John Musembi Kyalo was a technocrat who left a rich, extensive and successful career in the civil service to join politics, becoming one of President Daniel arap Moi’s trusted and loyal Cabinet ministers.
This was the minister reported to have used trickery to put up a multi-million shilling hospital in Makueni in his native Machakos District that was actually meant for Mukurweini in Nyeri District, in what famously and hilariously became referred to as the Makueni-Mukurweini mix-up.
After his university education in India, Kyalo joined the civil service and rose from District Officer (DO) to Director of Immigration and finally to Permanent Secretary in both the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi administrations.
Kyalo was first elected to Parliament in the infamous mlolongo (queue) election method of 1988. It was his third attempt and he would remain a backbencher until 1992, when he was re-elected and subsequently appointed to the Cabinet by Moi. But he died of throat cancer while still in office.
Kyalo was born in 1931 in Kisekini Village, Kasinga, in what was Iveti South Constituency of Machakos District, some 15 kilometres from Machakos Town. He went to Kasinga and Ngelani primary schools and later joined Kabaa High School in Machakos before attending university in India, majoring in business administration.
On his return to Kenya he joined the provincial administration in the Office of the President and served as a DO before he was promoted to District Commissioner; he worked in several districts across the country.
Kyalo left the provincial administration and joined the Department of Immigration as Director.
As a pointer to his dedication to work and integrity, Kyalo reached the pinnacle of the civil service in 1970, when he was appointed by the Kenyatta administration as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health.
In 1974, Kyalo resigned from the civil service and plunged into politics. He contested the Iveti North parliamentary seat that was then held by Aaron Mutung’a. Laban Kitele and Kavuti Ndeti were also in the race for the seat but Mutung’a shrugged off the spirited opposition and won back the seat.
As minister, Kyalo gave the go ahead for the construction of the modern Makueni hospital which was completed in haste, thanks to the minister’s close supervision of the project.
In the 1979 General Election, Kyalo lost again. He also lost to Kitele in the 1983 snap elections called by Moi to consolidate his power following the August 1982 attempted coup by elements within the Kenya Air Force and some politicians. Kitele was appointed Minister for Internal Security in the Office of the President.
In the 1988 General Election conducted through the controversial mlolongo system, Kyalo won the newly-created Machakos Town Constituency, beating three former MPs: George Nthenge (1969), Danson Paul Mbole (1974) and Onesmus Mwanza Kikuyu (1979 and 1983).
Kyalo, who had been nicknamed “Kyalo wa Makindi” (a forceful Kyalo), is said to have won courtesy of an election campaign strategy he had perfected, namely door-to-door night visits. He did this because he was not a good orator, especially at campaign rallies which he avoided as much as possible. He applied the same campaign method in the next round of elections in 1992 and won again, having forged a close relationship with power broker Mulu Mutisya.
Mutisya called the shots in the whole of Machakos and other areas of Ukambani region despite his lack of education and the fact that he had only moderate wealth. This stemmed from Moi’s preferred mode of leadership in which he identified point men in key regions of the country and bestowed on them power and influence. Other point men in this league were Kariuki Chotara of Nakuru District, Shariff Nassir of Mombasa and, to a lesser extent, James Njiru of Kirinyaga, Joseph Kamotho of Murang’a, Stanley Oloitiptip of Narok, G.G. Kariuki of Laikipia, Moses Mudavadi of Western Province and Okiki Amayo of Nyanza.
Moi hardly ever supported the election of a particular candidate or made an appointment to the Cabinet or to a parastatal without consulting his point men. They often carried bags full of money, which they distributed to the citizenry and loyal grassroots leaders like councillors during weekend rallies. This way, Moi enjoyed direct and unwavering support from these regions.
Through this kind of arrangement, Kyalo was appointed Minister for Health. During the three-year period when he flew the ministerial flag, Kyalo hosted Moi at several fundraisers in aid of schools and churches in Machakos Town Constituency, a pointer to their close relationship.
During his time as Minister for Health, Kyalo is credited with expanding a few hospitals and establishing new ones across the country where none existed.
The story is told of how Kyalo used trickery to put up a multi-million shilling hospital in Makueni District.
As minister, Kyalo gave the go-ahead for the construction of the modern Makueni Hospital, which was completed in haste, thanks to the minister’s close supervision of the project.
Once the hospital was complete and commissioned, political leaders in Nyeri complained about the delay in construction of the planned Murkurweini Hospital. After conducting “thorough investigations” into the matter, Kyalo said there had been a mix-up in the ministry leading to the Mukurweini hospital going to Makueni.
He apologised profusely for the confusion and pledged to have the situation corrected with the next budgetary allocation! Mukureweini would later have a modern hospital of its own.
Months after the controversy died down, Kyalo admitted to a few select friends that the mix-up was just a means to an end!
“I think Kyalo was right,” commented one former Machakos Town MP who did not wish to be named. “I mean, most major projects were going to Gatundu or Central (Province) during Kenyatta’s time and later Rift Valley (during Moi’s rule) so what did you expect Kyalo to do? If you recall, Makueni people were travelling 50-60 kilometres to Machakos Hospital for medical treatment.”
The Minister for Health lost his voice midway through his term and was diagnosed with throat cancer, which led to his death in 1995, three years after his appointment as minister. Moi led most of his Cabinet and almost the entire Ukambani political leadership in giving the minister a final farewell.
Kyalo’s critics blame him for not doing much in terms of initiating development projects in Machakos Town Constituency mainly because he lived in Nairobi for most of his life and not Machakos. According to those who knew him well, most of his business interests were located in Nairobi and Kiambu, including a large coffee plantation in Ruiru.