Cyrus Shakhalaga Khwa Jirongo is a flamboyant politician whose fidelity to politics – and to business – is always a subject of heated discussion. A man whose politics and wealth are linked to a questionable assembly of youthful leaders that campaigned for the re-election of President Daniel arap Moi in 1992, Jirongo has shifted alliances so many times since, that it becomes almost impossible to isolate his political ideology.
A survivor in his own right, he has overcome myriad auctions of the business empire he built from political proceeds of the Youth for KANU 1992 (YK ’92) that he co-founded. The freshly released KES 500 currency note became synonymous with the name Jirongo after YK ’92 organisation widely distributed it as vote-buying handouts during the 1992 election campaigns.
But according to the Daily Nation of July 2017, Jirongo owns properties worth billions of shillings, but is woefully short of cash; a broke billionaire, unable to pay his debtors. He was declared bankrupt (though the order was later rescinded) because of a KES 700 million debt he owed a long-time friend-turned-foe, Sammy Boit Kogo, the newspaper stated.
Indeed, many political anecdotes swirl around his life as the YK ’92 leader but little, if anything, is there to account for his days as Lugari MP (1998-2002 and 2007-2013) and later Cabinet minister (Rural Development).
Immediately after joining Parliament, Jirongo announced his intention to vie for the country’s presidency after the end of Moi’s term in 2002. He pulled back but gave it a shot in the 2017 elections, only managing to garner 0.07% of the vote in the initial round of a presidential election annulled by the Supreme Court over irregularities.
Jirongo spoke out against KANU’s rigidity concerning youth leadership and went ahead to assemble a team of MPs fiercely opposed to the ruling party’s old ways
Be that as it may, not much is known about Jirongo’s life prior to the emergence of YK ’92. The snippets of information available indicate that he was born sometime in March 1961. He was a student at Mang’u High School between 1978 and 1981 and 10 years later, became the Chairperson of AFC Leopards, one of Kenya’s leading football clubs.
Jirongo was just 31 years old when he assembled a group of unlikely friends who included Sam Nyamweya, Fred Kiptanui, Ben Wakhungu, Sammy Kogo, Victor Kebenei, Bartonjo Chesaina, Joe Mwangale, Joe Kimkung, Patrick Osero, William Ruto, Esther Sagini, Moses Kurgat, Jimmy Choge, Rajab Waliaula, Mwelu Ngei, Alex Mukabwa, Fred Amayo, Munyua Waiyaki (nephew of Cabinet minister Munyua Waiyaki) and Ken Ouko, to create YK ’92.
Barely a couple of months after it was launched in March 1992, the group became exceedingly powerful and brazenly moneyed. Members became instant billionaires by raising campaign funds for the ruling party KANU.
“State House was our home. Doors were readily opened for us if we wanted anything and Mzee (Moi) was usually available for us,” Kimkung was quoted in the Sunday Nation of 29 May 2016.
The organisation’s members threw all manner of dirt at the Opposition, including purchasing newspaper space and broadcast time to pour scorn on Moi rivals.
“We started out with the best of intentions but we were ultimately consumed by greed and the ambitions of some of us,” lawyer Moses Kurgat, the group’s first Secretary General, told the Sunday Nation.
“Never has the energy and creativity of the youth been directed to a more destructive course until YK ’92 happened. The impact of its activities lived with us for more than 20 years and will be felt for many years to come,” commented Raila Odinga, who bore the brunt of YK ’92 many times.
As it were, YK ’92 was built on quicksand. After Moi retained his seat in the first multiparty elections since 1966, the YK ’92 outfit became rabid; power went straight to the heads of its leaders.
The hallucination of power and authority blinded the youth. Jirongo made a fatal misstep by calling for the resignation of George Saitoti, the Vice President and Minister for Planning and National Development, a call that coincided with a walkout from Parliament staged by opposition MPs in protest against Saitoti. “The uncanny alliance this seemed to portray unwittingly played Jirongo into the hands of his foes; and his organisation was instantly suspended by President Daniel arap Moi,” The Economic Review reported in May 1993. It added, “Poor Jirongo, he’s been used and discarded, just like they said he’d be”.
Kibaki said that he had predicted Moi would “…use the youths and then discard them when he did not need them anymore”.
Moi claimed that the organisation had tarnished KANU’s image, and that its officials had joined the Opposition to undermine his leadership. In fact, Moi chose to defend Saitoti and went ahead to mention Cabinet ministers Nicholas Biwott and William ole Ntimama as key KANU loyalists.
