George Ndotto – Victim of the political wind of change

George Mutua Ndotto served in two Ministries during his five-year term and was considered one of President Moi’s key point men in Ukambani against the bulwark of opposition politics. A career civil servant and Director of Trade, Ndotto contested and won the Kitui Central parliamentary seat in the controversial 1988 mlolongo queue-voting election.

He was first appointed to the newly-minted Ministry of Reclamation and Development of Arid and Semi-Arid Areas and Wastelands (ASAL), later being transferred to the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology in a Cabinet reshuffle. Ndotto served as the Minister in both dockets between 1988 and 1992.

An additional feather in his political cap was the position of Chairman of the Kitui chapter of the powerful ruling party, Kenya African National Union (KANU), to which he was elected soon after his appointment to the Cabinet. He was, however, sent packing from his parliamentary seat by formidable opposition politician and later presidential candidate Charity Kaluki Ngilu. Angered by Ngilu’s victory, Moi nominated Ndotto as an MP in the first multiparty Parliament between 1992 and 1997. In 2013 as the country established devolved governments and assemblies, Ndotto contested and won the position of Speaker of the Kitui County Assembly, a victory he replicated in 2017.

Ndotto was born in a staunch Catholic family in 1945 in Mulutu village, Changwithya Sub-location in Kitui Central Division of Kitui County. He attended Mulutu Primary School and, intent on entering the priesthood, joined Mwingi Seminary Secondary School which was later renamed St Joseph’s Seminary.

He eventually abandoned his pursuit of the priesthood after completing his O levels and joined Nyeri High School for his A level studies. After Form Six, Ndotto proceeded to the University of Nairobi (UON) in 1971 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science.

Ndotto was credited with expanding existing polytechnics and establishing new ones across the country

Ndotto could not wait to complete his university course to marry the love of his life. He said “I Do” during his third year at the university. The couple was blessed with twins a year later.

His wife Margaret, a clerical officer in the government service, had to take care of the young family using her KES 3,000 monthly salary. That state of affairs continued until Ndotto landed a job in the provincial administration only a week after completing University.

“My last day at the university fell on a Friday and on the Monday of the following week I was already in government employment,” Ndotto’s was fond of narrating. The Ndottos would later add four more children to their family, bringing the total to six.

Ndotto joined the public service as a District Officer (DO) in Pumwani Division of Nairobi. He rose through the ranks in the provincial administration, but later left to join the Ministry of Finance in the position of Director of External Trade. It was in this role that Ndotto showed a marked interest in politics, with special focus on his home base, Kitui Central constituency.

The Kitui Central seat was for a long time the preserve of heavyweights whose capacity for leadership has been recognised by all four Kenyan Presidents. Of the seven MPs who have represented Kitui Central since independence, five were appointed full Cabinet Ministers and one an Assistant Minister. One of the Ministers, Charity Ngilu, is the only woman to have served in the Cabinet under two Presidents, to have led her own party, and to have contested the Presidency.

Eliud Ngala, who served as the first MP for Kitui Central from independence in 1963 to 1974, set the record for future leaders of the constituency who have shone not only in Ukambani but nationally. Ngala served as Minister for Labour and Social Services and represented the constituency until 1974 when he lost to Daniel Mutinda who, at 31, made history by becoming the youngest MP in post-colonial Kenya. A US-trained lawyer, Mutinda was subsequently appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting.

He retained the seat in the 1979 General Election but lost to Titus Mbathi who had been a Permanent Secretary in the Kenyatta and Moi governments in a consequent election petition. Mbathi was also appointed Minister for Labour. He worked closely and became great friends with Mwai Kibaki when the latter served as Finance Minister in the Kenyatta and Moi governments.

Mbathi’s tenure was short-lived. He lost the seat in 1983 to John Mutinda, a brother to Mbathi’s predecessor Daniel Mutinda. Mutinda became an Assistant Minister. He also served just one term, losing to George Ndotto in 1988 General Election.

