The mixed fortunes of Professor Jonathan Kimetet arap Ng’eno dogged his footsteps right up to the end. A Cabinet minister in President Daniel arap Moi’s regime, he rose from oblivion, fell, rose again and fell yet another time, and eventually died aged 61 years while his mentor, Moi, was still working out his 24-year tenure as President.
Ng’eno entered politics in 1979 and his rise to the Cabinet was meteoric. Until that year, he was not even known among his Kipsigis community in the larger Kericho District, let alone in political circles. The professor, who at the time was working for Nakuru Millers, an obscure outfit said to be associated with Moi, was catapulted into the murky world of politics after founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s death on 22 August 1978. Moi, who had been Vice President for 12 years, ascended to the presidency and the following year the first post-Kenyatta General Election was scheduled.
Dr Taita arap Towett, a long-time Minister for Education under Kenyatta, was the key political player in the Kipsigis region. Towett, widely viewed as an eccentric man, was MP for Buret and also Moi’s age-mate who had played a leading role in the fight for Kenya’s independence.
Moi’s intention after Kenyatta’s exit was to change the political map of Kenya by bringing in a new crop of politicians who would eventually be loyal to him. Just before 1979, he convened a rally in Kapkatet, the heartland of Kipsigis, where he turned to Towett and told him to “go home and rest” – meaning that he should retire from politics. A visibly disappointed Towett left the rally and went home, ending three decades of a sterling political career.
It was said that Towett and Moi were not the best of friends before or after Kenya’s independence. Moi’s friends saw Towett as a politician who had always fought Moi, hence the dumping order.
Soon thereafter Ng’eno, then aged 43, was to criss-cross Buret Constituency together with Ayub Chepkwony, a confidant and one-time Personal Assistant to Moi when he was VP. His being in the constant company of Chepkwony was intended to send strong signals that the professor was the chosen man to represent the constituency in the House. Indeed, Ng’eno won the KANU party ticket to vie for Buret and won the seat at the polls. Moi went on to appoint him to the Cabinet as Minister for Water Development.
Inexperienced in politics and perhaps also in administration, Ng’eno grappled with creating a water policy that was intended to supply running water to all homes by the year 2000, a dream that is yet to be achieved. However, luck was to come his way when Moses Mudavadi, who was Minister for Basic Education, was accused of sending many Luhyas, members of his ethnic community, to teacher training colleges. The public outcry led to a Cabinet reshuffle instigated by Moi, which saw Ng’eno switched to the Ministry of Basic Education and Mudavadi to Water. Ng’eno would remain in Education until the 1983 snap elections.
After the elections, Moi merged the Ministry of Basic Education with Science and Technology, and appointed Ng’eno to oversee the expanded portfolio. But the minister faced various challenges between 1983 and 1985 when he headed the bigger ministry, some of which were carried over from the time he worked in the Basic Education docket. The most daunting one was the four-year-old free milk programme for primary schools, which was saddled with one crisis after another. When it was introduced on 15 March 1979 at a cost of KES170 million, it was supposed to cater for a pupil population of slightly over 3.2 million. That number would nearly double four years later. The programme had been dogged by politics, corruption and logistical problems that persisted even when Ng’eno took on the bigger ministry.
Initially, the milk programme was introduced as a pilot scheme in eight out of the country’s 42 districts; it was piloted in Mombasa, Nakuru, Kiambu, Kakamega, Kisii, Garissa, Isiolo and Turkana before being rolled out countrywide.
It was rumoured that when Moi came to power, he intended to reduce the Kikuyu population in Central Province. According to the rumours, the free milk was laced with chemicals to render Kikuyus infertile, a strategy that would lead to a rise in the Kalenjin population along with other tribes, thus outnumbering Kikuyus so that the Kalenjin could be the predominant ethnic community in Kenya.
The fears appeared to be confirmed by reports from Murang’a, Nakuru and Kiambu, where children reportedly suffered stomachaches and vomiting after drinking the milk. Although tests carried out by the Government Chemist absolved the State of these claims, the government could not fully shake off the rumour, which continued to dog the programme and even rendered it suspect in some parts of the country. The tests found that it was not uncommon for one’s stomach to be irritated as it adjusted from pasteurised (conventional preservation) to ultra-heat-treated (UHT) milk.
