Raychelle Awuor Omamo could easily escape the attention of anyone studying President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Cabinet owing to her successful quest to keep a low and non-scandalous profile in the 10 years she has served.
From day one, when she was appointed in 2013, she went about her duties quietly, without attracting the scrutiny of the media, unlike most of those she served with.
Despite her low profile, however, she proved to be a trusted hand in the Kenyatta Cabinet as she was entrusted with key portfolios and was rarely moved.
The country’s first female Defence Cabinet Secretary, her appointment to a hitherto male-dominated docket was greeted with excitement, a signal that President Kenyatta was ready to walk the talk of including women in key positions, a diktat of the 2010 Constitution.
President Kenyatta also appointed Amina Mohamed, again the first female to the Foreign Affairs docket. Other women who joined the Cabinet then were veteran politician Charity Ngilu (Lands, Housing and Urban Development), Phyllis Kandie (East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism), Prof Judi Wakhungu (Environment), Sicily Kariuki (Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs), and Anne Waiguru (Devolution).
More women would later join the Cabinet, further strengthening President Kenyatta’s gender equity score. They were Betty Maina (Trade and Enterprise Development), Farida Karoney (Lands and Physical Planning), and Prof Margaret Kobia (Public Service and Gender Affairs).
The appointments were a fulfilment of a promise the President had given to women during the campaigns when he assured Kenyans that he would witness greater gender balance in key decision-making organs in his Jubilee administration. Besides her quiet demeanour, however, Omamo is an outstanding lawyer recording many firsts and bagging several awards for her career. She became the first, and thus far only, female lawyer to become the chairperson of the influential Law Society of Kenya (LSK), serving between 2001 and 2003. Earlier, between 1996 and 2006, she was Kenya’s ambassador to France – again, the first woman to serve in the post.
She would also serve in other diplomatic posts in Portugal, The Holy See and Serbia, as well as the Permanent Delegate of Kenya to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Notwithstanding these high qualifications, political pundits still credited her appointment to the Cabinet to the widely known long-standing relationship between the Kenyatta family and that of Omamo’s father – William Odongo Omamo, who was a minister in the governments of Jomo Kenyatta (Uhuru’s father) and his successor, Daniel arap Moi.
This view gained credence in 2016 when the president’s eldest son, Jomo Kenyatta Jr, married Fiona Achola Ngobi – a daughter of Omamo’s sister who is married in Uganda.
Before the appointment of Raphael Tuju as CS without portfolio and later Prof George Magoha (Education), Omamo was the only minister from the Luo Nyanza region, which had voted nearly to a man for Raila Odinga, President Kenyatta’s competitor in the 2013 and 2017 elections.
She was tasked with overseeing Kenya’s troops in Somalia, where they had been for four years before she took over the ministry. From time to time, she could be seen inspecting a guard of honour, a novelty in Kenya and the region.
Kenyan troops deployed in Somalia in 2011 in defence of its territory following incessant attacks by terrorist group Al Shaabab, which has its base in the neighbouring country.
As Omamo was still settling in the key docket, Al Shabaab insurgents launched one of the deadliest attacks in Kenya on September 21, 2013. Armed members of the group attacked Westgate Shopping Mall in upmarket Westlands, Nairobi, and laid a siege that would last for three days, killing 68 people before security officers took back control after neutralising all the attackers.
The raid happened as President Kenyatta’s administration was still settling into office, having only taken power six months before. The uncoordinated response to the attack was heavily faulted as it was apparent there was no orderly response to the attack by both the military and the police.
Omamo also came under scrutiny following claims that KDF soldiers had looted shops within the mall.
“KDF operational training and doctrine do not condone any unprofessional conduct. All KDF personnel found culpable will be firmly dealt with according to the law,” she said, responding to the outrage.
Other attacks, such as that on the Garissa University College in April 2015, which claimed 148 people, most of them students, and the January 2016 ambush of Kenyan soldiers in El Adde, southern Somalia, in which more than 100 soldiers were killed, remained a blot on Omamo’s stint. But she brought a uniquely feminine touch to the ministry. A picture of her hugging survivors of the El Adde ambush when they returned home was one of the highlights of her time at Defence. President Uhuru trusted her to steer the docket. He would reappoint her to the docket after the 2017 elections.
She served for more than seven years, being moved only in January 2020, when she swapped places with Dr Monica Juma of Foreign Affairs. Omamo came to Foreign Affairs at a time Kenya was grappling with the maritime border dispute with Somalia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Many analysts felt that, considering her extensive service as ambassador, including in Paris, complete with her excellent command of French, Foreign Affairs was the most befitting appointment.
But Omamo was coming into the eye of a storm and it would not be a smooth sailing for her initially. Dr Juma had been unhappy with her PS, Macharia Kamau, whom she had accused of commenting on the Somalia issues liberally without consulting her.
The loss of diplomatic privileges for workers was another example of the radical changes that had taken place and caused tension in the ministry. One of the austerity measures implemented by the ministry was the elimination of abroad per diem rates and training sustenance allowances for its diplomatic workers. Ministry insiders said Dr Juma and Kamau had also been divided on the appointment of Mwende Mwinzi as envoy to South Korea. Mwinzi is a dual citizen of Kenya and the US, and Kamau is said to have believed that his boss had misadvised President Kenyatta. The Constitution of Kenya bars dual citizens from holding ambassadorial positions.
