Save, diplomatic and easy-going; that’s how colleagues, friends and relatives describe Noah Katana Ngala, the first-born son of pre-independence nationalist leader, Ronald Ngala.
In April 2002, a local daily newspaper, The Standard, once described the now septuagenarian Ngala thus: “… too cool for the rough and tumble of Kenyan politics – a man too nice to mingle at ease and hold his own in the murky field. But the man from Ganze, Kilifi District, may be like a deceptively strong current that runs deep and that could surge if given an opening, or so say some of his colleagues from the coast.”
As a top official of the ruling party of the day, Ngala always played middle-of-the-road, wary of destabilising the established order. Even as Minister for Lands and Settlement, he didn’t do much to sort out the long-festering squatter problem in his coastal homeland. And even when the office of Vice President fell vacant, he didn’t do much as a key politician to show that he was ready to occupy it.
Ngala was born into a privileged and political family whose fame traversed what is now Kilifi County. After attending primary school in Kilifi, he joined the prestigious Alliance High School for his O’ Level education and the Duke of York School (since renamed Lenana High School) where he completed his A’ Levels in 1967. He then went to the US to pursue studies in business administration. However, his course would be cut short following his father’s death, prompting him to return home and literally inherit his father’s parliamentary seat in Kilifi.
Unfortunately, politics was not Ngala junior’s preferred career. In 1985, upon being appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting, he reportedly confessed that his burning ambition in life was business administration and not, as many people think, politics. Perhaps if his father had not died when he did, he would have pursued a career in business rather than politics.
Ngala joined Parliament in 1974 on a wave of sympathy votes following the death of his father, a revered figure and undisputed leader of the Giriama people in particular and the coast region in general. By electing the younger Ngala, the people of Kilifi wanted his father’s name to live on. He garnered a convincing 8,533 votes against his closest challenger, who got 1,457 votes. Ngala continued to win subsequent elections.
Soft-spoken like his father, he steered clear of controversy both at national and local level
Soft-spoken like his father, he steered clear of controversy both at national and local levels. Around 14 years after being elected to Parliament, he was already the KANU Kilifi Branch Vice Chairman and the party’s National Assistant Treasurer. Implicitly, he had a good standing in the ruling party. Those who held high positions within the party at the time had President Daniel arap Moi’s ear. So, as the 1988 elections approached, Ngala stood a very good chance of recapturing his seat.
Just five years after he was first elected to Parliament, Ngala was appointed Assistant Minister for Local Government. For 23 years, between 1979 and 2002, he worked in various ministries, including Local Government and Urban Development, Energy, Cooperative Development, Tourism and Wildlife, Lands and Settlement (twice), Public Works, and Information and Broadcasting. He was a minister for 17 uninterrupted years.
When Moi overhauled the political administration immediately after taking over following President Jomo Kenyatta’s death in August 1978, Ngala was one of the beneficiaries. His star, so to speak, began to rise in 1985 when he was elected as KANU’s Assistant National Treasurer. A month later he was appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting following the sacking of Robert Matano, formerly a key politician from the coast region. This wasn’t unusual; Moi had a predictable tactic of replacing one minister with another from the same region.
Ngala survived the 1988 political tsunami that swept away many political bigwigs. He was elected unopposed in the infamous mlolongo (queue-voting) General Election that year and appointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Cooperative Development.
Unlike many of Moi’s ministers who decamped from KANU to the Opposition after multipartism was introduced in the 1992 General Election, Ngala remained Moi’s ally. Even Mwai Kibaki, who had worked with Moi as Vice President, ditched the ruling party and formed the Democratic Party (DP). Ngala went on to retain his seat as MP for Ganze Constituency in the 1992 and 1997 elections. By then, he had already been elected as KANU’s National Assistant Secretary General, a position that consolidated his relationship with Moi.
In 1996, he swapped roles with Darius Mbela, another minister from the coast, switching from the Tourism and Wildlife docket to become Minister for Energy. It would emerge that Mbela had been at loggerheads with the long-serving Managing Director of the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC), Samuel Gichuru, and the ministry’s equally long-serving Permanent Secretary, Crispus Mutitu.
The new docket meant that Ngala would escape the problems that bedevilled the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, and Kenya at large at the time – bad international publicity that had occasioned a reduction in tourist numbers, and insecurity in the game parks evident in poaching, bad road infrastructure and aggressive competition from South Africa.
According to media reports, Ngala’s tenure at Utalii House, the headquarters of the Tourism ministry, had not been spectacular. Between 1994 and 1995, the number of tourists visiting Kenya dropped by 24 per cent. Owing to the poor performance of the industry, in 1995 Ngala proposed the establishment of a Tourism Board that would be tasked with marketing Kenya as a tourist destination. The board was created the following year.
