Kazungu Kambi: An affable political punster

Samuel Kazungu Kambi is a member of Uhuru Cabinets’ dramatic and cacophonous ilk. The former Kilifi County MP and grassroots mobiliser with a long, uproarious laugh and folksy charm was a farceur politician, jerky in oratorial grasp when expressing himself in English and seemingly out of place in Jubilee’s first Cabinet filled with men and women of notable expertise.

The idea was that those appointed to the Cabinet would devote their full attention to their ministerial responsibilities, as opposed to the past, when ministers were expected to fulfill their political responsibilities as well as represent their constituencies in Parliament.

While some politicians became Cabinet Secretaries in the Uhuru Administration, the men and women in these positions were mostly technocrats.

There was also a vibrant mix of the cerebral and the brawny, the reserved and the dramatic, the mellifluous and the cacophonous. Gardens with multicolored blossoms are said to be a riot of colour. Given the diverse composition of Uhuru’s Cabinets, we can safely say that his key aides, including Kazungu Kambi, represent the most diverse range of career backgrounds.

Samuel Kazungu Kambi is a member of Uhuru Cabinets’ dramatic and cacophonous ilk. Kazungu, a former Kilifi County MP who served as Cabinet Secretary for Labour and Social Protection during the Jubilee administration, was a bit of an outcast.

Former Assistant Minister for Medical Services in President Kibaki’s and Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Grand Coalition Government, he joined the Cabinet in mid-2013 after a failed bid to become the first governor of Kilifi County.

Kambi was not one of the favorites for the job because circumstances were not in his favour at the time. But then, most of Kambi was essentially political, and to make matters worse from the coastal region, a bloc that had voted against the incoming Jubilee administration.

Najib Balala, another regional politician, had already been appointed to the Tourism post by the President. The President’s ministerial folio still had gaps that needed to be filled in order to have a Cabinet that projected the face of Kenya with a complement of no more than 22 Cabinet Secretaries, as required by the Constitution.

But fate would still favor the ‘Little Whiteman,’ as his first name means in Giriama. Kambi, an affiliate of William Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP), which had teamed up with Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA) to romp to power in 2013, joined Balala, the former MP for Mvita in neighboring Mombasa, to become the President’s men in the Cabinet from the Coast.

As the President staggered his appointments, Kambi was among the last to join Cabinet. When President Uhuru Kenyatta took office, he filled 16 of his initial 18 Cabinet slots, leaving two open as he sought qualified candidates for the crucial Interior and Coordination of National Government portfolios, as well as Labour.

Kambi joined the Cabinet in June 2013, along with Joseph Ole Lenku, whose tenure was also brief. Lenku was the first CS to be dropped in 2014, as the country experienced increased insecurity and the apparent mishandling of the 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack.

According to analysts, Uhuru Kenyatta appears to have prioritised political considerations over technocratic endowment and appeal by appointing Kambi, a farceur politician, jerky in oratorial grasp when expressing himself in English, as Cabinet Secretary for Labour, Social Security, and Services in 2013.

For the man with the long, uproarious laugh and the folksy charm seemed out of place in Jubilee’s first Cabinet, which was filled with men and women of notable expertise in a variety of professions. Even in the case of Balala and Charity Ngilu, two hard-core politicians, the country benefited from long and stable ministerial records dating back to President Kibaki’s first term in the 2000s.

Kambi, a grassroots mobiliser, was seen as an asset in assuaging the restive Mijikenda from the Coast, who felt marginalised by successive administrations and had voted nearly unanimously for Odinga, Kenyatta’s opponent in the 2022 General Election.

Kambi joined Uhuru’s Cabinet after his failed governorship bid and was rewarded for overcoming the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) wave on the Coast.

Kambi’s tenure as Cabinet Secretary, however, was far shorter than his laughter. By the time he was asked to resign in 2015, he had become more well-known for his public antics than for his contributions to the Ministry he was supposed to oversee.

During his vetting by the Parliamentary Vetting Committee, as required by law, after being nominated by President Uhuru Kenyatta to the Cabinet, he amused the country by pledging that he would lead from the front on corruption, implying the opposite of what he really meant.

“When it comes to corruption, I lead by being in front. Not from being behind.” MPs laughed. He was saying the exact opposite of what he meant. Despite his goofs and apparent inability to steer such a critical docket, Kambi got a resounding nod by Parliament that commended him to serve as Cabinet Secretary.

