Amina Chawahir Mohamed Jibril is the epitome of the ideal Kenyan bureaucrat. Hers is the quintessential story of an African woman who rose from a humble background to become one of Kenya’s leading diplomats and a public servant in three different regimes.
Over the long span of her public service career, Mohamed distinguished herself as an able and assiduous professional, rising from the position of legal officer in various ministries to become Permanent Secretary and finally Cabinet Secretary.
The dimpled career diplomat was born on 5 October 1961 in present-day Kakamega County in the western part of Kenya. She spent much of her childhood in a modest household in Kakamega Town where her family survived on a shoestring budget and had no such luxuries as television or even radio. She spent most of her time reading detective series; only later would she develop an interest in international affairs.
Mohamed attended Township Primary School in Kakamega before joining Butere Girls High School and Highlands Academy where she was one of the tiniest and youngest students. “I had to have my uniform stitched at home because the available sizes were always too big for me,” she was once quoted as saying. Her mother, to whom she attributes her success, strongly believed in the value of formal education and would frequently pop into school to see how her daughter was doing. She believed that given the chance, her daughter could break all barriers. She was right.
After high school Mohamed got a scholarship to the University of Taras Shevchenko in Kiev, Ukraine, where she got a master’s degree in international law. She thereafter obtained a post-graduate diploma in international relations from the University of Oxford. Later she would get a fellowship from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. This exposure essentially launched her diplomatic and legal careers.
In 1985, as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, Mohamed was a legal officer in the Ministry of Local Government. She moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the same capacity and was tasked with drafting and negotiating various bilateral and international treaties. Among these were the Bilateral Air Services Agreement with the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iran and the UK as well as the African Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 1990 she became the legal adviser to Kenya’s Mission at the UN Head Office in Geneva, Switzerland. She worked alongside the International Labour Organisation (ILO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as well as the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Mohamed seemed poised to operate in international circles. In 1997 she worked as the legal adviser to the Kenyan delegation at the UN Security Council. Between 2000 and 2006 she worked as the Ambassador and Permanent Representative for the Kenyan Diplomatic Mission in Geneva. She was also Chairperson of the African Group in WTO’s Human Rights Commission. She was the first woman to chair the WTO General Council in 2005 and the Dispute Settlement Body. In 2003 she chaired the Trade Policy Review.
As General Council Chairperson, Mohamed brokered an agreement of major importance to developing countries; this was an amendment to the TRIPS Agreement to assist countries with insufficient manufacturing capacities in the production of essential drugs to treat diseases such as HIV and AIDS, and tuberculosis.
In 2002 she was Acting President of the Conference on Disarmament and was appointed the first female chairperson of the International Organisation of Migration.
At the time, Kenya was the only African country included in the organisation. When she was approached to take up the position, she agreed on condition that the organisation opened up to more African countries.
From 2001 to 2005, Mohamed was also a member of the executive boards and committees of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), ILO, WHO, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS). Between 2006 and 2007 acted as director for Europe and Commonwealth countries as well as Diaspora Issues in Kenya. She also chaired the Department of Foreign Trade and Economic Affairs Committee on Strengthening and Restructuring.
In 2008, Mohamed decided to deploy her skills at home. She rejoined the government as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs in President Mwai Kibaki’s administration. She served in this role until 2011. This was a momentous assignment that entailed supervising the redrafting of the Constitution of Kenya, a task that eventually birthed a new Constitution.
Meanwhile, she continued with her international roles — between 2010 and 2011 she served as President of the United Nations Conference on Transnational Crime in Vienna. In 2011, she was named Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme where she worked until 2013.
When Uhuru Kenyatta was elected President in 2013, he tapped Mohamed as the first Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade in his government. Mohamed was sworn in at the Sagana State Lodge on 20 May 2013 alongside 17 other members of the Cabinet that formed Uhuru’s inaugural regime. She immediately employed her experience and skills in ensuring that the new President and the new Deputy President, William Ruto, were accepted in the international community. This was important because at the time, the two leaders had a case at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which, to all practical purposes, posed a threat to their hold on power.
The CS embarked on a shuttle diplomacy exercise, traversing the globe to meet with and convince world leaders that Uhuru and Ruto were innocent of the charges they faced at the ICC. The eventual collapse of the case is widely credited to her diplomatic manoeuvring.
