In the archives of Kenya’s broadcast media houses lies the forgotten record of one of Kenya’s most rousing speeches. It was delivered by the roadside at an airport, and not by a politician, lawyer, preacher, professor or any of the usual suspects. The speaker was a technocrat and an engineer by training.
A people are measured by how they deal with adversity. We fell, but we have risen; we are back on our feet!” he roared.
The events leading to that stirring mid- morning speech had begun days earlier at 5:00 am on 7 August 2013, when Kenyans, and the world, woke up to news that the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) arrival terminal was on fire. The video clips and images on social media were surreal: East Africa’s air transport hub in flames?
JKIA was then processing an estimated 16,000 travellers a day, both domestic and international. As the inferno raged on, the airport’s high-walled design a challenge for fire- fighters, the question on everyone’s minds was: what could have caused the blaze? Terrorists? A bomb? An electrical fault?
Whatever the case, it was Kenya’s good fortune that the man at the helm of the Transport and Infrastructure docket when one of the most remarkable crises of Uhuru Kenyatta’s nascent Presidency struck that morning was Engineer Michael Kamau.
A career civil servant, Kamau joined the public service as an assistant engineer in 1981 and painstakingly rose through the ranks to Permanent Secretary under President Mwai Kibaki, before being appointed Cabinet Secretary (CS) Transport and Infrastructure by President Uhuru Kenyatta. Kamau will go down in history as the first Kenyan to rise from entry-level civil servant to CS in the same ministry.
Here was a technocrat who understood how the government functioned; a civil engineer in an engineering ministry in which he had served at every level for 32 years. With footprints strewn all over the country in the form of national policies, roads, office blocks and mega infrastructure projects, Kamau had the engineer’s knack not just for building things but for tinkering with and fixing broken stuff as well.
Kenya’s international transport system was broken, and there could not have been a man better prepared to manage the resulting crisis. It helped that he had a competent wingman in fellow engineer and former Permanent Secretary Titus Naikuni, who was then Chief Executive Officer of the national carrier Kenya Airways.
While emergency services fought the inferno, Kamau’s immediate priority was to restore order, manage the chaos and reassure travellers, and the world, that the government was on top of things. Above all, not only did the airport need to get back on its feet in the quickest time possible, but also the President was keeping an eye on the salvage mission. Inbound international flights to JKIA were immediately diverted to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Entebbe in Uganda, as well as Mombasa, Kisumu and Eldoret airports. A temporary arrivals terminal was quickly set up in tents in the parking lot next to the Presidential Pavilion and immigration equipment installed with the first international passenger flight emanating from Somalia, was received on the same day. Among the passengers on this flight was the Somali First Lady.
In two days flat, outbound international flights had resumed at JKIA. Kamau’s management of the crisis, his leadership and confidence, and the aura of expertise he exuded at every turn did not go unnoticed. Kenyans nodded with respect, rightfully regarding him — one of the only three CSs drawn from the civil service as one of the rising stars of the new government. He is the new John Michuki, they said, making reference to a former no-nonsense Kibaki-era Cabinet Minister whom Kamau admired, as he did the tough as nails former Head of Public Service and long-serving Provincial Commissioner, Simeon Nyachae. Kamau had served as permanent secretary under both Nyachae and Michuki as ministers. What Kenyans could not have known was that two events in the engineer’s past almost curtailed the civil service career of one of the country’s most transformative and illustrious roads and infrastructure chiefs. The man who supervised projects at Moi University, which included the Teaching and Referral Hospital as resident engineer for eight years on secondment from the government attempted to leave the Ministry of Public Works in early 1998. He took a one year leave from the university to try his hand in the private sector. Barely six months into his leave, President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, most likely having noted his potential, sent an emissary who ordered him to report back to the ministry.
At the tail end of the Kibaki Presidency, Kamau had considered retiring from the Civil Service as Permanent Secretary to run for governor in his home county of Nyeri but Uhuru, then Deputy Prime Minister and a presidential candidate in the forthcoming 2013 General Election, prevailed upon him to stay put with the assurance that he would appoint him to a senior position in his government if he won. Kamau’s journey to the apex of the Civil Service begun in 1958 in Nyeri, where he was born. He attended Hill Farm Primary School, later joining St Mary’s Boys Secondary School in Nyeri and Nyeri High School for his O’ and A’ levels of education before joining the University of Nairobi to study civil engineering.
After graduation, he was employed by the Ministry of Public Works as an assistant engineer. Later in his career, he enrolled at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, for a masters degree in Engineering and also undertook professional engineering courses at the South Korea Institute of Construction Technology and the Belgian Road Research Centre.
