Level-headed, soft-spoken, and shy of controversy, John Kiyonga Munyes does not come across as a politician in a country where the kind are known to be boisterous, cavalier, or rabble-rousing. Perhaps his demeanour stems from his many years in the corporate world, including working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) before making a detour into politics in 1997.
Perhaps it is persona that President Uhuru Kenyatta sought to tap when he appointed the former Turkana senator and minister in the Kibaki administration as he sought to bring more politicians to a hitherto largely technocratic Cabinet. The technocracy in the President’s Cabinet was a demand inscribed in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution.
After his failed bid to become governor of Turkana County in the 2017 elections, the veteran politician, who had served as minister in various dockets under President Mwai Kibaki, was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Petroleum and Mining, becoming the first holder of the new docket, created to take care of the oil find in the country as well as other wealth stashed in Kenya’s belly.
The petroleum department came six years after Kenya announced the discovery of oil in Turkana County in 2012.
Instructively, the minister came from the region with the oil find, a calculation ostensibly made to help pacify a community that was angling for a bigger share of oil proceeds once the discovery was announced to the public. The county had been apportioned 20 per cent of the projected earnings and Munyes was among the Cabinet secretaries who were never affected during reshuffles.
And he came with just the right mix President Kenyatta needed to wade through his tumultuous second term – enough technocratic skills and political experience. That he was not a rabble-rouser was an additional upside that came in handy in the President’s bid to secure and cement his legacy.
While appearing before the parliamentary Committee on Appointments, Munyes was not shy to blow his own trumpet by claiming credit for the enactment of the Water Act under President Kibaki, which streamlined the sector and he said saw him appointed a special envoy of Unesco for water in Africa.
Munyes bragged about his record of change in the several ministries he has worked, notably the creation of the Water Bill in 2002, as one of the factors that could have persuaded President Kenyatta to consider him.
“I have reformed every ministry I have headed. The Water Act 2002 was my brainchild. President Mwai Kibaki was awarded by Unesco because of that Act,” Munyes told the committee.
As the Minister of Labour in the Kibaki administration, Munyes introduced the Industrial Training (Amendment) Bill, 2009, which would turn the Directorate of Industrial Training, which was at the time a department in the ministry, into a partially autonomous government parastatal that was given the name National Industrial Training Authority (NITA).
The authority was anticipated to be a self-sustaining organisation leading integrated training at all economic levels to provide the skills required to speed up Kenya’s economic development, create more jobs, and provide services more effectively and efficiently.
Yet there were also political considerations for his appointment. Munyes had crossed from the opposition-affiliated Ford Kenya to the ruling Jubilee Party in June 2017. He would also represent Turkana as President Kenyatta sought to craft a Cabinet with the face of Kenya.
While describing himself as a performer, Munyes noted that while serving as Labour minister during President Kibaki’s administration, he busted cartels at the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) and secured equity in relief food distribution to all the needy regions.
He pledged to expedite oil exploration and see to it that the nation’s objectives to produce clean oil by 2021 and construct a pipeline from Lokichar to Lamu were achieved.
While Munyes has been credited with enhancing Kenya’s hydrocarbon industry and working towards sustainable development of the country’s extractives sector, the pipeline project has never taken off. Speaking to the media the day he was leaving office on February 8, 2022 to contest the Turkana governor seat, the minister said that he had “enjoyed” himself as a CS and he was now off to new challenges.
But didn’t he leave some business unfinished, given that the Petroleum and Mining ministry needed a lot of restructuring after the country discovered oil in 2012, and the need to profile the underground mineral wealth scattered all over the country?
Munyes had his work cut out for him as the country continued with the search for more of the precious mineral in four petroleum exploration basins – Lamu, Anza, Mandera, and Tertiary Rift Basin.
Within these larger basins, there are 63 gazetted petroleum blocks, 26 of which are now licensed to 14 multinational oil corporations and one to the National Oil Corporation.
In September 2021, Munyes terminated the contracts of six oil and gas explorers for failing to meet the targets under the production sharing agreements. He said the contractors had defaulted on obligations under their respective contracts.
