Peter Cleavers Otieno Nyakiamo – Top banker who headed three ministries

Those who know Peter Otieno Nyakiamo well have described him as a results-oriented workaholic, a stickler for time and a firm custodian of etiquette. He is a soft-spoken and private man whose 35-year career as a banker saw him rise to top management positions at Barclays, Kenya Commercial and NIC banks. He has also been Chairman of Kenya Revenue Authority.

As a politician and public servant, Nyakiamo was a key figure during the KANU regime and a major mover in South Nyanza’s political scene. His loyalty to President Daniel arap Moi and influence among the Abasuba sub-tribe that lives along Lake Victoria and adjoining islands afforded him close proximity to power during his time in the Cabinet. Indeed, the President had such confidence in his management and leadership qualities that he appointed him Minister of State in the Office of the President, then moved him to the Ministry of Health before finally giving him the Lands docket to head.

This was significant at a time when there were frequent Cabinet reshuffles that were usually announced during the 1pm radio news bulletin via the state-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).

Nyakiamo, a Catholic and a teetotaller, was born 92 years ago in Kaksingri, along the shores of Lake Victoria, and attended local schools where he honed his leadership qualities. After sitting his final exam at Mangu High School in 1946, he was set to join Makerere University in Uganda, an institution of choice and prestige in East and Central Africa at the time, to train as a teacher. But this did not happen because a bank job opportunity came knocking.

“Somehow I didn’t feel inclined to be a teacher. One day my uncle told me that the son of an Asian he worked with had mentioned that Barclays Bank was planning to hire African clerks. He told me to try my luck,” said Nyakiamo.

Fresh out of school, he sat and passed the interview with flying colours, scoring top grades in English and mathematics. Although he got four out of a possible six points, the European administering the test told him he could have done better. “But four out of six was not bad. He was impressed with my handwriting. The score plus my handwriting got me the job,” he recalled.

In 1956, Nyakiamo was sent for training in England. At that time he was earning KES100 as his monthly salary, quite a princely sum at the time.

“The amount required to open a bank account was one shilling. It was a lot of money then and we ended up with a list of several Africans who had opened bank accounts. However, the ledger showed that they had only one shilling balances in their accounts!” he recalled.

In those days, Africans were not allowed to borrow more than KES2,000. “And we couldn’t lend African women money unless they had permission from their husbands! Their spouses had to say yes first.”

Due to his sterling performance, Nyakiamo was promoted to General Manager overseeing Barclays Bank in Kenya. His star continued to rise as he worked with dedication until his retirement in June 1982. Politics was the farthest thing from his mind when he finally took off his banking hat.

“Politics was nowhere on my mind. Indeed, I didn’t choose to be in politics but I was approached during my farewell party in Nairobi – organised by my age mates and kinsmen soon after my retirement – by some Mbita (Constituency) residents and leaders from Kaksingri to vie for the parliamentary seat then held by Alphonce Okuku, the brother of Tom Mboya.”

His first reaction was rather demurred but as he thought about it and consulted widely, he decided to take up the challenge. However, he faced an immediate dilemma – his father and Mboya’s were family friends, and his mother and Mboya’s mother were relatives from the Wakula clan. Nyakiamo’s father was also Mboya’s godfather. In addition, some of Nyakiamo’s critics said he was “too clean” to go into politics and that he did not have the voice to address public rallies. While he was still weighing the pros and cons, and trying to enjoy his hard-earned retirement, President Moi announced a snap election for the end of that year.

Nyakiamo described the transition from the corporate world to the murky field of politics as “surprisingly smooth for a newcomer like me”.

“I was roped in and decided to give it a try. Our election campaigns were not hostile but friendly, with my main opponent, Okuku, being a childhood playmate.”

Nyakiamo won by a landslide and was sworn in by the Speaker of the National Assembly in Nairobi the following week. Next was an unexpected but pleasant surprise for the new Mbita MP as the President included him in his new Cabinet as Minister for East African Affairs. The position, which he held for one-and-a-half years, meant he brushed shoulders with his boss in the Office of the President and at State House almost daily. He was later transferred to the Ministry of Health where he worked for two years before being moved to the Ministry of Lands for another two years.

His biggest challenge in the Office of the President was dealing with the thorny issue of identification and distribution of assets to the three feuding former member states of the East African Community, which had just collapsed. The eventual success was a result of good team spirit by his Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts, who cooperated with the Swiss coordinator appointed by the European Union.

