At a time when women in senior positions in the civil service were few and far between, Dr Sally Jepng’etich Kosgei not only reached the high glass ceiling but also shattered it to become an internationally respected diplomat, a politician and a Cabinet minister. She was the second woman to become a Permanent Secretary in 1991 after Margaret Githinji, who was PS in the Ministry of Commerce. What stands out most was her proximity to President Daniel arap Moi, who trusted her with some of the most onerous tasks of his 24-year tenure. Indeed, such was her focus on hard work and loyalty that she often overshadowed the ministers she worked under.
Beneath her quiet and media-shy demeanour was a skilful schemer, so good at behind-the-scenes machinations that she was able to survive in a field crowded with men. Her reputation preceded her in Kenya and in global diplomatic circles. According to Expression Today of 16 March 2000, many foreign governments recognised her significant role “and would deal with her knowing that her word was final”.
Many Kenyans remember her crying outside State House Nairobi in 2002 as President Moi was airlifted to his Kabarak home after handing over the reins of power to a wheelchair-bound Mwai Kibaki. It was a solemn moment. Considered as one of the greatest beneficiaries of Moi’s regime, she later denied that she cried because Moi was leaving State House for good and said the tears were because of how he was handled in the charged excitement of new leadership after 24 years in power that many thought had been characterised by ineptitude, economic failure and human rights abuses among other charges.
She was an effective worker, often overshadowing the ministers she worked under
Kosgei was born in Aldai, Nandi District, in 1949. She attended Aldai Primary School before joining Alliance Girls High School for both her O’ and A’ levels. After high school she went to Dar-es-Saalam University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Education. She taught briefly at Nakuru High School and the University of Nairobi before she won a scholarship to pursue MA and PhD degrees in history and political science at Stanford University in California in the United States.
Between 1978 and 1981, she taught at the University of Nairobi’s Department of History and Archaeology. In 1981 she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the First Secretary to UN-Habitat. She then held the position of Senior Assistant Secretary Africa and Organisation of African Unity (OAU), acting head, Africa and OAU Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In 1984, Kosgei became Kenya’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe. She was transferred in the same capacity to the United Kingdom (as well as Ireland and Switzerland) in 1986 and held the position until 1992. She represented Nairobi in London during a time of strong political headwinds; with the clamour for multiparty politics growing, Moi and other African leaders suddenly found themselves out of favour with their foreign allies as the Cold War ended.
Moi was facing a legitimacy crisis, as there was increased suppression of free speech and many opposition leaders were being jailed. Notably, the February 1990 assassination of Dr Robert Ouko, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the ethnic clashes of 1992 were some of the issues that Kosgei had to grapple with during her time in London and during her formative days as PS for Foreign Affairs under Ndolo Ayah. Kosgei famously defended Kenya and at one point issued a rebuttal to the British media on its coverage of the unravelling events in Kenya in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As for breaking the proverbial glass ceiling, she was a diplomat at a time when nearly all the 150 Kenyan foreign missions were headed by men. According to the Sunday Times of 22 December 1991, she once told students at Alliance Girls High School that someone had once tried to point out how exceptional she was, hoping to either flatter or intimidate her. But she felt neither special nor intimidated.
In December 1991, she was appointed PS for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and was sent to restore Kenya’s image abroad following the ethnic clashes in Rift Valley Province. She was transferred to the Ministry of Finance in 1997. According to the March 2000 issue of Expression Today, the move was intended to clip the wings of Simeon Nyachae, who had just been appointed the Minister for Finance. But while she may have been influential, Nyachae proved to be no pushover. At the time her husband, Yusuf Nzibo, was the Commissioner General of the Kenya Revenue Authority. Nyachae had him transferred without her knowledge, causing a rift between the minister and the PS. Six months later, Nyachae was sacked; an indicator of who was really calling the shots.
In 2001, she replaced Dr Richard Leakey as Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, moving her closer to the centre of power. She remained the Civil Service boss until Moi stepped left office.
By 2002 she had come to symbolise the good, the bad and the ugly of KANU. The image of her crying at State House Nairobi was seen as a comeuppance by many Kenyans for being an accomplice to a man whose regime many viewed negatively.
In 2007 when Uhuru Kenyatta joined the Opposition, Kosgei abandoned KANU and joined the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party under the tutelage of William Ruto, then a principal in ODM in the Rift Valley region. She ran for the Aldai Constituency seat and won. When the election results were released declaring Kibaki the President (and not ODM frontrunner Raila Odinga), her constituency was one of the most affected during the countrywide violent clashes that ensued.
During the Kofi Annan-led reconciliation negotiations in Nairobi, the ODM party used Kosgei’s consummate skills in reaching an agreement for a coalition government: the Government of National Unity headed by Kibaki as President with Odinga as Prime Minister. She was later rewarded with a ministerial post, heading the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.
The coalition government created the new ministry, carving it out of the mainstream Ministry of Education. The new ministry’s role would help to pass a Biotechnology Bill and establish at least four technical universities, according to SciDevNew.com edition of 22 April 2008.
In 2010, she traded places with Ruto, becoming the Minister of Agriculture during a reshuffle in the coalition government. Here, Kosgei helped distribute 490 metric tonnes of drought-tolerant seeds worth KES78.8 million that had been donated by the German government. The seeds were used in Ukambani region during the short rains of 2011. At the time, drought and famine were ravaging parts of the country.
Ahead of the 2013 General Election, she stuck with ODM even though Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) was the party of choice. According to the County Weekly (a now defunct publication of the Standard Group) of 3 February 2013, she remained in ODM as she was a close advisor to Odinga, then a presidential candidate. She lost her seat to URP’s Cornell Serem and was appointed Chancellor of Taita Taveta University in 2016.
Kosgei’s life in politics was not without considerable controversy. For example, according to a Daily Nation report of 25 November 2017, she had recalled Kenya’s ambassador to the US, Samson Chemai, refused to talk to him when he returned to Kenya, and then replaced him with her husband, Nzibo, who also served as ambassador to the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.
Chemai filed a case in 2001 and in 2017, was awarded KES60 million by the High Court of Kenya for wrongful dismissal.
In November 2017, it emerged that Kosgei’s name was among those mentioned in an exposé of politicians who had hidden their wealth from public scrutiny. According to the Daily Nation of 6 November 2017, Kosgei’s name was listed in The Paradise Papers, a trove of 13.4 million files taken from the law firm, Appleby, and leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung, the same paper that leaked the Panama Papers in 2016.
The paper indicated that Kosgei owned a Mauritius company, Zonrisa Limited, that was previously registered in the Isle of Man under the name Aisha Limited. She denied the charges.
Kosgei has maintained a low profile away from the public eye since she lost her parliamentary seat in 2013.