After his election as MP through the infamous mlolongo system, Ndotto was appointed to the Cabinet when President Moi formed his government amid uproar from aggrieved politicians countrywide complaining that they had been unfairly rigged out of their parliamentary positions through the controversial election method. There was widespread complaint that many of the poll winners who had the longest queues, were declared losers by corrupt Presiding Officers who had been specially selected to carry out the hatchet jobs. There is no evidence that Ndotto was a victim of electoral fraud.

When he formed the government after the controversial poll, Moi created the ASAL ministry and placed Ndotto at the helm as its first Cabinet Minister. Ndotto was also elected Chairman of the KANU Kitui branch since, more often than not, a Cabinet minister in a given district was elected Chairman of that district branch of the ruling party, an arrangement that ensured that a district had only one centre of power, answerable directly to the President.

By appointing Ndotto to the new ministry, it was the President’s hope that coming from the semi-arid region of Kitui, through personal experience the Minister was well acquainted with the problems associated with such climatic conditions and was best suited to contribute effectively to the reclamation of such lands and create conditions that would make them more habitable and productive. Whether this was realised during his short stint at ASAL is hard to say, because a Cabinet reshuffle in 1990, midway through the five-year term, moved Ndotto to the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.

Ndotto’s new docket involved funding local research organisations to come up with innovations that would push the frontiers of technology in order to increase agricultural production and innovate appropriate technology that would translate into job creation especially among the ballooning youthful population coming into the job market. He was credited with expanding existing polytechnics and establishing new ones across the country.

Despite his performance as a Minister and his political muscle as the local Chairman of the ruling party, however, Ndotto became one of the many victims of the emergent political wind of change that swept through the country brought about by multiparty politics.

Section 2A of the Kenya Constitution had been amended to give room to the formation of opposition parties to provide plural politics or politics of accommodation, something that was sorely lacking in Kenya at the time.

Ngilu, who had closed ranks with Kibaki, was nominated by the opposition Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) to contest the Kitui Central parliamentary seat. Before the 1992 elections, Ngilu was largely an unknown entity beyond her home district of Kitui and her business circles. When she declared her candidature for the seat occupied by George Ndotto, a Cabinet minister and the district Kanu boss, she drew scant attention.

In Kitui Central, as in other constituencies considered KANU strongholds, the party, with Moi at the forefront, mounted spirited campaigns against the opposition candidates. The ruling party troops fought hard for Ndotto’s re-election.

But Ngilu proved lethal. Everyone soon realised that a young female firebrand had burst onto the scene. She mounted such a scorched earth campaign that when the last vote was counted the little-known woman had consigned Ndotto into political oblivion.

Ngilu was able to effectively sell the increasingly popular anti-KANU, anti-Moi sentiment in the constituency and elsewhere in the country, as was the case in Central and Nyanza provinces. Kanu’s well-heeled election machine, driven by party leader Moi and the party top brass, criss-crossed the constituency drumming up support for Ndotto and other KANU candidates. The wind of change, however, proved too strong.

Thus in the multiparty elections of 1992, Ngilu became the first woman to win the Kitui Central seat. She went on to win many more elections than all her predecessors, serving for a total of 20 years. Ngilu also became the first woman to run for the presidency in Kenya in the 1997 presidential election. She also became the second Governor of Kitui in 2017 after beating the incumbent, Julius Malombe, in a hotly contested gubernatorial poll.

The loss of Kitui constituency to the opposition did not amuse the KANU top brass. In a move to attempt political damage control the loser, Ndotto, became the beneficiary of the political chase game and was nominated as an MP. He therefore served in Parliament for 10 years up to 1997. Like many minority MPs, Ndotto was not as vocal as he had been in his first term when KANU called the shots in the House.

After completing his term as a nominated MP in 1997, Ndotto went under the radar. He was appointed Chairman of the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF). He kept a low profile and only emerged during the 2013 General Election that was characterised by a devolved government. He successfully contested the position of Kitui County Assembly Speaker.

In the August 2017 General Election Ndotto, a strong member of Wiper Democratic Party led by Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, was re-elected as Speaker of the County Assembly in another landslide victory, thus stamping his authority on the devolved political arena.

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