Early in his life, Julius Lekakeny Sunkuli, who would become Minister for Internal Security in the final four years of Daniel arap Moi’s presidency, wanted to be a Catholic priest. His parents, Francis and Helen Sunkuli, raised him and his siblings in conformity with the teachings of the Church, leading him to aspire to become a priest to serve among the faithful in Kilgoris, his home town in the former Transmara District in present-day Narok County.
Sunkuli was born in 1961 in Poroko, Kilgoris West. He attended Oroko Primary School after which he joined Kilgoris Secondary School before proceeding to Cardinal Otunga High School where he completed his A’ level education in 1981. He was admitted to the University of Nairobi and completed a Bachelor of Law degree course in 1985.
In 1987, he joined the Judiciary and was posted to Kericho Law Courts as a District Magistrate. He said he had ambitions of rising to the highest level possible in the Judiciary, but his life took a different turn. “I was certain I would one day be a judge in the Court of Appeal and later Chief Justice. But it was not to be,” he once told a local newspaper.
Joining politics, he said, was the last thing on his mind. He decided to venture into it after Maasai elders approached him while he was still serving justice.
“They kept visiting me in Kericho and at home, insisting I should become their next MP,” he recalled. It took a lot of convincing by elders from his Moitanik clan for him to resign from the Judiciary and join the race for the Kilgoris seat, which had been held by Francis Sompisha for 24 years.
Sunkuli came onto the political scene at a time when Moi wanted a change of leadership in Kilgoris because he believed the incumbent was no longer useful to his political cause in the era of multiparty politics.
While in Kericho, Sunkuli had made friends with KANU party power brokers and it is they who suggested to Moi that he could make a good replacement for Sompisha.
In 1992, at age 31, he successfully contested and held the seat for 10 years until 2002, when he was trounced by Gideon Konchela. In 1993, he was appointed Assistant Minister in the Office of the President in charge of Internal Security and Provincial Administration.
After his re-election in 1997, Sunkuli, who cultivated a close relationship with Moi during his first term in Parliament, was re-appointed Assistant Minister in the same ministry before being elevated to Minister in 1999. He won Moi’s heart because he was fluent in Kalenjin, which made his boss feel at ease with him, and also because he was honest.
These two factors made it easy for him to be admitted to Moi’s inner circle of power, although some of his Cabinet colleagues exploited his close proximity to power and used his good offices to book appointments with the President for them.
His colleagues paint a picture of an affable and efficient man who got along well with them, with MPs and with the President.
“He interacted well with all of us. Whenever we raised issues concerning security in our areas, he acted. Whenever we wanted access to Moi, he arranged a meeting with him,” said Paul Sang, a former Minister for Health.
As a KANU hawk and a powerful minister, he discharged his ministerial duties with vigour, attracting friends and foes in equal measure. His foes accused him of being a liar, arrogant and vindictive, while those who liked him described him as an honest man who used his influential position to help uplift the lives of the electorate in his constituency.
“Like other powerful personalities now and in the past, he made many friends and enemies. In the course of discharging his duties he stepped on many toes,” said Peter Sapalan, a former Transmara County Council Chairman who later became a confidant of the late Professor George Saitoti, a former Minister for Internal Security.
His former Cabinets colleagues said Moi liked him because he discharged his work according to the President’s wishes, and that he helped the President keep any opposition at bay in his Kilgoris backyard and in Narok.
“He accomplished tasks to Moi’s amazement. Whenever he was given an assignment, he brought good news to the President. He also wouldn’t compromise, especially when it came to the security of the country,” said Stephen ole Ntutu, a former Narok South MP who worked with Sunkuli in the Moi Cabinet.
Sunkuli enjoyed such unbridled clout that, allegedly at the behest of Moi and those close to him, he took on another minister, William ole Ntimama, who apparently had become too powerful to tame. As the minister overseeing the provincial administration, he used his influence to thwart Ntimama’s public meetings by having them cancelled while at the same time propping up politicians opposed to Ntimama.
