Charity Ngilu: Politician with a penchant for self-reinvention

The wheels of fortune turn in peculiar ways for certain people. If anyone had suggested in the 1980s that Charity Kaluki Ngilu would one day be one of Kenya’s most prominent female politicians, few would have believed it. There was nothing extraordinary about her early life to suggest this.

But by sheer force of will and an obdurate pursuit of her ambitions, Ngilu rose from a young, almost nondescript apolitical girl from a non-political family to become a political maestro not just in the Ukambani region where she was born but at national level. Ngilu was born in 1952 in Mbooni, Makueni District (now Makueni County) in the eastern part of Kenya. The 9th of 13 children, she was raised by a housewife mother and itinerant gospel preacher father, from whom she is said to have inherited her oratory skills. Ngilu grew up like many children in rural Kenya — helping her mother fetch water in containers that she would carry on her back. Piped water in the village was nothing but a pipe dream back then.

Perhaps fortuitously, Ngilu’s parents believed in education at a time when rural communities in many parts of the country did not believe there was any point in educating girls. But from an early age, she had distinguished herself as a bright student, her humble background notwithstanding. It was no wonder then that she would go on to join one of the most prestigious high schools in the country, Alliance Girls High School. This was the dream of many primary school girls as it was generally assumed that those who joined the school would automatically go on to university.

This, however, did not apply to Ngilu. She did not attain the marks required to join university after high school. But rather than dim her hopes, this small hiccup motivated her to aspire to higher things. She joined the Kenya Institute of Administration and did a secretarial course that enabled her to get a job as a secretary with the Central Bank of Kenya, working as the Personal Assistant to the then Governor of Central Bank, Duncan Ndegwa. From there she joined Chase Manhattan Bank in Nairobi as an administrative manager. Her failure to acquire a degree earlier was remedied when she joined St. Paul’s University and graduated with a bachelor’s in leadership and management.
In 1989 she quit formal employment to run the family business, a bakery and restaurant in Machakos Town. She would later join a larger family business, Ani Plastics Ltd., which manufactured plastic pipes and electrical conduits. During this time she interacted with many women from her rural home and came face to face with the problems they faced mainly because the area was generally lacking in infrastructural development. She started to organise women’s health groups in efforts to create awareness and seek solutions to their myriad health problems. This was the genesis of her political career.

At the time, women in politics were acutely limited in number so this was a truly dizzying step. More dizzying was the fact that she chose to challenge George Ndotto, then a Cabinet minister in President Daniel arap Moi’s government, for the Kitui Central parliamentary seat.

Ngilu’s plunge into politics via the Democratic Party hardly caused a ripple at first. Few believed that a woman could wrestle a political giant and win. But her own belief in her abilities escaped their attention. Undaunted by Ndotto’s political stature she battled him relentlessly — and won, sending a political juggernaut into political oblivion and becoming not only the first female Member of Parliament for Kitui Central but also one of only five female MPs at the time. This was in 1992, during a season of change in Kenya, when multiparty democracy was starting to take root after many years of single-party rule under the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party.

Ngilu easily demonstrated that she was not only an activist for a good cause but also a reformist. She rubbed the KANU government the wrong way often and soon discovered the steep price that wading into the rough-and-tumble of politics came with. In July 1997 she was attacked by a machete-wielding mob widely thought to be made up of KANU supporters and was left nursing injuries. In another incident, she once confronted a KANU official who was reportedly trying to disqualify voters in her constituency. Grabbing him by the lapels, Ngilu told him in no uncertain terms what he was and what he was not. The next day, newspaper headlines ran with “Ngilu beats up official.” Yet another time she was tear gassed by police at a political rally. One of the most enduring newspaper photos of Ngilu showed her fleeing hell for leather with baton-wielding policemen in hot pursuit.