The six – Zahara Oil and Gas, which had been allocated two blocks, Octant Energy, Simba Africa Rift Energy, A-Z Petroleum Products, Milio/Castac Oil, and Lamu Oil and Gas –were exploring in the Lamu Basin in the Indian Ocean region.
But it was earlier in November 2018 that the CS kicked up a storm when he opposed the control of the Ksh7 billion survey of Kenya’s mineral wealth programme by the National Intelligence Service (NIS). He had initiated a process to determine the quantity of the underground minerals to guide investors seeking to explore the wealth.
The country had proven the existence of gold, titanium, and coal resources. Significant amounts of copper, niobium, manganese, and rare earth minerals were part of the list. The Kenyatta government had initiated a comprehensive survey of underground minerals.
The country had planned to spend Ksh3 billion on the initial phase, which would include the counties of Migori, Homa Bay, Siaya, Kakamega, Busia, and surrounding areas, but Munyes left the ministry before the mapping was completed.
Kenya’s mining potential has been underutilised by successive administrations due to lack of data and an antiquated legislative system that discourages international exploration firms. Munyes had promised that he would initiate reforms and prepare data that would make Kenya a mining hub to attract foreign investors.
But in July 2020, he came under pressure to explain how the lucrative Ksh164 billion gold exploration deal in western Kenya was handed over to the UK-based Acacia Mining. The company was given the go-ahead to start exploring for gold on the Lirhanda Corridor, which straddles Kakamega, Vihiga, Kisumu and Siaya counties.
Amani National Congress (ANC) party leader Musalia Mudavadi and Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula questioned the terms of the deal, saying it was shrouded in secrecy. In a letter addressed to Munyes, the two wanted information about the company’s local representatives, the tendering process, the mining methods, and the environmental impact assessment reports.
The CS had by his side Engineer Andrew Ng’ang’a Kamau, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining, who had worked in energy and mining in Africa for over 25 years.
The PS had successfully negotiated a $60 million revolving line of credit for the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the purchase of refined petroleum products. He also helped develop the tender and supply contract for gasoline on behalf of government of Sudan and exported 200,000 MT of gasoline from the refinery in Khartoum and supplied over $200 million worth of refined petroleum products to Tema Oil Refinery in Ghana.
In an interview with KTN in 2019, Munyes vowed to initiate reforms at the Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) to weed out corruption, which he said were centred around the construction of the pipeline and procurement procedures.
He explained that the graft around procurement had prompted his ministry to suspend the payment of Ksh4.4 billion to the Lebanese contractor – Zakhem International Construction Company – which it was demanding due to operational delays in the building of the new Mombasa-Nairobi pipeline.
“We had to undertake due diligence so that every contract that had been awarded before was scrutinised,” he was quoted as saying. The total cost of the new pipeline, commonly known as Line 5, was Ksh48.4 billion.
Described by biographers as “a gentle giant with chubby cheeks and deceivingly boyish looks”, the politician was born in Lokichar in Turkana North in 1966.
He attended Lokitaung Primary School for his primary education, and later Lodwar High School for both his ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. He later attended St Francis University in the US for his undergraduate studies in sociology and political science.
Munyes launched his political career in 1997, when he contested the Turkana North constituency seat and won. His self-effacing mien hides a steely determination to succeed and a rare quality to connect with people and prioritise needs. For this he has won all the elections he has contested except the Turkana governorship in 2017, which he lost to Josphat Nanok.
After the 2002 election in which Munyes retained his seat, he was appointed Minister for Water and Irrigation under President Kibaki in 2003. Two years later, he was moved to the Ministry of State for Special Programmes. Thereafter, he served as Minister for Labour and Social Services. In 2007 he retained his seat once again at a time when the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) wave was sweeping much of the country, especially his home region of the Rift Valley.
After 15 years serving as MP, Munyes contested the Turkana Senate seat in 2013 on a Ford Kenya ticket, becoming the first Turkana senator under the 2010 Constitution.
In January 2018, President Kenyatta appointed him Cabinet Secretary in charge of Petroleum and Mining, a job he threw himself into with gusto. Munyes had the tasks of not only steering a new ministry but also explaining to Kenyans how the newly discovered oil would benefit them. The national government was apportioned 75 per cent of the expected revenues from the oil, 20 per cent went to Turkana County, and five (5) per cent to the community.
