One fine day after a graduation ceremony at Egerton University in Njoro, John Koech, a Cabinet minister, made his way to President Daniel arap Moi’s home for the customary luncheon that followed such events, only to be denied entry. Livid at the humiliation, he headed straight to the Nation Media Group’s Nakuru Bureau and wrote a resignation later that was published the next day.
Nobody knows what transpired overnight but the next morning, he called a press conference retracting his letter. He was back on the job, having learned the bitter lesson that when you were appointed by Moi, you served purely at his pleasure. No matter how tough the going got, resignation was never an option. This marked the start of an uneasy relationship with his boss.
Born in 1946 in Olbutyo, Chepalungu, Koech attended Segemik Primary School and later Tenwek High School for his O’ and A’ level education. From Tenwek, he went to Makerere University in Uganda, graduating in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics.
From 1973 to 1975, he worked as a high school teacher and later, from 1976 to 1979, as an education officer. Early in his budding career as an educationist, he attempted to venture into the rough and tumble of politics by vying for the Chepalungu parliamentary seat but he emerged second after the incumbent, Kimunai arap Soi.
He eventually triumphed in the 1979 General Election, the first after Moi became President following the death of Jomo Kenyatta.
Koech believed in empowering his people and was against the prevalent culture of handouts
Before the election, he had been introduced to Moi by Kipsigis power brokers led by Isaac Salat, a long-serving Assistant Minister in the Office of the President. New in the job, President Moi was scouting for a team to work with.
“The President was in the process of consolidating power,” said Chepkebit Mibei, the Kericho KANU Chairman between 1988 and 2002. “He wanted people who could assist him, and Koech came in handy.”
Mibei said Koech, who served as Chepalungu MP uninterrupted from 1979 to 1990, promoted education in Kericho and Bomet districts as a result of his previous professional experience.
“Moi didn’t hesitate to ‘anoint’ him because of his past record in education, as education was key for Moi’s devel opment agenda,” he added.
After the 1976 campaign spearheaded by people opposed to a Moi succession and aimed at changing the constitution to bar a Vice President from automatically succeeding a President, Moi wanted loyalists in Parliament to scuttle any attempt to pass a vote of no confidence in him.
“He filled Parliament with loyalists from Rift Valley to check those who were against him (and keep them from) ascending to power, especially those from Central Province,” said Mibei. “Even if one was popular with the electorate in the region, one couldn’t become an MP without Moi’s blessings.”
When Moi called for a snap General Election in 1983 to get rid of MPs allied to former Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, who had subsequently been elected as MP for Kikuyu, Mibei said that Koech was re-elected because of his loyalty to Moi.
“His loyalty saw him going back. This was a time when no one could be elected as a legislator or a councillor without blessings from Moi.”
After the 1988 polls, Koech was appointed Minister for Public Works, a position he held for only one year because in May 1989 he was sacked and replaced by Timothy Mibei, the MP for Bureti in Kericho.
According to Chepkebit, Koech was sacked after he differed with Moi and a few powerful people in government over the manner in which he was handling his ministry.
“Although we were told that he was sacked for not being loyal to the President and KANU, many held the opinion that he was relieved of his duties after blocking some powerful people from using his ministry for selfish gain,” he said. He added that after the sacking, Koech lost interest in supporting the government and the governing party.
“He was bitter about it and wherever he went, he complained. That was not taken lightly by his former boss and KANU, and prompted action against him.”
In 1990, his relationship with Moi and KANU worsened and he was subsequently expelled from KANU, the only political party at the time. The party claimed he was sowing seeds of division among the Kipsigis, hence the urgent need for his expulsion. A by-election was called and Soi was elected to take Koech’s seat.
He cooled his heels in the political cold until 1992, when he was pardoned. In December of that year, he wrested the seat from Soi. After spending some time as a backbencher, shortly before the 1997 General Election, a now-reformed Koech was reappointed to the Cabinet after Kipkalya Kones was sacked as Minister for State in the Office of the President.
Kones was sacked via the dreaded Kenya Broadcasting Corporation one o’clock radio news bulletin while on a visit to his father’s farm in Molo. His official driver abandoned him and took the ministerial flag he was flying on his car to Molo Police Station, leaving Kones to hike a lift to Nakuru Town.
As a minister in the Office of the President, Koech did not endear himself to Moi, who was facing stiff political competition five years after the re-introduction of multiparty politics.
“Moi wanted somebody who was aggressive and who could counter the spread of opposition in South Rift Valley. Koech was too diplomatic and couldn’t fit in that job,” explained William Kettienya, a friend and age-mate of the former minister.
Koech, he said, was a strict person who liked doing things without being interfered with or influenced. He had an independent mind, which was a rare thing during the Moi regime. It was due to his diplomatic nature that he got along with his colleagues in the Cabinet.
Koech was trounced by Isaac Ruto in the 1997 General Election, but claimed he was rigged out because he was a thorn in the flesh of powerful people in the Moi government.
Between 1998 and 2000, he served as United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Permanent Representative. But again Moi fired him for allegedly being sympathetic to Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party and replaced him with Professor Michael Kipkorir Koech. In spite of the challenges he faced at the hands of Moi and his handlers, the former minister claimed that no development projects could be rolled out in the South Rift without his involvement.
“My input was always sought before the government embarked on any projects in the region,” said Koech. He expressed regret that his advanced age stood in the way of his becoming the first governor of Bomet County under the devolved system of government in 2013.
Koech is credited with helping establish Moi Siongiroi Girls Secondary School.
“Apart from the school, he influenced the rolling out of electricity supply in Chepalungu,” said Kettienya, adding that Koech believed in empowering his people and was against the prevalent culture of handouts.
In an interview with a local daily newspaper before the 2013 General Election, Koech was quoted as saying he was bothered that his successor had entrenched that culture.
“I wanted to empower people, not by enticing them with handouts. It is a bad thing that makes people lazy.”