Keriako Tobiko: Kenya’s Debonair crusader of environmental care

Even in the worst circumstances, a man can find a strange kernel of hope that fundamentally changes the trajectory of his destiny and leads him to a place he had never dreamed of. Keriako Tobiko is a man who doesn’t seem to have aspired for great things. All he wanted was to be a Maasai moran (warrior) and he did everything to ensure that this goal was realised.

He hated school and could not understand what benefits could possibly accrue from years of attending class and doing what he did not want to do.

The life of a moran appealed to the young Keriako so much that he was obsessed with the idea of spending years in the bush, wearing long braided hair, eating copious amounts of meat, and donning red ochre all over his face. This is as far as his ambition went.

But fate had something else in store for him. Born on December 12, 1964 in Kajiado County, Tobiko was raised in a polygamous family. He was the eldest child of his father’s second wife in a family of 14 children. His father, Tobiko ole Paloshe, was illiterate. But he was also an extremely strict man. He exerted an astonishing degree of detailed personal control over his large family and made sure that his two wives lived harmoniously to the extent of breast-feeding each other’s babies.

A watchman in Kajiado, Mzee Paloshe had immense respect for education. And so, try as Tobiko would, his father could not allow him to be a moran. He ensured that all his children attended school.

In the tight embrace of his father’s aspiration for his children, Tobiko found himself dragged to school against his wishes. He enrolled in Mashuru Primary School in Kajiado County. This greatly displeased him. His heart was not in education at all and he would, occasionally, sneak away to join his classmates in the bush, where he hoped to spend the better part of his youthful years.

He told a local publication in 2005:

“I was not the brightest kid in Mashuru Primary School. I used to sneak out frequently to engage in other vices. I felt constrained by the rigid discipline in school as opposed to life in the bush, where there was more fun eating meat and chasing girls.”

But his father had more faith in his son than Tobiko had in himself. He saw something in him that his son was oblivious of. Whenever his father heard that his son had sneaked out of school, he would go looking for him, drag him back to school, and, in his own words, “… cane my bare bottoms in front of the entire school.”

His, however, was a classic enaction of the saying that you can take a donkey to the river but you cannot force it to drink the water. Tobiko stubbornly refused to drink the waters of education as presented by his father. And his dislike for school was well manifested in his performance. He was one of the worst performing pupils at his school. So bad was his performance that when he sat for the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) examination, he failed catastrophically. He scored 19 points out of 36.

And what an embarrassment for his father. Still, the old man believed that his son should have an education at whatever cost. He wanted him to repeat Standard 7, the final class of primary school. But the teachers at Mashuru did not want him back, not because they believed in him or wanted the best for him, but because they did not want anything to do with a boy they considered monumentally unruly, a bully, and a truant. In fact, Tobiko up to this day believes that the teachers celebrated his failure.

It was his uncle, the former influential Olkejuado County Council chairman, Daniel ole Muyaa, who came up with a solution that was acceptable to both Tobiko and his father. He arranged for him to join a secondary school, even with his poor marks. He enrolled at Athi River Secondary School in the same county. His uncle gave him accommodation in his house from where he would commute daily under his watchful gaze.

Still, Tobiko’s heart was not in education. The reluctant student lived up to his reputation as a delinquent when in Form Two he ran away from school again and missed two terms, much to his father’s and uncle’s disappointment.
“Moranism was too high a calling to be interrupted by books,” he confessed. So, he braided his hair, applied red ochre on his face, and went to live in the bush with his age-mates to engage in the legendary ritual of spearing a lion and taking its mane as a mark of a true moran.

He, however, could not complete the seven years required for one to be initiated into moranism. His father again went at him. He could not stomach the idea that his son had abandoned school to join moranism. This time round he put his foot down in a way that has always been memorable to Tobiko. So rough was he on the young man that an argument quickly degenerated into a physical confrontation. Father and son went hammer and tongs at each other.

He was later to recall:

“I could not believe that it had come to this. I could not believe that I was actually fighting my own father.”
It took the intervention of elders to cool tempers and come up with another solution. Respectful of the elders’ admonition, young Tobiko returned to school. This time he resolved to stay.

“There is always a moment in childhood,” observed English writer Graham Greene, “when the door opens and lets the future in.” Having resolved to go back to school, Keriako was to find a strange, forceful inspiration in a place he had previously intensely disliked. At that time the nation’s attention was focused on the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry. Tobiko was hugely enamoured of the display of fine argument, intellect, and class that the participants evinced. He decided that he would be a lawyer. This ambition propelled him to discover the intelligent boy that had always laid supine in his mind, eclipsed by the ambitionless desire to become a moran. He unleashed the best he could towards his pursuit for education.

