Najib Balala: Politician with nine lives

Najib Balala visits the Ithumba Camp, Tsavo East National Park a Sheldrick Orphans’ Project set up to rescue rehabilitate and
reintegrate elephants in the  wild.

It is not usual for a Head of State to isolate a particular member of the Cabinet for praise or censure. But twice in 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta publicly congratulated Najib Balala, his Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, and the ministry for activities and policies that yielded results in wildlife conservation and the promotion of Kenya globally as an ideal tourism destination.

It is unusual for a Head of State to isolate a particular member of the Cabinet for praise or censure. But twice in 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta publicly congratulated Najib Balala, his Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, and the ministry for activities and policies that yielded results in wildlife conservation and the promotion of Kenya globally as an ideal tourism destination.

The President was impressed by Balala’s efforts to steer back on track an industry that had been severely battered by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Balala used charm as a strategy to get things moving. Indeed, since his entrance into the political arena in 1998 as Mayor of Mombasa, his amiable personality enabled him to surmount great obstacles and challenges to remain a key player in the country’s politics for many years. He was Uhuru’s longest-serving Cabinet Secretary, having been appointed in 2013, and the only carry-forward from President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet to stay on to the end of Uhuru’s second term.

Balala was first elected as MP for Mvita Constituency in 2002, when Kibaki won the presidency. He was appointed Minister for Sports, Gender, Culture and Social Services (2003 –2004) before becoming State Minister for Heritage, a position he held briefly before he was dropped the following year (2005), along with others in the Cabinet, for opposing a draft document that sought to change the Constitution of Kenya. Four years later, he was appointed Minister for Tourism in the expanded Government of National Unity that had Kibaki as President and Raila Odinga as Prime Minister. Despite being a politician who changed or formed political parties with seeming abandon in a world where this might be considered a sign of indecisiveness, in Balala’s case it was virtuosity of a kind! “I have reflected carefully and thought that it is better to address national rather than partisan issues,” he once said.

He switched political allegiances from Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement to Uhuru’s Jubilee Alliance in the transitional elections of 2013, when Kenya embraced devolution. At the time, he had already founded his own political vehicle, Republican Congress Party (RCP), which he used for his stillborn bid for the Mombasa senatorial seat. Weeks before the election, Uhuru’s coalition drew in several other parties, among them Balala’s RCP. When Uhuru won the presidency, he immediately appointed Balala Cabinet Secretary for Mining.

Up until then, the mining sector was a backwater affair, operating under laws and policies that were unchanged from colonial days. According to the Kenya Vision 2030 economic blueprint, Kenya is endowed with a wide range of minerals such as soda ash, fluorspar, diatomite, gemstone, limestone, barite, gypsum, salt, dimension stones, silica sand, Kisii stone (soapstone), manganese, zinc, wollastonite, graphite, kaolin, copper, gold, lead, nickel, iron ore, carbon dioxide, chromite, pyrite, various clays, niobium and rare earth elements, pyroclore, titanium and coal.

However, although this was well acknowledged, the country’s vast mineral wealth had gone untapped for eons.
Instructively, the mining and mineral resource sector was a priority plank of Vision 2030, and its contribution to the gross domestic product at the time was 0.8 per cent. Balala set out to have this grow to 10 per cent by 2030, thereby making it a key driver of economic growth and transformation. Presently, the ministry draws from a number of quasi-statutory organisations, State departments and agencies, including the Mineral Rights Board that grants and/or revokes mining agreements among other roles, the Directorate of Mines, and the Geologists Registration Board.

A year into his tenure, Balala produced the much-needed Mining Bill 2014. Apart from this legal framework, he drafted the first Mining Policy in 74 years, to make it conform to modern international standards. The CS and his Principal Secretary, Richard Ekai, also targeted the royalty regime and mining licences. To cap the landmark legal, institutional and policy changes, Balala revoked 65 “fraudulent or irregularly existing” mineral exploration licences (individual as well as corporate) thus freeing 4.5 million acres of potential mineral land for new explorers.

