Joseph Ole Lenku: Reluctant warrior

President Uhuru Kenyatta interacts with Joseph Ole Lenku at the Mombasa Agricultural Society of Kenya (ASK) national show.

Often coming across as lost and perplexed during press conferences, it seemed as if Joseph ole Lenku, the former Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Coordination of National Government, would much rather have been somewhere else, not answering questions about his docket. Hardly surprising considering he was a most unlikely pick for the position.

Virtually unknown before his dramatic unveiling — the appointment came long after his colleagues had been named — the nation was as stunned as the nominee himself. The career hotelier told a Citizen TV interviewer in 2019 that he never expected to be appointed to the Cabinet because he had applied to be a Principal Secretary and had even been shortlisted.

“I was called to State House and I was hoping that the President would confirm my appointment as PS. But in an interesting turn of events, I was appointed CS for Interior. I think that drama is in the public (domain),” Lenku told the interviewer.

The former General Manager of Utalii College, the oldest hospitality training school in the country, was speaking long after he had been relieved of his duties following a series of terrorist and bandit attacks that had rocked the country during his tenure as CS.

How then did a virtually unknown individual without any of the charisma or authority that would be expected of the holder of such a critical government docket get appointed?

A closer look at the nominee’s pedigree and the constitutional requirement that Cabinet secretaries were meant to be apolitical presents some hints. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s headhunters must have been looking for a clean broom, so to speak; someone without any baggage, to clean up a docket that had for years been characterised by endemic corruption. They must also have considered Lenku’s rich lineage of leadership. His father was Senior Chief Lenku ole Mpaa, whose family Uhuru had interacted when Jomo Kenyatta (Uhuru’s father) was President. Uhuru knew Lenku, his junior by seven years, according to the former CS.

“People asked, ‘How did the President know that this person comes from a leadership lineage?” Lenku said during the press interview.

In 2015, during Mpaa’s funeral, the connection between the two families was revealed. In his eulogy, Uhuru noted that Mpaa was a man of enormous influence and outstanding ability among his peers. Lenku’s father was one of the wealthiest Maasai leaders of his time, with more than 2,000 head of cattle, as well as a respected leader of the Ilterito age-group of the Maasai community. Lenku’s mother, Sentema, also hailed from a powerful Maasai family.

A government official’s admission that he was appointed to a position he did not expect and was unsure about managing was a first in Kenya’s history. Yet Lenku was also speaking from both sides of the mouth because he stiffly resisted earlier attempts to have him resign. He would also later claim, incredibly, that he went to State House and asked the President to relieve him of his duties because the pressure was too much.

Lenku’s appointment had been heavily criticised — especially after the terrorist attacks and the CS’s handling of them. Kenyans wondered why the President had appointed someone with neither the experience nor the communication acumen required to manage such a crucial docket.

Lenku was fired barely 16 months after his appointment following a series of attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa, Mandera and Turkana counties that were blamed on dysfunctional relationships between the country’s security agencies.

He would then blame his sacking on what he termed an “online massacre” of his character. The online criticism followed the CS’s responses to one attack after another. For instance, after the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in September 2013 that left more than 60 people dead and another 200 wounded, Lenku irked Kenyans when he issued a statement about the thick black smoke seen emanating from the building that had come under attack — he said the smoke was the result of the terrorists burning mattresses. The CS did not seem aware that the Kenya Defence Forces had dislodged the police and were bombing the mall to smoke out the terrorists.

When the President was later asked to describe his worst regret, he answered that it was taking too long to reorganise security systems in the country and this had led to rampant insecurity.
“It took longer than it should have to do the reorganisation that we did in the security forces. I would say that we should have done that a little earlier,” he stated.

While Lenku had Mutea Iringo, an experienced administrator, as his Principal Secretary, it did not help matters that Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo came across as being just as clueless as his boss. Kimaiyo would exit with Lenku in December 2014, when the President sacked the latter and replaced him with the more experienced and respected Joseph Nkaissery.

But Lenku would have the last laugh when, barely three years later he achieved the incredible feat of ousting the University of Edinburgh-educated David Nkedianye as Governor of Kajiado County in the 2017 General Election. On the campaign trail he was known to announce himself as the “burning mattresses” guy or the cook who would bake a cake for all Kajiado residents to eat to their fill – in reference to his detractors’ caricaturing of his career in hospitality and failed tenure as Interior CS.

“When I went into politics, people would ask, ‘Is this the Westgate guy?’ I was advised by my friends to stop introducing myself like that because I already had a bad image as a failure. But my story would not be complete without mentioning faith, courage and family support even during the Westgate crisis,” Lenku said.