The second challenge concerned logistics, storage and transportation for the milk countrywide. Opportunistic traders turned the programme into a cash cow. They over-billed the government to such a degree that the National Treasury always owed them huge sums of money in pending bills. Teachers also contributed to the problem; milk would be supplied and they would either take it to their homes or sell it in the villages.
The third challenge was corruption. The milk vote remained in the books at Treasury for over a decade. Parliament would vote to authorise money, yet there was no milk supplied to schools. Ng’eno faced a barrage of questions inside and outside Parliament about the programme. It was a monumental problem which the professor did not know how to solve. Eventually, the free milk for schools programme died a natural death after he left the ministry.
In addition to these challenges, Ng’eno had to deal with both students’ and lecturers’ strikes in universities. The Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) was facing significant challenges in recovering loans as the beneficiaries could either not be traced or simply defaulted. A law was later brought to Parliament after Ng’eno’s exit from the ministry, compelling employers to deduct the money at source and criminalising non-compliance. In addition, the university student population had grown so fast that there was insufficient money to fund all the students who required financial aid.
In the Ministry of Housing where Ng’eno was transferred before the 1988 mlolongo (queue-voting) election, he had little time to leave an impact. The Jonathan Ng’eno Estate in Nairobi’s Lang’ata area was conceived by the state-owned National Housing Corporation and construction began while he was the minister. But the professor’s political career was to take a nosedive during the 1988 elections when a hitherto little-known former magistrate, Timothy Mibei, dislodged him from the Buret seat.
For the next five years, Ng’eno was in the political cold. But he managed to spring back into mainstream KANU when Lady Luck knocked on his door in 1991. Ng’eno’s political return was as dramatic as his 1988 exit. This time round it took the resignation of the Speaker of Parliament to resuscitate the professor’s career as a politician.
On 12 May 1991, Moses arap Keino, Kenya’s third Speaker, went to Parliament one weekend morning while Parliament was on a short recess. He drafted a terse letter of resignation and packed up his belongings before proceeding to Nyayo House in the central business district where the Kenya News Agency offices were housed. There he found a lone reporter and asked whether there was a photocopy machine. The reporter responded that there was none. He nonetheless signed his resignation letter and handed it over, declining to answer any questions and insisting that the reporter must stick strictly with what he had written. He then drove off.
When the news reached Moi, he sent the police to locate Ng’eno and escort him to State House. On 11 June 1991, the professor was unanimously elected the fourth Speaker of Kenya’s Parliament, marking a full return to power in readiness for elective politics in 1992.
The American-educated academician faced numerous challenges in his new role. Unfortunately, he took the Speaker’s job at a time when the Goldenberg scandal, in which billions of shillings were siphoned out of Treasury, was blowing up.
Another challenge was that this was a wind vane Parliament that played to the tune of the Executive. Debates and questions on Goldenberg began flowing and the Speaker was at a loss as to which way to rule so as not to anger the Executive. He would rule one way in the morning and return in the afternoon to contradict his earlier ruling. His critics have described him as the most confused Speaker Kenya’s Parliament ever had.
Ng’eno served for only 18 months before returning to Buret to contest his old seat, which he won back from Mibei. Moi even appointed him to one of the plum ministries in government – Public Works and Housing – where he was to oversee lucrative road construction contracts nationwide in addition to the large-scale construction of institutional buildings. Although universities, colleges and schools fall under the Ministry of Education, it is the Ministry of Public Works that is charged with all professional works.
But Ng’eno would again be hounded out as MP for Buret during the 1997 elections by Paul Sang, a school teacher; this time for good.
Born in 1937 in Buret, he attended local schools before going to the US for university, where he attained a number of degrees in political science and philosophy. He taught in various American universities before returning to Kenya. Before his death on 11 June 1998, power politics among his Kipsigis community had changed hands several times, revolving around Kipkalia Kones and John Koech, two other Moi ministers.
Nonetheless, Ng’eno will be remembered as one politician under Moi who had the resilience to remain a total ‘Nyayo’ man whether he was out in the political cold or swimming in power.