“When Jackson Mwanik fought it out with Ntimama in the 1997 and 2002 elections, Sunkuli openly supported him. During the electioneering period, the police would cancel Ntimama’s meetings citing security reasons, and yet allow his opponent’s meetings to continue,” revealed Jackson Saika, the National Chairman of Maasai Professionals Association.
He observed that the pressure applied on Ntimama by Sunkuli, coupled with the humiliation by district commissioners working in Narok, might have been instrumental in forcing the Narok North MP and his supporters to decamp from KANU and join the Opposition.
In December 1996, Narok District Commissioner John Nandasaba sent police to disperse Ntimama’s supporters who had gathered at his Melili rural home to celebrate Christmas. Nandasaba claimed that the celebration, for which several cows and goats had already been slaughtered, was not licensed.
Sunkuli also enlisted the services of Ntutu to try and cut Ntimama down to size through sustained campaigns to paint him in bad light. He wanted his former colleague to lose grassroots backing in Narok, but it was a difficult mission because he enjoyed massive support among the Maasai.
Using his powerful connections, Sunkuli ensured that Ntimama, who he had for a long time branded as selfish and disloyal to Moi, was denied access to the President’s private and official residences.
In 2009, he was appointed Kenya’s Ambassador to China by President Mwai Kibaki, but he resigned in 2013 to vie for a senatorial seat in the first elections under devolution.
Among his opponents were his younger brother, Andrew Leteipa, and Ntutu. Relatives, friends and elders from their clan tried in vain to have one brother stand down for the other. Their decision to continue as political rivals divided the family down the middle; not even their late father was able to reconcile them.
“My brother begged me to support him since he had supported me in 2002 when I lost the Kilgoris seat and again in 2007 when I tried to recapture it. When I conveyed that to my supporters, they would hear none of it. They told me to obey them and go for it. There was nothing I could do,” he told reporters when he presented his papers at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission office in Narok Town.
He later regretted not reconciling with Leteipa. “It was the worst mistake because if only one of us had vied for the seat, he could have won since our combined votes were more than 120,000,” he told the Daily Nation newspaper. In the 8 August 2017 General Election, he attempted to go back to Parliament but Konchela again thwarted this efforts.
Sunkuli filed a petition at the High Court in Kericho County, claiming that the election was marred by massive irregularities aimed at denying him victory. The petition was thrown out with costs. He proceeded to the Court of Appeal and later to the Supreme Court, but they all maintained that Konchela had been validly elected.
In 2015, before the General Election, President Uhuru Kenyatta had appointed him as a member of the Board of Directors of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC). His brother was also appointed to the Board of the Lake Victoria South Water Services Board.
Sunkuli wanted the Maasai to abandon traditional practices that hinder education and stand in the way of development
Sunkuli has said he is not yet done with elective politics, claiming that he has all along been his people’s choice but that rigging has been working against him. Apart from improving people’s living conditions through initiating development projects during the 10 years he was the Kilgoris MP, he said he helped build new schools and equip existing ones.
He also said throughout his stint in politics and in the corridors of power, he believed in delivery of services to the people of Kilgoris and Kenya. He further commented that with the exception of 2013, when he and his brother vied for the same seat, his family had supported his political journey all along.
“I got all the support I needed from my parents and siblings. When I decided to wrest the seat from Francis Sompisha who had held it since independence, they supported me,” he said. His father, who died in 2014, was instrumental in his decision to abandon the Judiciary for politics, a decision he never regretted. “He saw my star rising in politics. He also wanted me to serve the people of Kilgoris that he so loved,” he stated.
On his turf wars with Ntimama, Sunkuli emphasised that they were based on principles. He claimed that while Ntimama wanted to live in the past, he (Sunkuli) wanted the Maasai to abandon traditional practices that hinder education and also stand in the way of development.
“It wasn’t personal. I respected him until he died. In fact, he was my political teacher. I was never used by Moi to fight him as people have been made to believe. He was opposed to my mission to change the community thinking and way of life in the face of changing times. We differed but still respected each other,” said Sunkuli.