Beaten, Jirongo chose a new defence tactic by seeking political relevance. He started building a power base in Luhya land, driven by the perception that western Kenya lacked a leader able to take on the powers that be. The Leader of Official Opposition, Mwai Kibaki, also weighed in, claiming that Jirongo’s predicament wasn’t surprising.
Moi would later disband YK ’92. “Mr Moi moved in to financially cripple its ambitious Chairman who, by his own admission, harboured ambitions to build the group into a formidable political outfit to rival the then ruling KANU party,” the Sunday Nation reported on 29 May 2016.
But just before Moi disbanded the organisation, calling its leaders a “group of conmen” despite their efforts that resulted in his re-election, Jirongo was arrested briefly, accused of possessing unlicensed guns. His houses in Nairobi had been raided and searched for the firearms.
The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) Secretary General, Joseph Jolly Mugala, who had called a workers’ strike to demand Saitoti’s sacking, was also arrested at the same time along with former Webuye MP Joash Wamang’oli.
It so happened that at the time Moi was wielding his whip on Jirongo, he also targeted officials of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) comprising Martin Kunguru (Managing Trustee) and Peter Linus Baraza Kubebea (Finance Manager). To a casual observer, the action against Kunguru and Kubebea may well have appeared political. It wasn’t necessarily so. The NSSF officials had strong links with Jirongo’s business fortunes.
The NSSF either contracted Jirongo to construct a number of residential properties on its behalf or purchased ongoing projects from him at a cost that became an issue of dispute and prolonged court cases. Among projects that have been at the centre of controversy include Hazina residential estate in Nairobi.
In recent reports, Jirongo has often claimed that he was already a billionaire by the time he co-founded YK ’92. But it’s not a secret anymore that it was during the YK ’92 days that Jirongo evolved his companies – including Cyperr Projects International Ltd and Sololo Outlets – into powerful business engines that controlled Nairobi’s real estate sector.
Correspondence between NSSF lawyer Mutula Kilonzo (who was also Moi’s lawyer), the Head of the Civil Service Philip Mbithi and Moi is very revealing. In one of his confidential letters to Moi, Kilonzo wrote, “We have identified more than 180 properties belonging to either the companies aforementioned or Mr Jirongo personally… we have recommended that the Special Branch investigate to locate other assets owned by Mr Jirongo, relatives, associates… as the possibility still exists that what we have is not exhaustive.” Kilonzo asked Mbithi to “…mount detailed surveillance on Jirongo and his associates to ascertain whether there are and prepare against any threats to State security as a result of massive cash believed to be in his possession.”
According to The Economic Review of August-September 1993, “Jirongo’s controversial private business dealings, especially the lucrative contract to develop a multi-million shilling housing project for the NSSF, were put under close scrutiny. The final indignity was delivered two months ago when his Cyperr Projects International and Sololo Outlets Limited were placed under receivership over dues allegedly owed the NSSF and Postbank Credit limited.”
After a lull in the limelight, Jirongo resurfaced in 1997 when contesting for the Lugari Parliamentary seat which he won. Again, as in 1992, this marked another era in the flamboyant politician’s life – and a sort of return to KANU and mending of fences with his mentor, Moi. This was despite a vow he had made in September 1993 not to vie for a parliamentary seat. “I am not interested in going to Parliament to make noise,” he had declared at the time.
Six months after entering Parliament, Jirongo announced his plans to run for the country’s presidency in the following election cycle in 2002. News magazine The Weekly Review described the announcement as charting out his own course. It stated, “He is known to be ambitious, and ever since entering Parliament this year, he has cut for himself the image of an independent and radical legislator, one who is ready to speak his mind on issues that some may consider too sensitive to comment upon.”
Jirongo spoke out against KANU’s rigidity concerning youth leadership and went ahead to assemble a team of MPs fiercely opposed to the ruling party’s old ways. His faction came to be known as KANU C, as opposed to conservative KANU A (made up of diehard leaders such as Moi and Cabinet ministers Nicholas Biwott, William ole Ntimama and Shariff Nassir) and the moderate KANU B.
Even as he announced his presidential ambitions, Jirongo made it known that he was not planning to run on a KANU ticket. He described Michael Wamalwa Kijana, who had run for President the previous year, as a “sell-out” and declared himself the “aggressive leader” to fill the leadership vacuum in Luhya land. Over and above his dismissive attitude regarding Wamalwa, Jirongo had no time for his Cabinet colleague Musalia Mudavadi, also from Luhya land.
In 1998, he accused Musalia of not being ambitious enough. However, his critics questioned whether his announcement to run for President “…is a mere bluff to jog the Luhya leaders out of their political slumber or the beginning of bigger things to come”, according to The Weekly Review of July 1998. “This is not the first time that Jirongo has publicly chided Luhya political leaders. He never misses an opportunity to throw a barb or two at the community’s leaders, whom he considers to be complacent, ineffective and divided to the detriment of the community’s interests,” the news magazine reported.
