The humble three-bedroom rural abode of newly-appointed Minister for Sports and Culture, Francis Mwanzia Nyenze, became home for a night for President Daniel arap Moi during a two-day tour of Kitui district in the days when mere proximity to the President was a ticket to power.
Nyenze, then in his late 30s and serving his first term as Member of Parliament for Kitui West, was rendered speechless when Moi called to inform him that he planned to tour Kitui to meet with district KANU Branch leaders, inspect government projects and hold public rallies in Kitui and Mwingi… and that after the first leg of his tour he would spend the night at Nyenze’s home in Kyondoni Village.
Nyenze, who had just been transferred from the Ministry of Environment to that of Sports and Culture in an earlier Cabinet reshuffle, drove to State House in a panic that same afternoon to beseech President Moi to consider spending the night elsewhere because he did not have a good house to host him. As related by Nyenze’s wife Edith, who was then the Principal at Kyondoni Girls’ Secondary School in Kitui, Moi responded that he had no intention of changing his plans and that he was perfectly happy to sleep in Nyenze’s rural home no matter what state it was in.
Happily, according to the Sunday Nation of 17 December 2017 headlined ‘When Moi Spent the Night at Nyenze’s Three-Bedroomed House’, a team of top government officers from both State House and Office of the President was sent off to refurbish the residence, an exercise that involved applying a fresh coat of paint, new furniture, cutlery and even a telephone hotline to ensure the President was accommodated in accordance with his status.
The President kept his word. In the company of Cabinet ministers Kalonzo Musyoka, Jackson Mulinge, Nicholas Biwott, Shariff Nassir and Ukambani KANU supremo Mulu Mutisya among other KANU leaders, he arrived at Nyenze’s residence at 6 pm. He was reported to be in high spirits and engaged the family in conversation before proceeding to have dinner.
The Moi visit to Nyenze’s rural home became the topic of the day, being widely seen as signalling shifting political fortunes for Nyenze himself and other leaders in Ukambani region.
Nyenze initiated policy to strengthen the capacity of Government to protect heritage sites in the country
There was speculation as to why the President had chosen the humble home of a fairly junior politician at a time when Kitui district had many senior leaders including Ministers Kalonzo Musyoka, George Ndotto and Nyiva Mwendwa, all of whom had magnificent residences compared to Nyenze’s modest dwelling. Political pundits saw the visit as a demonstration of Moi’s penchant for playing politicians against each other in order to destabilise them and keep them guessing.
However, unbeknownst to Moi, Nyenze had played host to opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in the same house years before Nyenze joined the ruling party KANU. Jaramogi is reported to have officiated over the ceremony to open the house, had lunch and continued on his campaign trail. The only thing he did not do was spend the night there.
One could speculate that perhaps the inadequacy the Nyenzes felt while hosting Moi inspired them to build a huge, ultra-modern home befitting not just a Cabinet minister, but a President in the future.
Nyenze was first elected to Parliament as Member for Kitui West on a KANU ticket while in his early thirties in 1997 after routing the formidable Winfred Nyiva Mwendwa, Kenya’s first female Cabinet minister. For this, Nyenze went down in history books as the son of a bishop who dared take on the Mwendwa family, Kitui’s single most powerful and wealthy family that produced, in addition to Kenya’s first female Cabinet Minister, Kenya’s first Chief Justice (Nyiva’s husband Kitili Maluki Mwendwa) and two other Cabinet Ministers (Kitili’s brothers Eliud Ngala Mwendwa and Kyale Mwendwa).
His election was perhaps attributable to the fact that Nyenze was an outspoken and candid politician. He never shied away from articulating his political convictions. In Kitui West where he was immensely popular, he was nicknamed ‘shabiki’ (fan). This was his rallying call which he is reported to have used to mobilise his supporters, especially the youth.
Nyenze became a close political ally to Moi, who appointed him Minister for Environment in 1997 before transferring him in a Cabinet reshuffle to the Ministry of Heritage and Sports in 2001. As a Cabinet Minister he made significant reforms in the respective dockets and was a household name during Moi’s final term which ran from 1998 to 2002.
In spite of his popularity in Kitui and close relationship with the President, however, Nyenze’s political career ended when Moi left State House. His meteoric political star dimmed after he was trounced in the 2002 elections by his rival Mwendwa, who recaptured the seat she had lost five years earlier. Her successful return to the Kitui West constituency seat effectively consigned Nyenze into the political cold, at least for the next 10 years.
He spent that decade serving as Chairman of a Commission set up to investigate the proliferation of pyramid schemes deemed to be responsible for impoverishing many gullible Kenyans lured into investing in phantom financial schemes that promised to turn small sums of money into mind-boggling financial fortunes. Investors in the Ponzi schemes lost billions when they collapsed in 2005. The Nyenze Task Force Report revealed that 148,784 investors had lost over KES 8 billion to 270 fraudulent schemes. However, none of the Directors of these companies was ever arrested. According to a Daily Nation report, some 40,000 victims formed what they called the National Pyramid Schemes Victims Initiative (NPSVI) and sued several government agencies including the Attorney General and Central Bank in an attempt to recover from the State KES 5.7 billion which they claimed to have lost to the Ponzi schemes. The Nyenze Report noted that the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) froze the accounts of the Ponzi masterminds with the hope that the money would be used to pay back the victims.