Here was someone who was not afraid to confront Moi at a time when even the thought of challenging the President on any matter was anathema. She particularly resented corruption in government and the lip service paid to the fight against this vice by the government of the day. In one of her boldest statements, she told a group of reporters, “You cannot touch or take anybody to court over corruption when you yourself are corrupt.” She was referring to the movers and shakers in Moi’s government.

As a Member of Parliament, Ngilu was eloquent and decisive, and she never shied away from taking on the Executive. After all, she was a backbencher, a political greenhorn who had to prove that she had the grit required to be a political leader. If anyone wondered where her political star was headed, the answer was provided in one of the most daring political moves Ngilu was to pull in 1997. She decided to challenge Moi for the presidency.

Many Kenyans wondered whether she had gone mad but in fact, she was dead serious. Under the banner of Safina Party, Ngilu became one of the two female politicians gunning for the top seat, the other being the late Wangari Maathai. Her political symbol was a clock and her slogan, “Masaa ni ya Ngilu (This is Ngilu’s hour)”, which soon became a rallying call for her supporters.

It was not expected that Ngilu would win. In fact, she was ranked number five behind Moi, Stanley Matiba, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. But the loss was a triumph in many other ways — Ngilu had become a national figure and her political trajectory was now unstoppable.

While Ngilu never ran for the presidency again, she could no longer be ignored. At the height of the 2002 General Election campaigns, she joined the National Rainbow Coalition that eventually toppled KANU from power. She became fondly known as Mama Rainbow owing to her colourful campaigning prowess and her acidic attack on the government.

For her troubles, President Mwai Kibaki, who won the election, rewarded Ngilu with a Minister for Health appointment. This was her debut into the Cabinet and she would become even more powerful in this new role. She proved to be a political maverick as she continued to rub the Executive the wrong way. For instance, in a country that is rabidly Christian, she called for the liberalisation of Kenya’s abortion laws, which left church leaders around the country scratching their heads.

When a vocally reckless politician rubbished a proposed anti-rape measure in Parliament by saying that women were never serious when they turned down sexual overtures and that a woman’s “no” actually meant “yes”, Ngilu led a walk-out of female MPs.

As Minister for Health, Ngilu believed every citizen should have a medical cover and she set out to inaugurate a national health insurance programme. It is said that she was motivated to do this when she witnessed a young boy almost die in a rural hospital because the family could not afford the medical fees. But her healthcare programme ran into headwinds before it could be realised. Many in government felt it was too expensive and that the country could not, at that particular time, afford it. Ngilu chose to keep up the pressure and urged Kenyans in the rural areas to demand medical care in their hospitals.

The issue was so dear to her that the government sometimes construed her persistence as rebellion to collective responsibility and government policy. But it won her accolades and attention from the common person and the international community. Writing in the New York Times on 4 June 2005, journalist Hellene Cooper remarked, “What the rich world should be talking about is how to give money to Charity Kaluki Ngilu.”

In Parliament, Ngilu gave as much as she took. When she was challenged about a cholera outbreak that had affected some parts of the country and the apparent failure by the government to provide potable water, her answers were confident and defensive of her ministry’s policies. Challenged to confirm the number of deaths reported in the country as a result of a water shortage, she responded, “My ministry cannot confirm that 194 Kenyans have died between January and November 2009 from cholera or diarrhoea caused by acute water shortage. This is because we have no competency to determine causes of death. In addition, cases of cholera cannot be attributed to water alone. There are several points along the cholera transmission path at which it can spread, including, food, personal hygiene, contaminated materials and contact between infected persons.”

Whether grudgingly or otherwise, many MPs lauded the way she handled questions in Parliament.
In many ways, Ngilu’s tenure in Kibaki’s government was a shifty one. The health programme that failed to win the President’s support was one of the contentious points in their relationship. As an astute politician she knew that when one crossed paths with the boss, one’s goose was practically cooked. And hers was. Not long after, Kibaki fired Ngilu.

