John Kipkorir Sambu – No man’s pawn

John Kipkorir Sambu, the Member of Parliament for Mosop between 1992 and 2002, was among the few post-independent Kenyan Cabinet ministers to be sacked for being independent-minded. Currently a farmer in Uasin Gishu County, he was a community worker with the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK) Eldoret Diocese before he ventured into politics.

Anglican Church of Kenya Bishop Alexander Muge, who worked closely with Sambu, inspired him to go into politics in order to change the lives of the people of Mosop, who the bishop believed had stagnated under MPs who had been hand-picked by President Daniel arap Moi. Muge, who had a frosty relationship with the President, believed that past legislators lacked a development agenda for Mosop because they were not answerable to the constituents.

Sambu, who was the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources from 1993 to 1996, was born on 11 July 1948. He attended Kimngorom Primary School, Tenges High School and later, the University of Nairobi from where he attained a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture in 1973. Between 1973 and 1974, he worked as a senior manager at Kenya Seed Company Limited before leaving to work as a District Cooperative Officer in Nandi District. He quit the position in 1985 to join the CPK Diocese of Eldoret as a Community Project Manager.

In 1992, he contested the Mosop parliamentary seat and won on the wave of Nandi redemption. Muge had died in 1990 in a road accident in Kipkaren near Turbo Township on the Eldoret-Malaba road as he was driving himself back to Eldoret from Busia District.

Sambu worked closely with people in initiating various community projects aimed at uplifting their lives, using as a template his work with the church

During that time, the Kalenjin sub-ethnic group felt that it was being dominated by the Keiyo and the Tugen. The people of Mosop claimed that for many years they had not been given a free hand to choose their own leaders.

“They felt leaders like the late Stanley Metto, Benjamin Kositany (Moi’s relative) and others before that had been imposed on them. They wanted to be left to make their own electoral decisions,” said Micah Bittok, Sambu’s paternal cousin.

When Sambu entered Parliament, the stranglehold that Nandi power broker, Ezekiel Barngetuny, had on influencing the election of leaders in the region had diminished significantly after the advent of competitive multiparty elections. Between 1979 and 1988, the nominated MP is said to have forced leaders on the people of Nandi.

Sambu worked closely with people in initiating various community projects like water supply and others aimed at uplifting their lives, using as a template his work with the Church, which gave him an advantage over other competitors in a KANU party stronghold. Those who know him say he was appointed to the Cabinet to pacify the people of Mosop – where Muge hailed from – who were bitter following the clergyman’s controversial death. Locals claimed that the outspoken cleric was killed because of his constant attacks on KANU and the government at a time when the clamour for multiparty politics was gathering momentum.

“Moi made Sambu his minister to try and win the hearts of the Nandi, who were still hurt after Muge’s death and who were rebelling because of being sidelined while the interests of Keiyos and Tugens were being promoted. It is not that he liked Sambu,” said Jesse Mais, a one-time Eldoret South MP. He claimed that Moi wanted Kositany, who Sambu defeated, but he could not tinker with the election, fearing a backlash.

“His relationship with Moi was only based on telephone conversations and in a peripheral ministry. He was unlike others before him, never assisted to win the seat,” said Mais.

Mais added that Sambu was nobody’s pawn, which freed him to speak his mind and demand development for his people. According to Mais, Moi viewed him with suspicion in the Cabinet; apparently his differences with those close to the President, including Mark Too who remained a Nandi power broker after Barngetuny’s exit, aggravated the situation. “He was loyal to his boss and KANU but was not the kind of person who could be manipulated,” Mais remarked.

As Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Sambu visited Enoosupukia Forest in Narok District and declared it trust land under the local county council, which paved the way for the eviction of hundreds of squatters, mainly Kikuyu farmers. Around that time, illegal logging was taking place in Nandi Forest and other forests around the country.

Sambu was sacked in 1996 after showing sympathy to the Cherangany MP, Kipruto Kirwa, and politician Jackson Kibor in opposing what they called the side-lining of Nandis in land allocation when the East African Tanning and Extract Company (EATEC), a subsidiary of Lonrho PLC, was disposing of thousands of acres in Uasin Gishu, Nandi and Trans Nzoia after their leases expired.

Kirwa and his supporters were also against the allocation of thousands of acres of the former Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) to influential people in the government, claiming that all the land in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia ancestrally belonged to the Nandi.

“Although some claimed that he was sacked because of rampant logging under his watch, we know his opposition to the dishing out of land the community laid claim to, to undeserving people, cost him his job,” said Mais.

Apart from Kirwa, Sambu teamed up with William Ruto, then Eldoret North MP, to oppose KANU at a time when the United Democratic Movement (UDM) was gaining a foothold in the North Rift. After his removal from office, he was replaced by Henry Kosgey, MP for Tinderet in Nandi. His sacking seemed to have freed him to openly speak his mind and he often rubbed the establishment the wrong way.

His rallies to expose what he called injustices against the Nandi people were always outlawed by police, leading to clashes between his supporters and law enforcement agencies. But as a legislator, his political downfall started when his people raised funds to buy land from EATEC and gave him the money but were allegedly left out during the allocations. They claimed the MP did not want to assist them. Some even claimed that he used the money to buy land for himself.

“The claim spread like bushfire. He had little time to set the record straight because the 2002 General Election was fast approaching. It denied him sizeable votes,” said Bittok, who refuted any suggestion that Sambu was involved in any scandal during his term as a minister. “He left the Cabinet without any scandals. He was somebody who eschewed corruption. He was a victim of perception,” he emphasised.

After his defeat in the elections Sambu, who is a publicity-shy individual, retreated to his farm near Eldoret Town to engage in maize and wheat farming. He again unsuccessfully tried to recapture his seat in the 2013 General Election.

He spends most of his time on his farm with his family, away from the limelight. But his friends still hope that one day he will be back in active politics even though he is now in his 70s.


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