“The process was not easy and required several meetings in Arusha, Nairobi and Tororo, plus diplomacy among the three states’ respective ministers for EAC Affairs with the support of our Presidents, Daniel arap Moi, Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote.”

At the Ministry of Health, Nyakiamo’s experience in management was an added advantage to dealing with the myriad problems that included lack of drugs, equipment and qualified manpower to run the public hospitals and dispensaries across the country. “I had an easy time at the Ministry of Health because I had a good team led by the Permanent Secretary, the assistant ministers and the Director of Medical Services and his team,” he said.

One of his big achievements was a multi-billion shilling medical deal between the Kenyan and Danish governments for the latter to supply medical kits to all major hospitals and health facilities in the country. Another was the introduction of a private wing at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) to cater for patients who could afford to pay extra for specialised treatment, as was the case in private hospitals in Nairobi and other towns.

“The idea to start a private wing at KNH was mine and I am proud of it. This came about after seeing many private hospitals provide VIP services and get support from the National Hospital Insurance Fund.”

His lowest moment in Health was when the National Treasury could not cope with the number of health facilities being built using money from fund-raisers initiated by politicians. Many buildings were put up but the Ministry of Health was unable to keep up with equipping these hospitals with personnel, equipment and funding.

“It was too big; the Ministry of Health budget could not support it. It was impossible!” he said.

Nyakiamo did not feel like he did much in the Ministry of Lands, where he was working when the 1992 General Election was called.

“But I still vividly recall putting my foot down and telling off some powerful people who wanted to misuse their positions to acquire land at the Magarini and Kilifi Settlement Scheme in Coast Province. I was firm in protecting government land and other property,” he said.

By the early 1990s, the agitation for multipartism had gained momentum and the result was that he lost his parliamentary seat as by then, voters were not interested in hearing about his development record but rather why he had rejected the Opposition’s presidential candidate, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. As other politicians were busy jumping the KANU ship and defecting to opposition parties, he opted to stick with the party he had joined years previously.

“I am still a KANU life member today; it is the only political party I have ever joined. My friend Tom Mboya welcomed me to join KANU on the eve of independence in 1963,” he explained.

He expressed his gratitude to Moi for giving him the honour of serving in the Cabinet where he learnt a lot about team work, the enormous responsibility of running a ministry and, by extension, running a country.

“I enjoyed working with Moi in the Office of the President as Minister in charge of East African Affairs as it gave me a chance to travel with him a lot locally and abroad. The Ministry of Health gave me many chances to attend international conferences to learn more about how to deal with health issues. Those trips helped us to become more exposed to new trends in our respective ministries.”

In politics, Nyakiamo’s tenure as South Nyanza KANU branch and Mbita sub-branch Chairman brought him closer to the grassroots so he could deal with ordinary folks. His secret weapon in politics was honesty – he never promised his voters what he knew he could not deliver but always reminded them that he was “a mere messenger” whose role entailed being in good books with his boss, Moi, and his fellow Cabinet ministers, and requesting help on his constituents’ behalf.

As Mbita MP, Nyakiamo managed to increase and expand educational and health facilities in the expansive constituency. Moi Sindo Girls Secondary School was the first to be set up with 30 students; that has since increased to 800. As the Minister for Health, he also influenced the upgrading and refurbishing of Mbita Health Centre, now renamed Suba County Referral Hospital, and initiated dispensaries on Mfangano and Rusinga islands.

He also led a serious campaign to have his Suba sub-tribe recognised and a district for it carved out of Homa Bay District (now Homa Bay County). The Abasuba form a Bantu sub-tribe whose forefathers originated from Uganda. They also got their own radio station to promote the rarely spoken language and culture.

In Nyakiamo’s experience, President Moi was approachable and generous, and also had a big heart and a passion for education (being a former teacher). He recalled some memorable breakfast meetings with his boss at State House or at his private home in Nairobi or Kabarak in Baringo District (now Baringo County). Moi also visited him at his home near Sindo Town in Homa Bay and spent the night as a sign of trust and friendship.

“Whenever we went to his house for breakfast, we came away with something new learnt from and about the old man. I respected him then and still respect him now,” he said.

At 92 years, Nyakiamo is today a trustee of the National Fund for the Disabled of Kenya.

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