It is noteworthy that this was the second time Ngala was taking up the Tourism and Wildlife docket. He was at the ministry in 1989 when Kenya pushed for a ban on trans-border trade in ivory and ivory products. Ngala and Richard Leakey, who had just been appointed by President Moi to head the wildlife custodian body, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), appeared to work well together at the time – though they later became fierce enemies.
“I believe that a complete international ban on any trade in elephant products is the most practical way forward at present,” Ngala said in May 1989 after securing the listing of elephants on Appendix One of the International Convention Against Transboundary Trade in Endangered Species.
Kenya has since rallied the world to include the rhino.
The Ministry of Energy was a different ball game. KPLC was by then synonymous with corruption. Obsolete equipment meant that power rationing was the order of the day. At another level, Uganda and Kenya were embroiled in a tariff dispute, as the former had threatened to cut off a contracted 30MW to Kenya. Then there was the headache of dealing with petroleum cartels who wasted no time inflating prices of the commodity.
But his biggest problem involved the Kerio Valley power facility, which had been established under a cloud of contention, with questions raised about its capital outlay and capacity to break even. By the time Ngala was taking over the ministry, the Controller and Auditor General was raising questions about the financial probity of this donor-funded power plant in Pokot District (now Pokot County). By June 1997, the Turkwel Gorge Hydro-Electric Project had an outstanding loan of KES2.9 billion. Somehow, this debt wasn’t appearing in government statements of outstanding loans, causing the row with the auditor.
In the 1996-1997 Appropriations Accounts report, the Controller and Auditor General reported, “… the terms and conditions of on-lending to the Kerio Valley Development Authority (the project’s developer) of funds borrowed by the government for development (of the project) have not so far been seen”. By the following year the loan had ballooned and it became obvious that the ministry was deliberately not providing the requisite documents on the correct financial position.
In the 1997-1998 report, the auditor further lamented, “… the ministry does not maintain proper records of loans guaranteed by Government but instead continues to rely on confirmations provided by the borrowers for the purpose of preparing the (outstanding loan) statement”. The report went on to charge that “… the ministry does not maintain a proper Loans Register”.
Apart from the Turkwel power facility, there were plenty of questions surrounding Japan’s KES3.4 billion loan to the Kenya Pipeline Company whose status couldn’t be confirmed.
In 1998, Ngala was moved to the Ministry of Cooperative Development, where he had worked 10 years earlier. It was a time when the cooperative movement was struggling to survive in the era of economic liberalisation. It is worth noting that the Kenya Rural Savings and Credit Cooperatives Societies Union (KERUSSU), an umbrella body of 48 rural SACCOs with 335,056 members at the time, was registered under his tenure.
Ngala did not last long enough to make an impression at the ministry. In November 2001, he was moved to the highly contentious Ministry of Lands and Settlement, a docket hitherto identified with widespread corruption. Having worked in the same ministry just before the 1997 election, citizens expected a lot from him.
As a result of the freeze on public financing due to a cut in foreign aid, well-connected and corrupt public figures set their sights on public land as a source of income. They targeted forests, public utilities and State corporations in their lust to accumulate wealth.
The choice of Ngala wasn’t by happenstance. Moi appeared to cave in to demands by people from the coast region to solve the region’s land problems. To date, thousands of people living in the coastal region are squatters on land either owned by absentee landlords or by the government. By giving the docket to a local, Moi thought he could mute the grumbling. Yet it is also possible that he merely wanted to placate his critics, knowing pretty well that the land problem in Kenya was beyond Ngala’s capacity.
“Mr Ngala returns to the ministry for the second time but he too did almost nothing to settle the local communities during his first tenure… (He) has no excuse not to embark on the settlement process of thousands of coastal people who live on what they consider to be their ancestral land but have no right to it whatsoever,” the Daily Nation reported at the time.
But not much was done to resolve the historical land problem. Just like his predecessors, Ngala found himself accused of abetting land-grabs.
At one time, he was put on the spot in Parliament by none other than George Anyona, MP for Kitutu Masaba Constituency. Anyona sought to establish who had authorised the allocation of parts of Karura Forest between 1992 and 1996, the acreage involved, and the catalogue of beneficiaries. Ngala was at pains to provide answers because those involved were political heavyweights, among them fellow Cabinet ministers. In fact, he gave only land registration numbers of the plots allocated without going into the details as demanded by Anyona. Parliamentarians were not satisfied and, as a result, heckled and booed Ngala as he read out his statement.
Powerless to respond to the barrage of questions, the minister advised MPs to “… seek further details from the land registry”. Despite an attempt by the House Speaker to get him to respond adequately, Ngala still came back minus the names; all he had was the total acreage of land allocated (485 hectares) and a list of the 67 companies that had benefited. The names of the companies involved turned out to be fictitious, totally non-existent in the Registrar of Companies’ records.
During his time as Minister for Works and Housing, it merged that some roads provided for in budget estimates had not been built. For instance in July 1999, Parliament was in an uproar during the approval of KES19.7 billion from the Consolidated Fund for the ministry. The MPs demanded an explanation why some roads had neither been completed nor rehabilitated.
