Towards the tail end of Moi’s leadership, the Opposition increased its calls for political reforms. To mitigate against potential division in the country, Ayah opened his party to dialogue with the Opposition on matters of constitutional reforms. This set the stage for the cooperation between KANU and the National Development Party of Raila Odinga, resulting in Odinga joining Moi’s Cabinet.
Ayah can therefore be credited with playing a role in bringing democracy to the country.
After retiring from active politics, he served as the founding chairman of Safaricom, the giant mobile communications company. The firm has grown to become among the most profitable mobile communication companies in East and Central Africa. He also served as chairperson of the KPTC Board. Ayah died at the age of 84 years in March 2016.