Despite the sensitivity and severity of the situations he had to handle as CS for Interior, it was not all gloom and doom. There may have been consensus about his public display of failure, but Lenku did oversee important security sector reforms during his time in office, including a crackdown on drug trafficking, changes in the police force, including an increase in its budget, and the decentralisation of security.

And after the Westgate attack, Lenku oversaw the implementation of a new security system dubbed ‘Nyumba Kumi’ (10 homes), which was based on the broader idea of community policing.

Some of his reforms were, however, unpopular. For instance, it was during his tenure that the government proposed amendments to the security laws that would allow the tapping of citizens’ phones and restricted media reporting on terrorist activities. The Opposition, led by Raila Odinga, and civil society groups cried foul, saying the Security Laws (Amendment) Act 2014 infringed on civil liberties provided for in the Constitution.

The Bill included clauses that could drastically curtail press freedom in Kenya when it came to reporting terrorist attacks and matters of national security, and stated hefty penalties for anybody found guilty of violations.
The International Press Institute (IPI) voiced concerns that the measures would remove several checks and balances on the President’s authority and expand the monitoring powers of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) without providing proper oversight.

In February 2015, five judges — Isaac Lenaola, Mumbi Ngugi, Hedwig Ong’udi, Hillary Chemitei and Joseph Louis Onguto — declared the seven sections of the Bill unconstitutional for violating the freedom of expression and the media guaranteed under Articles 33 and 34 of the Constitution. The sections were expunged.

The CS also kicked up a storm in March 2014 when he announced that all refugees outside of the designated refugee camps must be relocated owing to rising security challenges in urban centres. Kenyans were told to report any refugees found outside the camps to the authorities. The government also promised to deploy an additional 500 police officers in cities “to enhance security and surveillance”.

In what was dubbed ‘Usalama Watch,’ Kenyans of Somali descent were profiled, with thousands arrested and others forcibly relocated to Somalia or expelled. The operation went against Kenya’s responsibilities as a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that member states should not allow changes to laws that would infringe on the safety and rights of refugees at a time when they would face danger if forcefully returned to their countries of origin that are still unstable.

Having re-invented himself and winning the Kajiado governorship, Lenku demonstrated some robust leadership skills, such as when he took the war to land cartels that had turned the lives of many Kajiado residents into a nightmare. In one of its most landmark decisions, the county government under his charge introduced new validation processes in order to authenticate land ownership and stop the innocent from being dispossessed of their property. Then there was the time he came to the rescue of 26 women traders who were almost jailed in Tanzania for allegedly being in the country illegally. The governor points to his winning of the governorship as well as his “achievements in the county” as a vindication of his capabilities.

Born in October 1970, Lenku’s early years, like those of other Maasai boys of his time, revolved around livestock and life in the bush. The long hours spent herding goats and calves on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro under extreme weather conditions —the scorching sun of December to March or the pounding rains of April to September every year — taught a young Lenku a lot about hardship. No doubt the lessons would come in handy when he faced the storms of his adult life.

It was David Lovatt Smith, a conservationist and former warden in Amboseli National Park, who nudged Lenku’s father to allow him to go to school if he wanted the boy to be a chief like him. It was then that he began his education at Lenkisim Primary School in Kajiado South. He moved to two other primary schools, Ilbisil and Nkama, before settling in D.E.B. Loitokitok for his Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) exams.

Lenku proceeded to Nakuru High School where he obtained his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education qualification in 1990. Instead of joining Kenyatta University, he opted for Kenya Utalii College where he got a diploma in hotel management in 1995. Thereafter he went to the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing and a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management. He also received numerous certificates from different institutions, including one for project management from Greece’s OTE Academy and another from the Centre for Corporate Governance in Nairobi.

When he graduated from Utalii, Lenku worked in corporate sector management, beginning at the prestigious Serena Hotels as an assistant lodge manager for two years. In 1998, Lenku moved to the Serengeti Serena in Tanzania where he developed training standards for the food and beverage departments and for which he got commendation from the top leadership of Serena Hotels.

In 2002 he resigned from his job with Serena Hotels to run for the Kajiado South parliamentary seat.

“My boss at Serena, Jan Mohammed, advised me against abandoning a lucrative job and going into politics. He released me halfheartedly and told me I was free to come back because I was going to fail. Indeed I lost, but I did not go back because I was too embarrassed,” Lenku would later say.

He lost to Geoffrey Parpai, a Democratic Party stalwart who also worked in government in the early years of President Mwai Kibaki’s administration as the Minister for Public Service.

Only time will tell what Lenku, the reluctant government warrior, will be remembered for — the fire he faced as CS for Interior or shrewd politics that saw him triumph when Kenyans would have expected otherwise.

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