“He has never been dismissed from office for contravention of the provisions of Article 75 of the Constitution which deals with the conduct of State officers that are adversely mentioned in any investigatory report of Parliament or any Commission of Inquiry,” the Parliamentary Committee on Appointments said while approving his nomination.
Despite the flaws revealed during his vetting, his approval and subsequent appointment to the Cabinet were well received in his home county, confirming President Uhuru Kenyatta’s wisdom in selecting him.

Various Coast lobbies, including mainstream Muslim groups, noted that the appointment would be strategic for the Jubilee team on the Coast, as it would aid in wooing the Mijikenda.

“The Mijikenda are the majority in Coast and the inclusion of Mr Kazungu is appealing to the community and may help Jubilee get support come 2017. I now urge Kazungu and Balala to put their political differences aside and work together for the benefit of the country and Coast,” Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council (Kemnac) chairman Sheikh Juma Ngao said.

Kazungu Kambi engages in a conversation Governor Alfred Mutua at his office in Machakos county.

Despite this approval, Kambi continued to engage in unconventional behaviour unbefitting of his high office, frequently attracting fierce opposition from the leaders of the trade unions with whom he had frequent dealings.
The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) and the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) were among the organisations that questioned his fitness to hold the position as soon as he took office.

In court, a petitioner also questioned Kambi’s academic credentials, claiming that allowing Kambi to continue serving as Cabinet Secretary would jeopardise good governance and constitutional disciplines of suitability and competence.

However, the case was dismissed because it violated Kambi’s fundamental rights under the constitution.
“The CS does not hold an elected post but was appointed by the President. Appointments are different from election,” High Court judge Justice David Majanja ruled.

The unions, led by veteran workers’ rights defender Francis Atwoli, Cotu Secretary General and Knut Chairman Wilson Sossion, were quickly on Kambi’s case, pressing the Jubilee administration to keep their promises to the workers, including increased pay.

Knut issued a strike notice less than a month after taking office, demanding full implementation of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed with the government in 1997. Kambi dismissed KNUT’s demands that the government implement a 1997 agreement requiring the government to improve teachers’ living conditions.

“KNUT does not have a case and I would advise them to get a (new) collective bargaining agreement. Going to the streets does not solve the issue but coming to the table solves almost all the issues,” Kambi said.
But Sossion was unsatisfied with Kambi’s response, noting that the new administration had gone back on its promise to implement the agreement.

At some point, when the minister became adamant, he attracted opprobrium from Sossion who remarked: “I think we have a wrong minister, I think we need a more literate minister in the office,” remarks that would be met in equal force from Kambi’s own acerbic mouth.

The minister’s choicest attacks were, however, spared for Atwoli with whom he had an uncanny semblance in mien and perhaps also, substance, save for the latter’s surprisingly eloquent though oftentimes hilariously rendered statements. Some pundits averred that President Kenyatta appointed Kambi minister of Labour seeing him as a befitting match for the ebullient, cantankerous and often unkempt Atwoli. The two—predictably—clashed from the word go, their unabated fights lasting throughout Kambi’s short-lived tenure.

In 2014, the two went after each other over a multibillion project by the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). The project, dubbed Tassia II, was a Ksh5 billion real-estate investment by the parastatal in Nairobi’s Embakasi district.
The two leaders feuded over its procurement after it emerged that a Chinese company had been awarded the contract for the project.

“I now want my good friend (Atwoli) to tell us what his interests were for him to issue these statements while he had been given the opportunity to say why this project should not go on,” said Kambi while pushing the project. While vowing an absence of personal interest in the project, Atwoli asked for the sacking of the CS, arguing the tender for the project had been inflated and questioned its award to the Chinese firm.

Atwoli petitioned President Kenyatta to appoint a “competent Cabinet Secretary to the Labour docket.” “What we are requesting is for the President to sack this man (Kambi),” said Atwoli.

On February 7, 2015, Kabete MP George Muchai, also Atwoli’s deputy at Cotu, was shot dead on Uhuru Highway in Nairobi by unknown people. Later, Atwoli would sue Kambi for allegedly defaming him. He demanded Ksh500 million from the minister for allegedly linking him to the murder of Muchai. The case was later dismissed in 2015 for lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, the squabbles continued. “I have retired from the board of trustees (of NSSF) today Mr Francis Atwoli and Mrs Jackline Mugo who have served in the board for 15 and 11 years, respectively,” he would say in one of the numerous press conferences he called to ‘sack’ Atwoli.