In November 2001 Moi announced a major Cabinet reshuffle in which he appeared to offload the old guard in favour of youthful faces. Jirongo and Uhuru Kenyatta were among the new names in the Cabinet. Jirongo was now Minister for Rural Development, which had formerly been a department within the larger Ministry of Planning and National Development. His predecessor was Yekoyada Masakhalia, described by Pan African News Agency (PANA) as a “…former UN bureaucrat turned politician”.
As Minister for Rural Development, Jirongo’s role was to oversee socioeconomic improvement of mostly arid and semi-arid areas in the country, especially in the neglected northern Kenya. He was also in charge of the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA). At best, the Ministry lacked gravitas. Moi created it perhaps to reward loyalists. In fact, PANA reported, “Jirongo, who was behind the yet to be registered United Democratic Movement (UDM) political party, had even gone public with his plans to contest for the presidency come next year. He, however, changed his stance and it was a matter of time before he was rewarded for it.”
This was hardly unexpected. During his stint as a backbencher, Jirongo and other KANU rebels, including Kipruto Kirwa and John Sambu, had formed UDM ostensibly to challenge KANU in the 2002 elections. But political analysts viewed UDM as an expression of disgust by the youth isolated from government in favour of the so-called Old Guard. Jirongo’s performance at the Ministry of Rural Development remains a matter of conjecture. Not much has been reported on that score.
According to a Hansard Report of 16 July 2002, Jirongo announced that the Kenya Rural Development Strategy was being developed to address “…highly centralised government, inadequate empowerment, lack of effective participation, physical infrastructure, research and technology transfer and information services” in rural areas.
In 2002/2003, his Ministry was allocated KES 6.6 billion (recurrent) and KES 1.5 billion for development purposes, compared to KES 2.97 billion and KES 970 million respectively in 2001/2002. About 70 per cent of this allocation went to the Ministry’s 42 State-owned corporations. But MPs felt the allocations were hardly enough. “The Minister knows very well that the amount of money he has asked for is not adequate for the job at hand. He should decline to take that money. The Minister should plead with the House to assist him get more money,” opposition MP Njeru Ndwiga pleaded.
Jirongo took over a Ministry that was facing questions from the Controller and Auditor General over its financial status. In the 1997/98 Appropriation Accounts report, the Auditor questioned the use of billions of shillings granted to corporations within the Ministry. For instance, KES 331 million was granted to six regional organisations in the 1997/98 budget, but the Auditor could not establish “…that the grants were received by the organisations”.
After KANU was bundled out of power, Jirongo formed the Kenya African Democratic Development (KADDU) political party through which he reclaimed the Lugari parliamentary seat he had lost in 2002. KADDU had a pitiful showing in the election, to the extent that Jirongo was its only MP. He had a brief dalliance with the United Republican Party (URP) and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) before settling with the Federal Party of Kenya (FPK), on which he unsuccessfully ran for the Kakamega Senatorial position in 2013.
Five years later, he would announce his interest in the presidency.
In the August 2017 elections eventually annulled by the Supreme Court over multiple irregularities, Jirongo garnered just 0.07 per cent (11,282) of the votes, claiming the second last position among the eight candidates. This time round, he ran on a United Democratic Party (UDP) ticket. Almost two weeks before the repeat presidential election of 26 October 2017, the court declared him bankrupt for failing to repay a KES 700 million loan advanced to him by a former YK ’92 colleague Sammy Kogo. The orders were surprisingly lifted just three days to the disputed presidential election boycotted by the key opposition leader Raila Odinga. Jirongo garnered 37,791 votes in this election.
Since leaving Parliament in 2013, Jirongo has faced suits and countersuits over his business dealings. More recently COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli took him to court for failing to repay a KES 100 million ‘friendly’ loan he had advanced to Jirongo. Despite all this, the businessman-cum-politician has succeeded in staying afloat. In 2012 his company Sololo Outlets won a case against the NSSF and was awarded KES 490 million in compensation.
Jirongo is associated with several companies, including Kuza Farm, Sololo Outlets and Cyperr Projects International. He is also linked to a number of residential developments in Nairobi, including Saika Estate along Kangundo Road, Hazina Estate in South B and Kemri Estate along Mbagathi Road.
To date, nobody has attempted to quantify the amount of money that circulated within YK ’92. What is clear, though, is that all its members, once described as “political sharks”, became immensely rich. Many of them either control the political purse or have very deep links in the government.