However, Mohamed’s tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not devoid of criticism. For one, her detractors accused her of remaining tight-lipped over the suffering of Kenyan detainees in Ethiopia. And when in December 2016 she stated that Kenya supported the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s quest for self-rule and membership in the African Union, she stirred a diplomatic hornet’s nest. Many countries in the Arab world considered her views deeply controversial and duly protested.
Nevertheless, Uhuru maintained his faith in Mohamed and in 2017, nominated her for the chairperson position of the African Commission Union (ACU). Despite intense lobbying by the government, she lost to Chad’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Moussa Mahamat, by 26 votes to 38. The loss created a frisson of tension in the East African region, with Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Djibouti being accused by Kenya of not supporting Mohamed’s bid. They all refuted the accusation.
On 9 May 2017 the Government of Japan honoured Mohamed at the Imperial Palace for “promoting economic relations between Kenya and Japan”. She was the only African to be personally invested with the award known as the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. This is one of the oldest awards granted by Japan to those who have made distinguished achievements in international relations, promotion of Japanese culture or preservation of the environment.
During her tenure at Foreign Affairs she had a series of meetings with US government officials such as Senator Bob Corker, Tom Shannon and Constance Hamilton during which she urged the US to continue interacting with Kenya for mutual benefits. She was also reported to have met with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Beijing, signaling possible renewed engagements between Kenya and Russia. In many ways Mohamed became one of the most visible Foreign Affairs ministers Kenya had seen in years.
In January 2018 the President moved her to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to replace Dr. Fred Matiang’i, who was moved to the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government. Her Principal Secretary at Foreign Affairs, Dr. Monica Juma, was appointed to replace her. In her new posting, Mohamed would be lauded for the successful administration of the 2018 national examinations. She also achieved a 93 per cent transition rate of pupils finishing primary school to join high school. It was the highest transition rate in the country’s history. She was also credited with devising and implementing a Special Needs Education Policy and restructuring the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB), and was instrumental in reenergising vocational training centres as well as piloting and completing the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC).
Ironically, it was the CBC that almost proved to be her bane, as she was heavily criticised for delaying implementation in 2019. The President offered a public apology to the nation for the failure to launch. The CS drew further criticism for suggesting that former students who defaulted on loan repayments to HELB should be arrested. Her decision to lower the entry grade for teacher training colleges to D was also overturned by the High Court of Kenya. These decisions were a blot on an otherwise illustrious career and were thought to be largely responsible for her move from the Education docket to the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage in March 2019. She had been in Education for just over one year.
At Sports and Culture she replaced Rashid Echesa, who had been sacked. The ministry had gained the dubious reputation of being messy and corrupt, and the new CS began by kicking out of office the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) President, Nick Mwendwa, and later disbanding the organisation. Her action followed a list of recommendations by an inspectorate committee that had been constituted by the ministry to review the undertakings of FKF following what was referred to as “an extended deterioration of the state of football management in Kenya”.
Following the disbandment of FKF, the CS appointed a caretaker committee. This decision created an uproar in FIFA, the world football governing body, which responded by threatening to ban Kenya from participating in FIFA events. The CS refused to be cowed and FIFA eventually made good on the threat.
Mohamed turned her attention to improving sports management in the country. Besides cleaning up the management of football, she set up a nine-member ministerial committee on gender welfare in sports. This followed growing concerns about the treatment of women in sports.
She also sought to mainstream cultural matters in national affairs, and appeared personally at many cultural events to underscore the government’s commitment to promoting culture. She also campaigned incessantly for more funding for the ministry from the National Treasury.
Perhaps to underscore his enduring faith in his CS, the President on 7 July 2020 nominated Mohamed for the position of World Trade Organisation Director General. In his statement of nomination, he wrote: “As a firm believer in the strengthening of international multilateral institutions, Kenya is convinced of the urgent need to revitalise the WTO to better serve the needs of all nations, large and small. We also believe that it is time Africa took up her responsibility of serving at the helm of WTO. Kenya offers Amina C. Mohamed, a uniquely qualified person, to lead the WTO at this critical time. If selected, she would be the first African and indeed, the first woman to serve at the helm of the World Trade Organisation.”
Although Mohamed made it to the second round of the selection process, she lost to two finalists, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo Myung-hee. But this loss in no way diminished the several accolades she had already earned over the years. These included Elder of the Order of the Golden Heart of Kenya (EGH); Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear (CBS); Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity (Cav.O.S.S.I); Life Member of the Red Cross Society; Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun; Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic; and Member of the Life and Peace Institute.