He may not have been very outspoken or politically fiery but Joseph William Nthiga Nyagah was a leader in his own right. He was not your typical politician, neither did he enter politics to make a financial fortune. In fact, the eldest son of independence politician, Jeremiah Nyagah, was self-made.
During his career as a politician he was a Member of Parliament, a Cabinet minister and a presidential candidate. Born in March 1948, Nyagah graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of Nairobi in 1970. He proceeded to the United States for a master’s degree in management (finance and management option).
He then worked at The First National Bank of Chicago (which is part of today’s JP Morgan and Chase Bank, New York), Kenya Bus Service, McRae and Smith Accountants and British American Tobacco Kenya Limited. Between 1987 and 1991, he was Chief Executive Officer of the national carrier, Kenya Airways (KQ). Before moving to KQ, he was Kenya’s ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg for four years.
Nyagah was among President Daniel arap Moi’s Cabinet appointees after the 1997 General Election. In the new Cabinet line-up announced on 9 January 1998, that drew a widespread political storm, Nyagah became Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Charity Ngilu, who had run for President on a Social Democratic Party (SDP) ticket, remarked of the new team, “Most of those appointed, especially in some key positions, lack the intellectual resolve and moral fibre to run the ministries.”
Before Nyagah (a member of the ruling KANU party) showed an interest in politics, his younger brother Norman, who was in the Opposition’s Democratic Party (DP), was the Gachoka MP. Their father, Jeremiah Nyaga, had once held the seat. Once Nyagah decided to run for the seat, Norman relocated to Kamukunji Constituency in Nairobi, and won.
Norman was reportedly unhappy with his older brother’s decision to run for the Gachoka seat.
“Moi has destroyed me financially now he’s going for my family. I have no respect for him,” Norman told the media.
But the sibling rivalry made for some hilarious moments in Parliament when the two wrangled over the use of the family name.
“Mr Speaker (Francis ole Kaparo), I should be referred to as Nyagah and that honourable member on the other side as Joe because the voters will get confused and assume that I am the one supporting bad government policies,” Norman said in the House.
In response, Nyagah retorted, “If the Standing Orders permitted it, we should have referred to that honourable gentleman on the other side as the Junior Nyagah!”
Kaparo was not amused. “You are putting me in an awkward position to arbitrate between the Nyagah siblings. For the avoidance of doubt, I will refer to the one on the government side as the ‘Nyagah to my right’ and the one on the other side as the ‘Nyagah on my left’. Since I have only one right and one left, there should be no doubt about which Nyagah I am referring to.”
He set up a Task Force on Press Laws to draft the Media Bill… a Member of Parliament (MP), a Cabinet minister and a presidential candidate
Just days after being appointed to the Cabinet, Nyagah asked the media to pursue reconciliation among Kenyans in the wake of the divisive 1997 General Election. He promised to create a conducive atmosphere for Press freedom.
“The Government will aggressively uphold the freedom of the Press and the free flow of information. We anxiously await the recommendations of the Task Force on Press Laws in order to make the desired changes.”
However, barely three months into his job, he found himself at odds with the media after he attacked the alternative Press, describing it as “the gutter Press” bent on “promoting ethnic animosity and inciting disaffection against the Head of State and the government”. The media, he stated, had taken advantage of the repeal of the sedition laws and were now indulging in “excessive offensive reporting”.
He did not name the media companies but the public felt he was merely being overzealous and trying to curry favour with the appointing authority. Among the papers he singled out was The People, since renamed People Daily.
Somehow, harassment of journalists working for the alternative Press appeared to increase after his accusation. The Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) linked Nyagah’s outburst to the harassment and even made a formal protest to the Commissioner of Police.
“Every political statement hostile to the media is followed by open violence, harassment and intimidation by security forces, opportunists, thugs and over-zealous sycophants of those in political power,” KUJ Secretary General Kihu Irimu complained to the police boss.
David Makali, the Media Institute Programmes Director, said, “What is worrying is that since President Moi and Information Minister Joseph Nyagah criticised a section of the alternative media a month ago, we have observed a disturbing trend in which powerful individuals within and outside government have resorted to using the Judiciary to obstruct publication of perceived unfavourable information by the Press.”
Ironically, the minister, even as he told off the media, always seized the opportunity offered by the many media workshops in Nairobi to exhort journalists to support the government of the day.
Nyagah was Minister for Information and Broadcasting during the clamour for the liberalisation of the airwaves. He appeared to dampen the heightened spirit for an informed citizenry when he linked free airwaves to violence. According to him, “some developing countries had rushed to license radio and television stations, resulting in unnecessary problems”.
Despite his run-in with the media, he still advocated for Press freedom. During a meeting with Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Clarkson Umelo, Nyagah expressed displeasure at the level of underfunding in the media industry.
“I think we should urge both governments to allocate more financial resources to the development of our information networks so they can compete favourably with their Western counterparts,” he was quoted as saying.
It was during his tenure that the Communications Commission of Kenya, since renamed Communications Authority of Kenya, was established. It is charged with the allocation of radio and television broadcasting frequencies.
In November 1999, Nyagah was moved to the Ministry of Lands and Settlement just as the Media Bill was being debated. He had set up a Task Force on Press Laws to draft the Bill.
During his time as Minister for Lands and Settlement, he asked the Commissioner of Lands, Wilson Gachanja, to step aside and ordered investigations into the system of land allocations countrywide. He appointed Charles Njonjo, the former Attorney General, to chair the presidential commission of inquiry established to look into irregular allocations of land.
According to media reports, the commission was meant to review all illegalities and irregular allocations at the Ministry of Lands. The commission was given two years to undertake a broad review of land issues, produce a policy framework and recommend an overhaul of some obsolete acts.
Gachanja had headed the lands office for 17 years. “During his tenure, Mr Gachanja presided over some of the most controversial land transactions in the country, like the allocation of nearly half of Karura Forest,” the Daily Nation wrote on 25 November 1999.
Nyagah was later moved to the Office of the President as Minister of State. But before the 2002 General Election, he left KANU and resigned from his ministerial position to join the Opposition’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC).
While Cabinet ministers scrambled to catch Moi’s eye, Nyagah remained calm even during the Moi succession battles. This could explain why he remained relevant even after the exit of the KANU administration.
In 2009, he was Minister for Cooperative Development and Marketing in the coalition government of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. By this time he was a member of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party’s ‘Pentagon’, a summit of the party leadership.
He was also the Chancellor of the Cooperative University of Kenya from 2016 to 2017. Between 2013 and 2017, he served as Presidential Advisor in charge of Northern Corridor Integration Projects before he resigned to run for President as an independent candidate. He came a distant third in the 8 August 2017 General Election that was annulled by the Supreme Court over irregularities and malpractices. He also lost in the subsequent repeat presidential election.
Nyagah has written a number of books, including An African Minister’s Lessons for Cooperatives.