Dr Juma, according to those close to the president then, had struggled to effectively direct Kenya’s foreign policy, notably how the ministry handled the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute.
Somalia had filed a lawsuit against Kenya at the ICJ, the top court of the UN, in 2014 in an effort to modify the direction of the maritime boundary from its present eastward flow from the land border at Kiunga to a diagonal flow, endangering and threatening to subvert Kenya’s sea interests.
Since her appointment in January 2020, Omamo has brought some order to the Foreign Affairs docket, designating her PS, Kamau, as the sole spokesperson of the ministry. This decision eliminated the turf wars that had been witnessed between her predecessor and the PS.
Dr Hassan Kanenje, the Director at the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies, said the President needed a fresh pair of hands at the ministry at a time Kenya had acquired the endorsement of the AU to secure a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
One of Omamo’s highest moments was when Kenya was elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, defeating Djibouti for a seat designated for African countries.
But then, Omamo took over the Foreign Affairs docket at a time when Kenya’s relations with Somalia and Tanzania were at their lowest ebb. Kenya had withdrawn from the ICJ case at The Hague, while Nairobi was engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war with Tanzania under President John Pombe Magufuli.
In October 2021, ICJ ruled in favour of Somalia, stating the disputed 1,000 square km maritime triangle with Kenya must be split. President Kenyatta issued a statement denouncing the ICJ ruling and vowed to protect his country’s sovereignty, which includes the contested part of the Indian Ocean.
In December 2021, the Parliament Budget Office (PBO) proposed to reduce funding to the Foreign Affairs ministry, a move that Omamo vehemently opposed.
The PBO argued that despite having 61 missions, including consulates and liaison offices spread across the five continents, Kenyan ambassadors had failed to increase the country’s trade in those countries.
Omamo, however, stood firm, arguing that diplomatic missions are not just about economic targets but also promotion of peaceful coexistence in other countries and engagement in collaborative global endeavours.
She maintained that Kenya’s diplomatic missions are key in enhancing the country’s economic diplomacy, which is one of the five pillars of Kenya’s Foreign Policy. The other pillars are peace, diaspora, cultural, and environmental.
On the international stage, Omamo – at the annual debate on Resolution 1325 on women and peace and security in October 2021 – canvassed Kenya’s agenda that women peacekeepers must acquire new skills in protecting fellow women and children in conflict zones.
Earlier in May 2021, while addressing a US Security Council high-level meeting on international peace, security and multilateralism, Omamo articulated Kenya’s position that the success of the United Nations largely depends on its cooperation with regional and sub-regional organisations, in line with Chapter Eight of the Charter.
“Intensifying this inextricable interdependence, especially in the arena of peace and security in Africa, is imperative. Accordingly, the principle of complementarity must attain its salient place in the council’s vision and decision making,” she said.
Yet, despite her impressive academic and diplomatic credentials, Omamo in July 2022 lost her bid to become the first female President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Omamo, who sought to exit President Kenyatta’s Cabinet through vying for the prestigious position in the UN-founded agency, lost to Spain’s Alvaro Lario, a champion of private sector investments who was serving as the agency’s top finance executive.
The elections were conducted in Italy, with votes cast by member states only. However, after weeks of silent diplomacy and government pressure, Omamo was unable to secure the global seat.
Even her nomination as Kenya’s candidate was a low-key affair, and the country only learned of her selection by President Kenyatta from the IFAD official website.
This contrasts with Dr Juma’s nomination for the position of Secretary-General to the Commonwealth in late August of last year, which saw President Kenyatta issue a statement and a recorded video.
Born in 1962 in Bondo, Siaya County, Omamo studied at Loreto Convent, Msongari where she did her ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels before proceeding to the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, for her law degree. The senior counsel and advocate of 27 years was a member of the Task Force on the Establishment of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission for Kenya, chaired by Bethwel Kiplagat.
Omamo has served in various professional positions including as a delegate to the National Constitutional Conference of Kenya – representing professional organisations (2002–2003), and as a member of the drafting team in respect of Kenya’s Children’s Bill, 2002 under the auspices of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Children (2001 – 2002).
Prior to her appointment as the Defence CS in 2013, she was the Director of CoSec Solutions Limited, where she provided oversight and advice regarding the formulation of corporate governance training programmes. She also has 19 years of experience in fulltime practice at Omamo & Omamo Advocates.
Just like her out-of-the-limelight work as the CS for Foreign Affairs, Omamo was equally a silent Defence CS despite KDF’s operations in Somalia.
Unlike Prof George Saitoti, who announced the deployment of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in Somalia in 2011, Omamo was a behind-the-scenes Defence Minister after taking over from Yusuf Mohamed Haji. Even as KDF continued engagements in Somalia under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and scored many victories, Omamo preferred not to crow about these successes.
Back at home she spearheaded the construction of the civilian administrative office blocks at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) headquarters in Hurlingam, Kahawa Barracks, Moi Air Base, and Kenya Navy Mtongwe, with the aim of improving the work environment for the civilian component in the ministry.
In appointing Omamo to two critical dockets, President Kenyatta was hiring a distinguished woman of many firsts and even though she had a mixed performance, she is one of the few ministers to have completed Uhuru’s 10-year term without a whiff of scandal to her name.