“Our crude oil is waxy and sticky but good for the market. We started by trucking 2,000 barrels per day but by 2021 when the Lamu-Lockichar Pipeline shall have been completed, we hope to transport 60,000 to 80,000 barrels per day,” he said in an interview in 2019.
His dream of seeing Kenya join the league of oil-producing countries in Africa by 2022 has yet to materialise. By the time he was leaving the ministry in February 2022, another of his dreams – to have the petroleum and the mining sector contribute 10 per cent to the country’s GDP – was in abeyance.
One of his proudest moments as CS for Petroleum and Mining was in September 2018 when he announced that the government had set aside Ksh2 billion to build an LPG facility at the Kenya Pipeline Company depot in Eldoret, as part of the efforts to encourage more Kenyans to use gas instead of kerosene.
“We are trying to roll out an LPG project called the Mwananchi gas project. This is a presidential flagship. It aims at connecting Kenyans just like the electricity last mile. We know we can improve the lives of Kenyans through the cheap LPG project. It will serve many Kenyans and it will reach all parts of the country,” he told the media.
But a month after the launch in October, the construction of the 5,000 metric tonne LPG depot was suspended due to lack of funding. The project was supposed to take shape after the completion of the new Ksh.48 billion-450km Mombasa-Nairobi Pipeline.
Kenya’s march into an era of clean cooking energy is held back by low uptake of LPG compared to other African countries such as Senegal, Ghana, Egypt, and South Africa. This is attributed to lack of sufficient storage facilities for liquid petroleum gas and few distribution channels, which are hampering uptake of the fuel in Kenyan homes.
Kenya consumes two kilos of LPG per person, which is less than the average for Africa of three kilogrammes. Ghana’s consumption is five kilogrammes, South Africa’s is six, Senegal’s is 10, and the Ivory Coast’s is nine.
According to government data, the annual usage of LPG is about 170 kilotonnes (KT), compared to the 300 KT annual demand.
The total LPG storage infrastructure available in Kenya stands at 6,000 metric tonnes against a consumption demand of projected at 300,000 MT per annum. As the CS for Petroleum and Mining, Munyes often found himself in the eye of the storm as powerful forces within the petroleum sector engaged in a tug-of-war with the government over high fuel prices and levies, leading to a high cost of living in the country.
In October 2021, the National Assembly’s Finance Committee fined Munyes Ksh500,000 for ignoring their summons. He was scheduled to testify before the committee to respond to questions regarding the high cost of fuel, which had increased the cost of living in Kenya as elsewhere amid harsh economic times occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic.
He was not alone in snubbing summons. Earlier in September, his Energy counterpart, Charles Keter, had also been fined Ksh500,000 for snubbing the committee. He was just following a precedent in a period when senior government officials were ignoring calls by Parliament to explain various issues affecting the economy, causing friction between the Executive and the Legislature.
But conversations with officials and parliamentary reporters revealed the story of a minister who consulted experts and took their advice seriously. “In stark contrast to other ministers who did everything to prove they were bosses, Mr Munyes would surround himself with experts whenever he was summoned to parliamentary committees and would let the experts respond to the technical questions,” noted longtime political and parliamentary reporter Ibrahim Oruko.
Away from his ministerial work, and despite expressing a wish to be left alone, Munyes has not altogether evaded controversy.
In 2009, a delegation of South Sudanese officials wrote to Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accusing the wealthy politician, who owns a six-seater Cessna Fixed Wing 6 of spying for Sudan. The delegation claimed that Munyes, who was involved in the South Sudan Peace negotiations, was acting as a double agent for the Khartoum government as the two nations discussed a cessation of hostilities.
They insisted that the minister had received the aeroplane and “several expensive properties” around Nairobi for his work of spying for the north. Munyes fiercely defended himself and vehemently denied the claims, saying he had taken out a loan from a local bank to buy the plane.
When fully exploited, the oil would bring in fiscal revenues of about $9 billion or 16 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, according to World Bank estimates.
Yet by the time Munyes resigned to contest the Turkana governor’s seat, much of what he had hoped to achieve in the Mining and Petroleum Ministry was still pending. However, he was not shy to boast that he had laid the foundation for unlocking the sector.