At the Ministry of Public Works, he rose from assistant engineer to engineer, then superintendent engineer, senior superintending engineer, chief superintending engineer, principal superintending engineer, chief engineer, Roads Secretary and, finally, Permanent Secretary in 2007 under Kibaki. The 1990s, described by many as a lost decade for infrastructure development in Kenya were difficult. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) had led to massive staff layoffs within government ministries, parastatals and agencies. Foreign funding for infrastructure projects was hard to secure and the country was in dire financial straits due to a multiplicity of factors. As a result, Kenya’s infrastructure was in shambles with a dilapidated road network and stalled government buildings littered across the land.
The Kibaki government made special budgetary provision, ring-fenced from bureaucracy and reallocation, for rehabilitation and completion of stalled roads and buildings. The bottlenecks that had previously hounded the tendering of road and infrastructure projects and driven the local contractors and consulting engineering firms to their knees were removed.
Kamau was part of a core team that supervised the completion of stalled projects such as Nyayo Wards, several district headquarters, the Nyanza Provincial Headquarters, and police housing in various parts of Kenya. The Kisii–Chemosit road was a classic example of a roads that had stalled for nearly two decades due to lack of funds that was completed under this scheme. (The stock answer by Roads ministers in Parliament that “the project will commence once funds become available” had been a running joke among MPs and wananchi (citizens) for years during the 1990s!) Kamau also oversaw the construction of roads that would drastically change the face and traffic flow within Nairobi. Rising population and vehicle density had overstretched roads, causing massive traffic bottlenecks in the city.
Most memorable of the roads built during that period are the Thika Superhighway, various missing link roads such as Kilimani-Kileleshwa-Lavington-Westlands road, Runda-Whispers, dualling of JKIA to Machakos turn-off, Eastern and Northern bypasses among others.
It was not just the roads and infrastructure that were in shambles, but the governance of the sector as well. Kamau, therefore, sought to set a legal and policy framework for sound infrastructure development and management of the roads and transport sector. This enhanced efficiency and guided the sector, in addition to forming a sound basis upon which both the Kibaki and Uhuru infrastructure projects rest.
First was the enactment of the Engineers Act which gave the engineering board wide ranging powers as opposed to the repealed Engineers Registration Board Act which had very limited provisions. The new Act empowered the engineering fraternity through its Board to participate in the training of engineers, setting of professional fees and enforcing the engineers’ code of conduct. The Act was driven by the need to stem encroachment of quacks on the industry and halt substandard design and construction work. The World Bank was instrumental in providing grants to assist the work leading to the enactment and also in capacity building of the new board.
Simultaneously, similar work was ongoing aimed at the formation of the National Construction Authority to regulate construction of buildings, especially in Nairobi. City Hall had spectacularly failed to enforce standards due to a myriad of reasons including systemic failure and ineptitude. The collapse of the canopy of the Sunbeam supermarket followed years later by the collapse of a building under construction at Nyamakima area with resultant loss of life, provided the impetus for the need for strict regulation of the building sector at a national level.
Third was the enactment of the Roads Act followed by establishment of the Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA), Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) and Kenya Rural Roads Authority (KERRA). This was aimed at bringing in public participation in road development and maintenance of road assets as well as increase the capacity of government to handle roadworks. This was in contrast to the previous unfocused approach to roadworks, lack of ownership, of road infrastructure where the responsibility for urban roads lay with ill-equipped municipal bodies under the Local Government Ministry, while rural roads simply fell through the cracks.
Fourth was to ensure that there would be improved governance in matters relating to road contractors. In this regard, Kamau pushed for the formation of an organization by the road contractors. This culminated in the formation of the Road and Civil Engineering Contractors Association (RACECA). The government was now able to have structured dialogue with the contractors. RACECA was also made one of the nominating bodies for appointment to the board of NCA.
Kamau made further interventions to improve administration in the roads sector which included securing land on the JKIA grounds for the construction of Barabara Plaza, so that the chief executives of KeNHA, KURA and KERRA would be housed under one roof for ease of coordination.
He further argued that this would ensure that the road from the airport to city center would always be in mint condition since the roads CEOs would be the principal users while commuting to the ministry headquarters, parliament and other government buildings located in the city center.
It is against this background that Kamau was appointed CS Roads and Infrastructure by Uhuru in 2013, with Nduva Muli and John Musonik as his respective Principal Secretaries (PSs) for Transport and Infrastructure.
His reform agenda did not stop with his appointment. He championed the construction of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) headquarters and even laid the foundation stone for the new building. This was intended to give KCAA autonomy taking cognizance of the fact that KAA was the landlord of KCAA who were their regulators thus creating fertile grounds for conflict of interest.
