At independence, Titus Musembi Mbathi was one of Kenya’s pioneer technocrats together with the likes of Kenneth Matiba (Permanent Secretary) and Duncan Ndegwa (Governor, Central Bank of Kenya). Mbathi served as a Permanent Secretary (PS) under President Jomo Kenyatta and President Daniel arap Moi, first in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development and later in the Ministry of Labour.
As a PS, Mbathi worked closely with Mwai Kibaki and the two became great friends when the latter worked as the Minister for Finance in the Kenyatta and Moi governments. He took advantage of a provision that existed at the time for civil servants to retire at age 40 or after working for 10 years. Mbathi opted to resign in 1969, when he was 40 years old, to go into business.
He then joined politics and vied for the Kitui Central parliamentary seat in 1980, when the youthful Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Daniel Mutinda, lost an election petition. Mbathi managed to sail through and was appointed Minister for Labour by President Moi. He would serve as an MP and Cabinet Minister for three years.
Born in 1929 in Kitui Central, Mbathi attended local schools before joining Mang’u High School in Kiambu District (now Kiambu County). He was two years ahead of Ngala Mwendwa, Tom Mboya and Kibaki, who would play key roles in his future life as a technocrat, politician and captain of industry. Mbathi later went to India where he enrolled at the Madras Christian College. From there he was awarded a two-year Fulbright Scholarship at the New York State University and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Economics.
Mbathi was also instrumental in instituting policies that resulted in the rapid growth of NYS from a few recruits to a major service corps that has since developed several training workshops that include a variety of courses
On his return to Kenya, he immediately plunged into public service, his entry point being the Secretariat of the East African Common Services Organisation (EACSO), which would later become the East African Community (EAC), as an Under Secretary in the Treasury in 1962 and part of 1963.
Kenya’s independence came with blessings for the budding technocrat, who was then 34 years old; he was promoted to the position of Director of Personnel Management in the Office of the President, a post that was equivalent to that of a PS. In 1964 he rose to become a substantive PS, serving in the ministries of Economic Planning and Development under Mboya, and Labour under Mwendwa.
According to Mbathi, his early days in government were like a high school reunion of sorts: “The 1964 trio of Minister Tom Mboya, Assistant Minister Mwai Kibaki and I as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development was a unique re-ensemble of Mang’u High School old boys.”
In 1980, he tired of it all and decided to change careers. He resigned from his orderly, cushy position in the civil service to try the turbulent and murky waters of politics. His chance at political leadership came when the Kitui Central parliamentary seat was declared vacant after the incumbent MP, the youthful American-trained lawyer, Daniel Mutinda’s election was nullified by the High Court, which found him complicit of an election offence. Moreover Mutinda was barred from vying in the subsequent by-election.
After a hotly contested battle, Mbathi won the seat. He was also appointed to the Ministry of Labour docket, which was fitting as he had a wealth of experience in matters labour. He served as PS under Mwendwa, who was instrumental in developing the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) and the National Youth Service (NYS).
When Mbathi took over the reins at the ministry he was able to further develop and implement the initial concepts of NSSF and NYS, which would evolve into some of Kenya’s key pillars of development. Today, all workers outside the civil service contribute part of their earnings to the social security kitty through a mandatory check-off system and are paid their savings upon retirement. The NSSF has since grown into a multi-billion shilling investment entity engaged in real estate and other business ventures.
Mbathi was also instrumental in instituting policies that resulted in the rapid growth of NYS from a few recruits to a major service corps that has since developed several training workshops that include a variety of courses. It has also established many work stations in far-flung parts of the country engaged in civil works ranging from construction of water canals and irrigation works to rural access roads.
Mbathi’s tenure at the Ministry was, however, short-lived. After the infamous August 1982 coup attempt by a section of Kenya Air Force soldiers, the President called a snap election in 1983 as part of efforts to re-organise his government, tighten security and exercise more control. So while he had benefited from a by-election, he was now a victim of a snap election and, therefore, unable to complete a five-year term as either Minister or MP. Mbathi lost his parliamentary seat to John Mutinda, older brother to the man he had unseated three years before.
Explaining his short stint in Moi’s Cabinet, Mbathi recalled an incident in 1983 that he believed cost him his job and his political career.
“I joined other ministers at a social function graced by President Moi when, out of the blue, he publicly ordered the immediate deregistration of the Kenya Civil Servants’ Union (KCSU) and the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) for not serving the interests of the country,” he said during an interview carried by a local daily. “I sought clarification from then Head of Civil Service Jeremiah Kiereini as to why my Ministry had been overlooked in such a momentous decision with serious repercussions on labour issues. I was in a daze too. My conscience could not let go. I drew the President’s attention to the issue after a Cabinet meeting a few days later, striving to impress upon him that as members of the International Labour Organisation we were duty-bound to liaise with the world body. He looked me straight in the eye and wondered if I did not know that Kenya was a sovereign state. I braved an answer that we were tied to covenants of ILO and other international bodies where we were members.”
The article quoted Mbathi as saying that the President’s next words numbed him. “Are you the same person I appointed a Cabinet Minister?” Later, Mbathi knew his goose was cooked when an intelligence officer casually alluded to his political career being on the edge. “I was not sacked, but I lost my Kitui Central parliamentary seat in hazy circumstances,” he said.
Mbathi’s relationship with President Moi during his three-year stint was described as formal. The Minister did not seem to have become an insider in the Moi government and nor did he forge close links with KANU functionaries which, at that time, was deemed necessary for political survival.
After leaving politics and government, Mbathi concentrated on business until the introduction of multiparty politics and the subsequent formation of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), an opposition party under Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, in 1991. With the birth of FORD, Mbathi became enamoured with the idea of removing KANU from power and decided to jump back into politics. He became FORD’s Kitui District Branch Chairman.
When FORD split into FORD-Kenya and Matiba’s FORD-Asili in 1992, Mbathi opted to work with Matiba. Then in 2002, he joined the newly-minted National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) led by Kibaki and became the committee Chairman. When NARC took over the government after defeating KANU in the 2002 General Election, President Kibaki appointed him Chairman of KenGen, a parastatal organisation and Kenya’s largest electric power generating company.
Mbathi was one of the President’s close confidantes and was even on his advisory and election Boards. He was also among a group of high-ranking government officials named by the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights (KNCHR) accused of engaging in Kibaki’s election campaigns in its 2007 report titled ‘Still Behaving Badly’. Government employees are banned from engaging in political campaigns for any candidates.
Mbathi was also a Director of the Central Bank of Kenya and sat on the University of Nairobi Council. He has worked with the National Shipping Line and Kenya Ports Authority, and headed the Athi River Mining Audit Committee as well as the Rhino Cement Foundation, a corporate charity that invests in education, health and environment.