And therefore in secondary school, Tobiko went on to become the top student. He joined Kanyakine High School in Meru for his ‘A’ level education. During those days the Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education (KACE) was taken after completing Form Six. When the examination results came out, Tobiko, unlike his previous miserable performance in Mashuru, where he almost came last, had scored straight A’s in all subjects. He was not only the best student in the school but was also the top one nationally.

His sterling performance won him the Gandhi Smarak Award and a scholarship at the University of Nairobi to study law.

Before joining the university, he briefly worked as a clerk at Barclays Bank of Kenya.

At the university, he was something of an oddball. The faculty was full of polished young students who were alumni of the country’s top and well-known schools. Most of the students had come from Alliance High School and other prestigious institutions. The other students kept asking him which school he had come from. When he said the unpronounceable name of Kanyakine High School they would recoil in horror, wondering where such a school was on the map and which place on earth would go by such a bland name. They would always burst into laughter. Naturally, the gauntly boyish freshman felt intimidated. He actually almost quit the faculty.

But he was determined to brave it out. His excellent performance was to, once again, ensure that he got a Barclays Commonwealth Scholarship that took him to Cambridge University, where he graduated with a Master’s degree in law.

His big break in the law profession was to come from unlikely quarters. In 1989, just before he finished his final year Amos Wako, the former Attorney General, who was then working for the law firm, Kaplan and Stratton, came searching for pupilage students. He settled for Tobiko and his roommate then, Kioko Kilukumi. The nondescript students had found self-elevation in this one act.

“This honestly surprised us as we did not have any big names and neither had we come from known families” he was later to say.

Having earned his master’s degree and completed his pupilage, he briefly served as an assistant lecturer at the University of Nairobi. From there he set up a law firm in the 1990s in Kajiado. The law firm also had a branch in Nairobi. He would jokingly say:

“It was unique having the head office of a law firm in the bush with a branch in the capital city.”

In Kajiado, he was to distinguish himself as an inveterate supporter of minority land rights and did a lot of pro bono work for the people of Kajiado, something that greatly endeared him to the locals.

Tobiko married his wife, Jane Jepchirchir ,whom he had met at an insurance company where she was working and where he had gone to seek services. They were blessed with three children, Mike, and twins Lema and Leki.
His passion for matters land saw him appointed a commissioner in the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry into Land Law Systems. The commission, which was chaired by the former Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, had been set up to come up with principles of a National Land Policy Framework, the constitutional position of land, and formulation of a new institutional framework for land administration in the country. Given his previous work handling land matters, Tobiko was a natural navigator in this sea.

He was later to be appointed commissioner of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC), which was chaired by Prof Yash Pal Ghai. Tobiko’s his views sharply differed with those of Prof Ghai, something that gave way to bad blood between the two lawyers. Prof Ghai was to take this bad blood to the committee that was to vet Tobiko when he was nominated to become the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Before this appointment Tobiko had already served in the country’s higher judicial echelons. In 2010 he was appointed Chief Public Prosecutor at a time when the country had its foot in the door to a new constitution. When it was finally enacted later that year, Tobiko’s position was redesignated to Director of Public Prosecutions and he was appointed to head the independent body.

It is here that he came face to face with the treacherous, messy, and draining nature of the country’s politics. He had to be vetted for the position before confirmation. He found himself running against rough politicians who levelled accusation after accusation on his character. He was like a character in the Old Testament being chastised by all the slings and arrows of a storm whose physiognomy he could not make out.

His former boss at the CKRC, Yash Pal Ghai, in his presentation to the committee accused Tobiko of covering up land grabbing cases. He also alleged that his appointment to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions had been politically motivated. The vetting was so heated, his competence and integrity so impugned that the possibility that he might not be confirmed started hanging over Tobiko’s head like a small, thick, lenticular cloud. The salvos not only came from politicians but also from other Kenyans who thought that he was not fit to hold the newly created constitutional office.

It was not expected that his nomination would be abrogated. Since the requirement that presidential nominees had to be vetted by Parliament before confirmation came into effect, only one nominee, Dr Monica Juma, had been turned down by Parliament.

However, the committee’s report that was presented in Parliament contained parts that severely traduced Tobiko’s integrity and called for the nominee to be investigated.

But Tobiko also found allies in Parliament in MPs who amended the report of the Constitutional Implementation Oversight Committee to have the nominee approved without the grave allegations against him for alleged incompetence and integrity being investigated.