Nyenze also served as Chairman of the Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA) and later a Director of the National Irrigation Board (NIB) until October 2012.
Nyenze was born on 2 June 1957 in Kyondoni village, Kabati, in Kitui West. His father, the late Reverend Philip Nyenze Mwambu, was a renowned Africa Inland Church (AIC) minister. Like many rural African lads, young Nyenze looked after his father’s cattle and went to a local primary school in Kabati before joining Kagumo Boys’ High School in Nyeri County and later the University of Nairobi for a Degree in Architecture, Design and Development.
Nyenze was impatient to join elective politics, an ambition he achieved when he was first elected to Parliament in 1997. As a Cabinet Minister, Nyenze became a household name in Kitui and elsewhere in the country during Moi’s final term. He was charismatic, easy-going and jocular.
During his time at the helm of the Ministry of Environment, Nyenze was credited with strengthening the capacity of the National Environment Management Agency (NEMA) to effectively play its crucial role of assessing the environmental impact of development initiatives across the country. He frequently spearheaded ministerial initiatives to plant more trees and protect riparian land.
When he was transferred to the Ministry of Heritage and Sports in the politically charged year of 2001, Nyenze initiated policy to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry to protect heritage sites in the country. Additional heritage sites were roped in for special protection by Government. He also took significant measures to promote athletics and football in the country.
These were heady political times as a growing Kenyan opposition was determined to wrest power from Moi and the 40-year KANU rule. As a trusted Moi lieutenant, Nyenze’s time was therefore taken up by political campaigns when he accompanied the President during his vote-hunting forays in Ukambani and elsewhere in Moi’s political sunset.
Nyenze suffered a defeat at the polls during the watershed 2002 multiparty elections and his boss Moi was similarly sent home by the Mwai Kibaki-led National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Nevertheless Nyenze, a never-say-die politician, made a dramatic political comeback in 2013 when he reclaimed his seat in the National Assembly on a Wiper Democratic Party (WDP) ticket.
Nyenze had read the signs of the times and forged close links with Wiper leader Kalonzo, who called the shots in the entire Ukambani region and other pockets across the country as second-in-command of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) under opposition leader Raila Amolo Odinga.
The general election saw Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta trounce his rival for the presidency, Odinga and his running mate Kalonzo, who were running under the CORD banner. After their narrow defeat, Raila and Kalonzo trooped to court to contest Uhuru Kenyatta’s election on the grounds that it was fraught with election irregularities and that the results were doctored in his favour. The petition was thrown out.
After Nyenze’s re-election, he was elected Minority Leader of the opposition CORD side in the National Assembly. At a time when the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) faction of the CORD alliance was loud and confrontational in Parliament, Nyenze became the voice of reason and referred to himself as “the son of a bishop.” He even extended an open hand to the Jubilee administration of President Kenyatta, a stance that drew heavy criticism from ODM legislators who petitioned the Wiper party to replace him as Minority Leader.
During negotiations to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between CORD, Wiper and FORD Kenya, the post of Minority Leader in the National Assembly was reserved for Wiper.
CORD MPs complained that Nyenze was unable to whip the opposition in Parliament in order to counter the Jubilee coalition offensive in the National Assembly. He argued that since Jubilee had the tyranny of numbers, there was little he could do to counter their offensive. He said the only option left to the CORD MPs was to walk out whenever they disagreed with any motion on the floor of the House.
Nyenze served as a member of the Public Investments Committee (PIC) that summoned numerous CEOs in government parastatals to answer questions regarding improprieties, including corruption in their respective institutions.In the run-up to the 8 August 2017 presidential elections, Nyenze was one of the Wiper party leaders from Ukambani who pressured other Wiper leaders to accept nothing less than flag-bearer status in the newly-formed National Super Alliance (NASA) fronted by Raila Odinga. Nyenze and company based their position on a reported MOU drawn up by CORD which provided that Raila would be the CORD flag-bearer in 2013 and would serve for one term and then give way to Kalonzo in 2017.
Nyenze unleashed a political storm when he insisted that only Musyoka’s candidature for the top seat in NASA would convince Ukambani voters to remain in the Alliance. He warned that his party leader’s presidential candidature was not a request and nor was it open for debate. It was either that or there would be no NASA, he declared. He was roundly condemned for what were seen as attempts to rock the boat from within.
In the end, Raila was once again selected to be the NASA flag-bearer with Kalonzo as running-mate; a development that so incensed Nyenze that he caused yet another storm when he and former Wiper National Chairman, David Musila, openly expressed their support for Kenyatta’s re-election in the 8 August polls.
Curiously, Nyenze was re-elected as MP for Kitui West for a third term in the 8 August polls despite going against the grain by declaring his support for Kenyatta.
Only close relatives knew that Nyenze had been battling colon cancer for 10 years. The grim reality of his health condition was revealed in the National Assembly and to the Kenyan public through television footage when he arrived to be sworn in to the 13th Parliament with an oxygen tank strapped on his body.
He died on 6 November 2017 at the age of 60, leaving behind his widow Edith and their three daughters. He was eulogised by President Kenyatta, Kalonzo and others. Edith would later to be elected MP for Kitui West constituency on a Wiper ticket in a by-election.