Francis Loile Polis Lotodo – Fierce defender of his community

Not much is known about Francis Loile Polis Lotodo’s early life. Despite being a key public figure who fought for the rights of his community, he kept a low profile. The little information available about his early life points to a staunch Catholic who attended Kapenguria Upper Primary School and later joined a secondary school. He worked as a clerk in Kapenguria Town before moving to the Kitale African Court in the same capacity.

Lotodo served as an Assistant Minister and later as a Cabinet minister. He held various Cabinet portfolios among them Energy; Land and Physical Planning; Information and Broadcasting, Environment and Natural Resources; and Local Government during Daniel arap Moi’s tenure as president. In 1979 Lotodo was appointed Assistant Minister of Energy. When he died in 2000 at age 60, he was the Energy minister. Throughout his political career, he never minced his words, even if it meant antagonising the ruling party, KANU. Several times he was jailed for inciting intertribal violence. At one time, he was even expelled from KANU. But he always managed to bounce back. The manner in which he defended his community was taken seriously even if the political leaders of the day did not like it. Some referred to him as a “warlord” because he spoke his mind.

While he was Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in 1998, Lotodo was still a key player in what the Weekly Review described in April 1998 as the “militarisation of the pastoral communities”. For example, in March 1999 he was blamed for the massacre of about 100 people following clashes between the Pokot and their neighbours, the Turkana ethnic community. Lotodo denied any involvement in the incident.

He first became a Member of Parliament (MP) for the larger Pokot in 1969 before it was split into three constituencies (East, South and West Pokot). He was re-elected in 1974, 1979, 1983, 1988 and during the multiparty elections of the 1990s.

Lotodo was one of a kind. He put his tribe’s interests ahead of everything else. He was an ultra-conservative and a stubborn stickler for adhering to traditions perceived to be repugnant in a modern Kenya. For example, he believed that cattle rustling (outlawed in Kenya) was part of the Pokot culture, and he was ready to be jailed for his opinions. His rigid traditional opinions often antagonised other Kenyan people groups. In 1993, he is on record as having given members of the Kikuyu community an ultimatum to leave Pokot or face eviction by the locals, accusing them of denying the Pokot their livelihood. He targeted the same community before the 1997 General Election. He reportedly instructed those who had settled in West Pokot to “go and vote where they were born” Several independent human rights bodies, including the Institute for Education in Democracy, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and the National Council of Churches, cited this as an election malpractice.

This behaviour not only cost him a Cabinet post, but it also landed him in jail. He however changed his stand in 1998 after Moi placed him at the forefront of brokering peace between the Pokot and the neighbouring communities comprising the Turkana, Samburu and Marakwet.

Mr Lotodo was a man of truth; he never ceased to speak his mind. He never withheld any views if it struck as helpful to his people

The northern part of Kenya was marginalised by government all the way from colonial times. The absence of an effective administration led to insecurity, with the local ethnic groups arming themselves against attacks from neighbouring countries and forming militias. When Moi became president in 1978, the northern Kenya tribes had turned on each other. The Moi administration decided to embark on disarming the Pokots, making those opposed to the disarmament community leaders. Thus Lotodo became a leader.

Once, during a rally presided over by Moi in Lotodo’s home town Kapenguria, Lotodo accused the area District Commissioner (DC) of doing little to end the devastating famine that was ravaging the area. At the time, DCs were considered the president’s representatives at the district level. Some Pokot leaders felt Lotodo had shown disrespect towards the Head of State and they disowned him.

This was not the only time area leaders had differed with Lotodo. In 1984 several of them wrote a memorandum to the President claiming that Lotodo, at the time Assistant Minister of Information and Broadcasting, was urging the Pokot to arm themselves against their neighbours. Moi sacked him and he was expelled from KANU. Two years later, he was pardoned.

Despite the many controversies that surrounded him, Lotodo served in various Cabinet dockets. In January 1993 he was appointed Minister for Home Affairs and Heritage and four years later he swapped positions with William ole Ntimama of Local Government. After a Cabinet reshuffle in February 1999, he was moved to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

A month later he ordered stone-crushing machines out of Kaya Mwache Forest in Kwale over claims that the investors in the area were not ploughing their profits back into the community. He also accused them of not “respecting local people”, in addition to destroying the environment. Earlier, the local MP (Kinango Constituency), Simeon Mkalla, had directed the quarry miners to reinvest their profits into the community or pack and leave.

Yet, even as Lotodo ordered the stone-crushers to leave, he defended the illegal allotment of Karura Forest in Nairobi. He defended his contradictory position, saying that unlike the Kaya which lies at the Coast, Karura Forest lay in a multi-ethnic area. Nobody, he said “shouted” when Karura was dished out.

When the issue was discussed in Parliament in 1998 and MPs insisted that he degazette the Karura allocations, Lotodo stated that “when it comes to degazetting Karura Forest, maybe another minister will do that. I will not revoke any allotment come what may!”

Lotodo was in charge of forests when police officers assaulted environmental activists at Karura. Among those beaten was renowned environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who later became the first African woman to win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for protecting the very forest and environment that Lotodo sought to destroy.

On another occasion in 1997, Lotodo reportedly took issue with other leaders from his region because they were not involving him in area peace initiatives.

In April 1998 the Kimilili MP Mukhisa Kituyi filed a notice of motion in Parliament to censure Lotodo over his utterances regarding the Pokot-Marakwet conflict. The MP called for Lotodo’s resignation. He refused to resign and stated that violence would not end until the Pokot youth got employment. Reportedly, Lotodo even turned his fury on the Church, accusing it of fanning ethnic hegemony.

Even though he defended his community fiercely, his life was not always filled with controversy. Just a month before his death, Lotodo, as Minister of Energy, issued an electric power production licence to OrPower 4 Inc. The permit enabled the company to supply power from Olkaria III station to the Kenya Power grid.

Lotodo died in Johannesburg, South Africa, while in office. Moi described him as a “loyal and faithful minister”. His Cabinet colleague William ole Ntimama eulogised him, saying that “Mr Lotodo was a man of truth; he never ceased to speak his mind. He never withheld any views if it struck as helpful to his people.”

Eleven years after his death, the Daily Nation published an article saying, “The Pokot hold him in awe even in death — and those who saw his style of fiery and fearless leadership describe Francis Lotodo as a man who gave his all for the people he led.”

He put his tribe’s interests ahead of everything else.

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