As perhaps one of the most prominent provincial administrators in Kenya, Simeon Nyandusi Nyachae was the embodiment of hard work and resilience; a man who painstakingly scaled the ranks of public administration to become a contender for the presidency – from District Commissioner to Provincial Commissioner, parastatal head, Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, Cabinet Minister and presidential candidate.
While in the Cabinet, Nyachae strove to bring financial probity to the government. His quest for a leaner public service and a clean National Treasury was said to have made him unpopular among business cartels and political power brokers. At one time Nyachae, a man who would never allow himself to be held hostage, even resigned from government in a huff.
As Minister for Finance, he once decreed that all State officers, including Cabinet Ministers, should no longer use official cars with an engine capacity bigger than 2,000cc. But public servants resisted the directive and it wasn’t long before he was ejected from the National Treasury. This is the man who came up with a budget that was considered balanced, bold and austere. He proposed salary cuts at a time when the Kenyan economy was in the doldrums, sparking unprecedented industrial action by teachers, bankers and other professionals.
All through his working life, Nyachae was known for his authority and power – to the point where as Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, ministers were said to fear him. In fact, the position of Chief Secretary would be scrapped by Parliament in December 1986 following accusations that Nyachae and his predecessors had elevated themselves to the status of small gods and created unparalleled centres of power during their tenure. Critics felt the position carried as much power and authority as that of a Prime Minister.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) once said of the career civil servant, “Simeon Nyachae has been described by opponents as arrogant, dictatorial, overbearing, self-righteous, pushy and given to flaunting his massive wealth. He is known to friends and foes alike as a fiery speaker who does not suffer fools gladly – crossing swords with fellow ministers…”
Nyachae was born 87 years ago in Nyaribari, Kisii District (now Kisii County). His father, Senior Chief Musa Nyandusi, was said to have 15 wives and 40 children. Nyachae joined Nyanchwa Seventh Day Adventist School in 1941 and advanced to Kereri Intermediate School in 1947. He then joined Kisii Government School (later renamed Kisii High School) in 1949. Before sitting for his Ordinary Level School Certificate in 1953, Nyachae left school and got a job as a District Clerk at the Chief’s camp. But his father decided that his son should further his education and sent him to study Public Administration in London in 1957. Nyachae returned to Kenya the following year and went to work as a District Officer in Kangundo.
He would later return to the UK for a Diploma in Public Administration at the prestigious Churchill College, University of Cambridge, in 1963. He became a District Commissioner in 1964 and rose up the provincial administration ladder to the position of Provincial Commissioner (PC).
Nyachae served as a PC in Central Kenya until November 1979, when President Daniel arap Moi appointed him Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President. It was during this time that he built his business, Sansora Group Ltd, which had interests in garment manufacturing, baked goods, milling, animal feed processing, metal works and finance.
Nyachae’s path to national politics was littered with landmines. First, he was inexplicably denied clearance by the all-powerful KANU National Governing Council when he declared his interest in a parliamentary seat in 1988. Secondly, local legislators afraid of his financial muscle and national appeal opposed his entry into Kisii politics. Four Members of Parliament – David Onyancha, Chris Obure, Zachary Onyonka and Andrew Omanga – were uncomfortable with what they saw as Nyachae’s attempt to control the politics of an area they had hitherto dominated without much opposition. The four politicians, who spearheaded an anti-Nyachae campaign, were referred to as the ‘Four Os’ in reference to the initial they shared in their second names.
In 1986, a number of elected Kisii politicians led by Onyonka, who was then the Minister for Planning, came together in Kebirigo in West Mugirango Constituency with the intention of stopping Nyachae from influencing politics in the area. They called their effort the Kebirigo Declaration. Nyachae had just retired as the powerful Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet.
More trouble awaited him on the business front as press reports indicated that his animal feed plant, situated not far from Airport Road and the Traffic Controllers School in Nairobi, was a hazard to air traffic into and out of the neighbouring Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The reports stated that the plant was attracting birds that posed a danger to aircraft.
Interestingly, the refusal by KANU to clear Nyachae and concern over the location of his business were viewed as more than coincidental. Some believed that the scheme was hatched to stop the retired civil servant from engaging in politics. However, he eventually won the Nyaribari Chache seat in 1992 and, despite initial reservations, turned out to be a Moi loyalist. Indeed, Nyachae became a man of great influence in the entire length and breadth of Gusiiland and the larger Kenya.