The amendment was engineered by Mohammed Affey, who argued that there was no reason for investigating Tobiko. The Maasai political supremo, William Ntimama, supported him. Eventually Tobiko’s nomination sailed through.
The vetting, however, took its toll on him. The bright lawyer who had abandoned moranism for a higher calling had been dragged through the mud so badly that he felt like he had been subjected to baptism by fire. He told The Standard newspapers in 2011:

“The proceedings caused a strain in my family, more so for my first born son, Mike, a student at Kabarak High School. However, I was mentally and psychologically prepared for the onslaught. Like gold which has to be refined by fire, I have come out stronger.”

At that time the other two children were only two years old and could not understand what their father was going through.

But it is what he calls “desertion by friends” that really unnerved him and created such a pungent ache in his soul that he started reviewing what kind of friends he should surround himself with. Those he had thought would offer him emotional support at the time did not want to associate with him.

“I was surprised at how ‘friends’ deserted me during the confirmation proceedings. Better to have a few quality friends rather than a multitude that will desert you at the slightest hint of trouble.”

In 2018, Tobiko’s career was to be given a major boost when President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed him the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Forestry to replace Prof Judi Wakhungu, who had been dropped from that docket. Analysts say that he breathed new life into the ministry.

At the ministry Tobiko was vocal about the preservation of culture among the Maa people. While exhorting them to shun retrogressive cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and marrying off girls early at the expense of educating them, he was a firm believer that the Maa community had a rich culture that had to be preserved for posterity.

“We should remain united as we have always been. The Maa community in Narok, Kajiado, Laikipia, and Samburu are one. We should desist from people who come to divide us,” he told a gathering of Maasai elders in 2021.

In 2019, the CS launched an initiative aimed at planting 10 million indigenous trees in the Mau Forest. The initial phase of the initiative saw three million indigenous trees planted. This effort continued into the following years. In July 2022 Tobiko launched a 10 million tree planting initiative to restore the Maasai Mau water tower following the vacation of illegal settlers. Under the theme “Restore Mau, save, the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem, save lives”, the initiative drew participation from multi-governmental agencies including the Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA), the Kenya Forestry Services (KFS), the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), the National Environment Management Agency (NEMA), the National Youth Service (NYS), and the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).
In many ways, his defence of the Maa community and his efforts at restoring the water towers were some of the most egregious achievements he will be remembered for at the ministry.

Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko leads planting of Mangroves at Sabaki Estuary in Kilifi County in celebration of World Wetlands day.

As a lawyer, few people expected him to embrace his new role as Kenya’s foremost defender of the environment with that kind of vigour. But he gave the ministry, which always runs the risk of being considered dour and unexciting, some rare character and impetus. Some people even nicknamed him, “the prefect of our environment”. His commitment to environmental conservation was unimpeachable. He preached that gospel wherever he went.
“I wish politicians could use the energies they use on electioneering and premature politics to support government. They should use that energy to conserve the environment.”

A strong defender of the Mau Forest, Tobiko never ceased reminding Kenyans that the forest did not belong to any community and that government efforts must be supported by all stakeholders:

“The environment is faced with many challenges from politics, greed, industrial pollution, and poor disposal of waste that ends up in our rivers, climate change among others.”

Keriako Tobiko, whose sister Peris Tobiko became the first female Maasai member of Parliament, (Kajiado East) comes through as a debonair gentleman devoid of the rusticity and coarseness people in politics or government are often associated with. Many people have always considered him a bureaucrat who shields himself from politics. But as Shakespeare, in his play, All’s well that Ends well, would say, “Needs must when the devil drives.”

Much as he had shied away from politics, he had to dabble in it when the situation called for it. When the President fell out with his deputy, William Ruto, Tobiko did not shy from defending his boss and taking on Ruto publicly. Few expected him to get into politics, but to him there was a very thin line between politics and public service.

When he described the Deputy President as a mere clerk in 2021, he came under a barrage of criticism from a cross-section of leaders. But the most surprising was from his sister, Peris Tobiko, something that threatened to split the family in the middle. At one time, Peris publicly said:

“I visited William Ruto in Karen and told him, I am Peris Tobiko and I have come to ask for forgiveness on behalf of my brother who called him a mere clerk.”

On hearing this, the warrior in Tobiko roared back. Insisting that he had not sent his sister to apologise on his behalf, he said:

“I stand by what I said. Ruto is a mere clerk for the President just like we are as Cabinet secretaries. The only difference between him and us is that he has no respect for the President. I stand by my position and the sentiments expressed during the Maa declaration recently that Ruto is not fit to be the President.” He could give as much as he took.

Even though he has scaled some of the highest heights in his public career the vestiges of his earlier aspirations still remain. Today the man is still occasionally drawn to the life in the plains of Kajiado where he loves spending his free time herding cows and from where he says he derives some therapeutic benefits from just watching the cattle graze.
“After looking after cows, nothing beats sitting around a bonfire with a cold drink gazing at the stars,” he was once quoted as saying.

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