The latter would counter that the minister did not have the “slightest authority to whatsoever under any known law of the land to retire me or any representative of the Kenya Federation of Employees (FKE).”
Kambi was invoking the NSSF Act 2013 that stipulates that no member can serve for more than two of the three-year terms, to which Atwoli replied that he was starting his new term under a new law, and that he had six more years to go.

He added that in any event, if the minister wanted to reform NSSF he could not touch the independent representatives and could only work with the government appointees including the chairman.

Not one to be bogged down, Kambi marched on. And there was never a dull moment during his tenure. He could shout in interviews, throwing words and figures that did not make sense, without batting an eyelid. “The Kenya rural electrification programme has been electrifying the country, averagely about 300 people per year. But if you look at this budget, it is about 1.5 people who are going to be electrified,” he told one television interviewer in his characteristic high pitch, leaving the country at a loss as to what numbers he really meant, with some joking that he might have been talking about electrocution.

These theatrics ended in 2015 when President Kenyatta asked ministers accused of corruption to step aside. Five ministers, Kambi among, them left. The other CSs were Michael Kamau of Transport, Charity Ngilu of Lands, Felix Koskei (Agriculture) and Davis Chirchir (Energy).

The Ethics and Anticorruption Commission (EACC) accused Kambi of pushing for the NSSF Tassia II project despite clear indications that the board of trustees had not approved the upward review of the project’ cost from Ksh3 billion to Ksh5 billion.

Kambi was succeeded at NSSF House, the headquarters of the Ministry, by Phyllis Kandie whose docket of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism was reorganised to become East African Community, Labour and Social Protection.

To keep the ethnic balance in the Cabinet, President Kenyatta brought in Dan Kazungu, then ODM MP for Malindi Constituency and put him in charge of Mining.

After a four-year stint in the cold, President Kenyatta nominated Kambi to the Land Commission. And once again he lit up the Parliamentary Vetting Committee with his never-dying theatrics. During his vetting for the Land Commissioner job in 2019 he broke into a prolonged hearty laughter when he as was challenged for reading from notes known as ‘Mwakenya’ in street parlance, while responding to questions. After his long laughter that infected the whole Committee, he proudly explained that he wrote the notes himself.

That explanation was needed because Kambi’s lack of expressive prowess in English had been long noted. Indeed, even his reading of the notes scribbled on the palm of his hand, were laboured and hardly coherent. Kambi incredibly, told MPs that he was now studying for a PhD in Finance and Management and went ahead to struggle to read—again—from some notes what his dissertation was all about.

When asked to explain his research area he said rather incoherently: “It includes econometric (sic) and econometric basically involve (sic) solving phenomenon (sic) problem (sic) using statistic and mathematic or algebraic (sic) to solve this problem as a method.”

Earlier, explaining away his 2013 gaffe on corruption he said, “What I meant was if I am found guilty, I should not only be taken to court, but I should be shot,” he said, then went back to his line on being an academic. “I am an academician my brother,” he said, proudly. In all these gaffes, Kambi was not just unbothered, but actually appeared to enjoy it all, laughing uproariously for a very long time.

A man who did not see or hear anything he did not want to laugh at, Kambi went ahead to enjoy himself noisily for the rest of the vetting session, forcing Senate Speaker Kenneth Lusaka to warn that the House was becoming a house of comedy.

Born 60 years ago at Kwademu in Kilifi, Kambi dropped out of Standard Three because his parents could not pay fees, but would later go back to school “because of his passion for education.”

He blames debilitating poverty for his checkered education and credits it for helping him rise against all odds to the highest decision-making organ in the government.

Kambi told the Parliamentary vetting committee that despite schooling breaks in between he attended Mbooni Boys’ High School and Kilala School in Machakos where he completed his O Level certificate in 1987. A manager at the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation from 1987 to 1992, Kambi holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Development Studies and a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) from University of Eastern Africa, Baraton.

In spite of the drama that characterised his two-year tenure as CS, Kambi, whose Principal Secretary was Ali Noor Ismail, prides himself on his LinkedIn page for raising the NSSF revenue per month from KES 400,000 to Ksh. 1.2 billion by the time he left in 2015.

Kambi is also credited for the reviving National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) and was instrumental in the establishment of the National Employment Authority vide an Act of Parliament that seeks to connect job seekers with employers.

He also says he enhanced the growth of the National Cash Transfer Programme, a support scheme for the elderly and the disabled. Thus, Samuel Kazungu Kambi was one of the few odd ones out in a Cabinet that was highly technocratic. In appointing him to the Cabinet, President Kenyatta walked a tight rope in a task that requires more nuances beyond the narrow letter of the Constitution.

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