After holding on to the presidency in the 1992 General Election, Moi faced some difficulty in restructuring his government to balance tribal and regional interests. Kenya was now a multiparty nation and for the first time, the President faced an official opposition. One thing that became clear during the elections was that the country was highly polarised along ethnic lines. The major tribes – Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya – were not for Moi or KANU. In fact, it was thought that Moi won by winning the support of smaller tribes that were fearful of domination by more populous communities.
Despite being harangued by KANU four years earlier, Nyachae had decided to remain in the party and support President Moi. As a result, he was rewarded with an appointment to head the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Marketing. Moi appeared to have a soft spot for him; Nyachae would later preside over major Cabinet positions to such an extent that he was regarded as the President’s heir-apparent. He would also serve as Minister of Land Reclamation, Regional and Water Development. In 1997-1998, he served as Minister for Finance but was removed after declaring that the government was bankrupt. He was moved to the less powerful Ministry of Industry but declined the appointment. He quit government in 1998, joined the FORD-People party and contested for President in December 2002. He came a distant third with just 5.8 per cent of the votes.
His docket as Minister for Agriculture (1993-1997) included, among other parastatals, the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC), National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA), Kenya Seed Company (KSC), Kenya Planters’ Cooperative Union (KPCU) and Coffee Board of Kenya, which were all saddled with accusations of corruption and mismanagement.
It is possible that Moi didn’t just appoint Nyachae as a reward for the Kisii vote he got in 1992. The President may have been convinced that the Nyaribari Chache MP would come to the Cabinet with the fire and power he had exhibited in his previous positions as PC and Chief Secretary. Indeed, Nyachae was the architect of the famous District Focus for Rural Development (DFRD), an affirmative action programme aimed at decentralising development planning at the district level.
However, upon taking over the Ministry, Nyachae was railroaded by a number of challenges in the agriculture and marketing sectors. First was the liberalisation of agriculture and its attendant problem of increased production costs. The liberalisation of agriculture was a conditional policy by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to open the aid taps for Kenya.
Despite farmers’ complaints across the country, Nyachae took the bull by the horns, as it were, announcing some of the boldest measures ever. However, torn between liberalisation and national food security concerns, he was against the full liberalisation of maize marketing, fearing that cartels could destabilise the market unless the government accumulated enough strategic reserves in the NCPB silos. Less than a year into his job, Nyachae decided to give farmers an incentive to produce more, by increasing the producer price of maize.
The reorganisation of NCPB was one of the key agenda items in meetings between Kenya and donors in February 1995. The plan by the government to retain a maize marketing monopoly so as to protect farmers was contrary to demands by the World Bank and IMF that the private sector should play a role in maize marketing. Critics claimed that NCPB was purchasing maize at a higher rate than the market price. But Nyachae justified the government decision to give farmers an incentive to produce more.
In addition, he was confronted by a feud drawing KPCU, a key umbrella for coffee farmers, and the coffee sector’s regulator, Coffee Board of Kenya, over a KES 150 million debt the Union owed the Board. Nyachae had to act fast to forestall a threat by the Board to stop remitting farmers’ dues.
Then he had to move to contain factional wars in the tea industry in Central Kenya. At one point, directors of tea factories in Meru, Kirinyaga and Embu districts threatened a farmers’ strike if he lifted the suspension he had slapped on Cyrus Irungu, the KTDA Managing Director. Nyachae had accused the authority of irregularities and even cancelled a tender for the expansion of 39 tea factories. What should have been a purely administrative matter became so politicised that some felt Nyachae had become anti-Kikuyu.
Those opposed to his approach branded him anti-reform, but Nyachae was unfazed. He liberalised the sector and fought cartels in the industry. In 1997, just before the General Election, he set about cleaning up the sugar sector, which was in the grip of cartels. Nyachae came up with a paper that argued that sugar imports were hurting farmers and could lead to the collapse of local millers. He advocated for a ban on imports.
But this war against cartels may have endangered his tenure in the Ministry because not long after, in January 1997, he was moved to Land Reclamation, Regional and Water Development. He didn’t last there for too long; he was appointed Minister for Finance just after the 1997 General Election. Immediately, his critics claimed that he lacked grounding in finance management skills. But according to observers, this didn’t matter because Kenya’s economic policy was being directed by the donor community, the IMF and the World Bank; Nyachae just needed to comply. Indeed, even his predecessors, James