Politicians have an uncanny ability to reinvent themselves. Like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of its own immolation, Ngilu reinvented herself and crossed over to the side of Raila Odinga, an enduring political figure she claimed to immensely admire. She became a key member of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) and a vociferous Raila supporter.

She retained her parliamentary seat in 2007 even though her party lost the presidency according to official results, which CORD disputed. What followed was a political crisis that forced Kibaki to form a coalition government with Raila’s CORD. Once again, Ngilu was in the right place at the right time. As part of the understanding between Kibaki and Raila, she was appointed Minister for Water and Sanitation, a position she held until the end of Kibaki’s tenure in 2013.

The wheel of fortune would turn again for Ngilu after the 2013 General Election when newly elected President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed her Cabinet Secretary for Lands, Housing and Urban Development. At first the sailing was smooth for the combative politician. After all, she was not new to government and was banking on her experience and political prowess to perform her duties.

Charity Ngilu with President Uhuru Kenyatta at the lands offices in Nairobi.

But she soon found herself sailing against fierce political winds arising mainly from powerful individuals who resisted her efforts to introduce reforms. Land is a political hot potato in Kenya and anyone appointed to head the Lands docket must navigate the choppy waters of powerful political interests and an intricate web of well-connected cartels. Ngilu’s intention was to cut off the cartels that had for a long time held sway over operations at the ministry. Unsurprisingly, her efforts did not go down well in some circles and she found herself battling power barons and politicians who felt she was throwing her weight around recklessly.

There were those who felt that the CS was a lone ranger; that she was sidestepping her Principal Secretary, Mariam El Maawy; that she had little regard for the Public Service Commission and the National Land Commission. Whether these allegations were true or politically instigated did not seem to matter. Ngilu found herself dragged through a parliamentary committee censure that pilloried her in public and levelled potshots at the way she was running the ministry.

More intriguing was the fact that a joint committee of the National Assembly that was dominated by members of the President’s Jubilee Party recommended the censure motion against a CS from the same party.

The House backed the committee’s report to censure the CS and also approved an amendment to make Ngilu take full responsibility for the constitutional violations she had been accused of when she appointed Peter Kahuho as Director General for Lands and granted him authority to sign title deeds.

Aden Duale, the Leader of Majority, threw his weight behind the report, saying, “Nobody in this government should break the law. Those who think that it is their job to protect those who break the law are living in the old days. Ngilu is not from heaven. She must follow the law. If that is how she operated when she served as Minister in the coalition government, she should know that this is a new dispensation. Things have changed. The President and the Deputy President will not condone people who operate outside the law.”

There was also talk of a motion being worked out in Parliament to remove Ngilu from office. But most members felt the message had already gone out and there was no need for her removal. They were right — before the report was tabled in Parliament, Ngilu read the signs of the times and promptly revoked Kahuho’s appointment. This is probably what saved her from impeachment.

However, calls for her resignation grew by the day. Charles Nyachae, the then Chairperson of the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution (CIC), was especially critical of her. He accused her of being a stumbling block to far-reaching reforms in the lands sector. She fought back, accusing Nyachae of unprofessionalism for conducting his business through the media instead of directly engaging her and her staff at the ministry.

“Since I came into office in 2013, I have never seen Nyachae even attempting to have a meeting with us to raise any issues he might have. We only hear him in the media making irresponsible comments about us,” she countered.
In spite of the onslaught, Ngilu held on to her job. But it was becoming increasingly clear that she was hanging by a thread. Her luck finally ran out when she was forced to resign on 29 March 2015 alongside Felix Koskei, who was the CS for Agriculture, Michael Kamau (Infrastructure and Transport), Davis Chirchir (Energy and Petroleum) and Kazungu Kambi (Labour and Social Services) following allegations of corruption.

Characteristically this was not the last nail in Ngilu’s coffin, if there ever was one. She went on to run for the Kitui County governorship and became one of only three female governors in the country, thus ensuring that her political star kept shining despite the many detractors who wished for her political demise.

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