The return of multipartism drastically transformed the country’s political landscape. The possibility of Moi exiting the scene he had so long dominated set in motion succession battles involving several members of the Cabinet, among them Ngala.
Initially there were two factions: KANU A and KANU B. Another, KANU C, emerged in the late 1990s. KANU A drew the conservatives and those who had been in the party for a long time; in other words the loyalists, among them Nicholas Biwott, George Saitoti, Ngala, Musalia Mudavadi and Kalonzo Musyoka. Then there was the class of Moi loyalists but party rebels that included Simeon Nyachae and Kipkalya Kones. KANU C drew the youthful MPs who relished criticising the President and the party. Among them were Cyrus Jirongo, Kipruto arap Kirwa and, later, William Ruto.
Ngala, like his colleagues, fell victim to Moi’s whims. While at the Ministry of Lands and Settlement, he got himself sucked into the Moi succession politics. Moi had not appointed a VP for a whole year because by doing so he would have been perceived as hinting at his potential successor. Ngala, Mudavadi, Saitoti, Marsden Madoka, Musyoka and Bonaya Godana were widely tipped for the Vice Presidency.
Moi had an uncanny way of dismantling succession wars within the party. Traditionally, the Leader of Government Business in Parliament was the VP. Accordingly, when Moi appointed Ngala as the first Leader of Government Business in the Eighth Parliament in 1998, it set off speculation that he was on the path to becoming the Vice President.
Moi handled the run-up to the VP’s appointment in an interesting manner. News reports of the day all highlighted the fact that the Eighth Parliament opened without a VP – in this case, synonymous with the Leader of Government Business. The House was anxious to learn who would occupy the seat, since that person was likely to be Moi’s deputy. Saitoti, the immediate former VP, along with other members of the Cabinet, arrived ahead of the President but left the coveted seat unoccupied.
As anxiety built, President Moi made his entry into the House accompanied by Speaker Francis ole Kaparo followed by Ngala, who was flanked by Deputy Speaker Joab Omino and KANU Chief Whip Sammy Leshore. Ngala went straight to the seat reserved for the Leader of Government Business. “Drama in the august House” is how an authoritative local news magazine, The Weekly Review of 3 April 1998, covered this episode.
It later emerged that Ngala was preferred over his colleagues because he had had a 24-year unbroken stint in the National Assembly. Only Shariff Nassir and the Opposition leader of the day, Mwai Kibaki, had served longer. It was speculated that appointing Nassir to the position would not have inspired confidence in the party, the government or the country.
Although Moi kept exhorting those clamouring for a VP to direct their energies towards national development, it was no secret that appointing a VP at that point would only have fragmented the ruling party further.
Moi would reappoint Saitoti in April 1999 but, based on the intrigues surrounding the build-up to the appointment, it was clear that Saitoti would not succeed him as President.
As Leader of Government Business, Ngala was as moderate as he had always been. He did not make waves. Indeed, in the Saitoti succession battles of the 1990s, Ngala had a chance to prove his worth but fell short.
“As the longest-serving minister in the Cabinet, Ngala was expected to put on a sterling performance during the brief tenure as Leader of Government Business, but it was during this time that the government lost three key motions and nearly succumbed to a vote of no confidence and was oftentimes caught off guard when important issues were raised in Parliament,” The Weekly Review reported in July 1998.
As expected, coast region leaders were unhappy with Ngala’s nonchalant leadership. Subsequently, in April 1999, the same month Moi reappointed Saitoti as VP, the MPs dropped Ngala as Chairman of the 23-member Coast Parliamentary Group, branding him “aloof, indecisive and indifferent”. They replaced him with Assistant Minister for Local Authorities, Jembe Mwakalu. Ngala had held that position for 17 years.
As Moi’s term neared its end and succession skirmishes littered the entire country, young politicians positioned themselves to benefit from the post-Moi era. At the coast, Ngala, Nassir (Minister for Home Affairs, National Heritage, Culture and Social Services and later Minister in the Office of the President) and Madoka (Minister of State in the Office of the President in charge of Internal Security and Provincial Administration) felt the heat; new faces had emerged to oust them from their powerful KANU positions.
Despite the upheaval in his back yard, Ngala went on to serve as MP and minister until 2002, when Moi retired from national politics. He lost his parliamentary seat in the 2002 General Election that ousted KANU from power.
In May 1998, The Weekly Review stated, “… with his quiet unassuming demeanour, the minister does not seem to have made many political foes within the Kenyan political system, but he also does not appear to have committed allies who would stand steadfastly by him in the heat of battle if he was to aspire seriously for a higher position.”
The news analysis added, “… despite all his current efforts to occupy more of the political limelight, Ngala is still regarded by many as a political outsider who does not enjoy much clout apart from that which he derives from his ministerial position.”
Ngala currently serves as Chairman of the Kenya National Library Service.