In order to enhance governance at Mombasa port, Kamau restructured the port operations by making the managing director Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) chairperson of port stakeholder’s forum as opposed to the MD Kenya Ports Authority KPA who was conflicted as chair of the forum. An international crisis had been simmering even before the newly elected president was sworn into office. Kenya’s landlocked neighbours were up in arms about congestion at the Port of Mombasa and bottlenecks on the Kenyan segment of the northern transport corridor that were causing delays in the movement of transit cargo. At the time, it took two weeks to haul cargo from Mombasa to Kampala. This would be the first urgent assignment in the newly appointed CS’s in-tray.
Together with his colleague Mohummed Adan (CS Industrialisation) and the KPA Managing Director Gichiri Ndua, Kamau immediately spear headed reorganisation and improvement of port management operations to hasten evacuation of cargo from the port.
Working with the police and KeNHA he streamlined the weighbridge operations and embarked on improving weighbridge infrastructure from static weighing to weighing in motion. The results of this reorganization were immediate. For starters, the travel time for cargo containers from Mombasa to Kampala dropped from two weeks to 4 days!
The port for the very first time handled more than one million containers in the year 2014 thus placing it in the league of the big ports globally.
Further, the Engineer also laid the groundwork for the Dongo Kundu by-pass Project, a crucial transport corridor to reduce traffic on the Makupa course way and the Likoni Ferry and decongest Mombasa Island. Port operations aside, Kamau as Roads and Infrastructure CS was instrumental on the rollout of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project. Part of the project involved the major expansion of the inland container depot (ICD) in Nairobi and the necessary roadworks to facilitate easy evacuation of cargo from the ICD. Still on roads, the CS was at the heart of the groundwork to build 10,000 km of low-volume sealed roads, one of the key legacies of Uhuru’s government.
After the 2013 JKIA fire had been contained, and flight operations commenced, Kamau told the press that the tragedy had a silver lining because it gave KAA an opportunity to start afresh.
Seizing the moment, KAA separated the arrival and departure terminals, which not only improved efficiency in processing passengers, but also enhanced security by eliminating the possibility of departing and arriving passengers mingling on the airside.
Going forward, the first port of call for arriving passengers was the immigration desks, which were set up in converted parking silo, as opposed to the past when they would mingle with outbound passengers. A security check point with sniffer dogs was also build over a kilometre away from the terminal, where all persons, cars, trucks and their cargo entering JKIA would be scanned. These interventions influenced the inauguration of direct flights between Kenya and the United States in 2018.
Other improvements included the construction of remote parking for aero planes from where disembarking passengers would be bussed to Immigration, and the construction of the new terminal 2 and major upgrades to terminal 1. The Engineer is also credited with the commencement of improvement of the Ukunda airstrip .After the stint of Michuki as Transport minister, the number of fatalities arising from road accidents had hit over 3,000 annually.
Through spirited public campaigns, introduction of breathalyser tests to curb drunken driving, and penalising of matatu saccos whose errant operators caused fatal accidents due to negligence and disregard of the law, fatalities on roads fell by 10 per cent, from 3,218 in 2013 to 2,907 the following year. Kamau had publicly announced that he would resign as CS if the fatalities didn’t deep below 3000 in 2014! Kamau was clearly on a roll. However, on 28th March 2015, barely two years after assuming office as CS, he stepped aside from office together with Felix Koskei (Agriculture), Davis Chirchir (Energy), Charity Ngilu and Kazungu Kambi (Labour) over an Ethics and Anti- Corruption Commission (EACC) report linking him to graft.
The EACC alleged that Kamau was complicit in altering the design of a road in Bungoma District designed at a cost of KES 33 million leading to a loss of public funds. At his mother’s burial in Kieni, Nyeri, on 10th June 2015, Kamau publicly spoke about his tribulations for the first time, saying he had never been involved in any impropriety or misuse of public funds and that he had been fixed by individuals whose interests he had refused to pander to.
“I want to make it clear that I have never stolen anything and I will never. I want my mother to rest knowing that she has left behind a son who has never stolen anything from anybody. My mother never gave birth to a thief.”
Kamau appeared before a magistrate on 4th June, 2015 and was charged with two counts of abuse of office and failure to comply with applicable procedures and guidelines relating to the management of public funds between 2007 and 2008 when he served as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Roads and Public Works.
The Court of Appeal, however dismissed the charges on Kamau, on 14th of July 2017. In May of 2018, Kamau was again charged for arbitrarily authorising the redesign of the same road, an act that resulted in the loss of public funds. The matter is still in court.