“From the date of the issuance of this notice, any mining activities by these persons or companies over the areas that are subject of the revoked licences shall be illegal,” Balala said in a notice to an explorer who had continued to operate on a licence that had expired seven years earlier despite the legal requirement that licences must be renewed every year. “A lot of clean up and enforcement of the law still needs to be done. People must comply with what the government has put in place … Ninety five per cent of those licences had already expired and the owners had not renewed them. Some of them were not filing reports of their field progress,” the CS said. Under his watch revenue from the export of minerals rose from Ksh21 million to Ksh1.2 billion in just one year. This was more than enough to convince him that the country had the capacity to earn Ksh10 billion annually from the export of minerals.

Drastic measures, however well intentioned, often attract controversy. Cortec Kenya spoke of malice in Balala’s revocation of its Ksh4.5 trillion mining project in which Jacob Juma, a vocal business operative, was a shareholder.

In fact, Juma sensationally claimed that his company beat back the CS’s demands for a USD 1 million bribe. Balala denied the claims and in return, branded the deal to licence the firm a “fraud”. A High Court ruling in 2015 vindicated Balala when it confirmed that Cortec had indeed acquired its licence without following proper procedure.

Najib Balala joins President Uhuru Kenyatta during the Kenya-Portugal Business forum in Lisbon in June 2022.

Balala’s motivation in revoking the licences may have been to uplift the economic lot of coastal communities. Based on past reports, the area has large amounts of untapped minerals. Having been born and educated in the coast region before joining the famed Kakamega High School in western Kenya, Balala was not an outsider looking in as he undertook to streamline the sector. Indeed, his coastal constituency was in dire need of a person able to empower it, perhaps through benefiting from the rich resources. This might also explain Balala’s subsequent appointment to head the Ministry of Tourism. Kenya’s beaches and other tourism attractions have drawn the awe of international visitors for years.

While Balala may have revamped the mining sector, his influence was felt more in tourism, which was once Kenya’s main foreign exchange earner before diaspora remittances took over. Balala had served in the same capacity in Kibaki’s administration from 2008 to 2012. Citizen TV Digital described him as “Kenya’s longest-serving Tourism Minister, boasting a 12-year run”. No wonder another Internet publication described him as a lead actor in the Kenyan tourism movie, sustaining its growth and anchoring hope for the millions whose livelihoods depend on its health.

He is credited with sector reforms in tourism, wildlife and mining, with development and strategic implementation of key policies and strategy documents such as Kenya New Vision for Tourism 2021, Magical Kenya Health and Safety protocols, 2020, National Tourism Blueprint (NTB) 2030, National Wildlife Strategy 2020, Tourism Act 2011, Draft Mining Bill in 2014, the first policy and institutional framework review of Kenya’s mining sector since 1940 among other key leadership and policy guidelines under his purview.

In his tenure as the Minister, Balala undertook various activities to promote Magical Kenya, including climbing Mt Kenya twice, in 2017 and 2022 respectively, Whale watching escapade’s in Watamu, Indian Ocean, zip-lining excursions in Kereita Forest, sky diving from a 10,000m above sea level in Watamu, Kilifi in 2016. Balala also introduced Tourism ambassadors, among them Naomi Campbell, and Eliud Kipchoge to market Magical Kenya, as well, hosting Key international journalist such as Richard Austin Quest a British journalist and news anchor for CNN International to showcase the Magic in our destination. He established the appointment of a Wildlife Ambassador to promote wildlife management and conservation in Kenya with Actor Edward Norton appointed as the 1st wildlife Ambassador for Kenya, by President Kenyatta.

Balala has variously been rewarded for his achievements in the tourism sector. In April 2019, he was named World Travel and Tourism Council Global Champion, which recognises individuals or countries whose initiatives and policies have increased the competitiveness of the sector. In November 2021 he received the Heroes Tourism Award given by the World Tourism Network at the World Tourism Market, London. And in August 2020, Kenya became the first country in the world to be awarded the ‘Safer Tourism Seal’ in recognition of the health and safety measures the country put in place during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. By mid-2021, the sector was already getting back on track.

This recognition is evidence of the strides the government has made to improve the economy. Before the pandemic rudely interrupted the sector’s golden run, Tourism contributed Ksh163.5 billion to the economy in 2019, much of it from the 2,048,834 visitors that year. This was up from the Ksh157.3 billion generated the previous year and Ksh100 billion earnings in 2016. Perhaps of interest was the ministry’s concerted efforts to attract domestic tourists — 4.95 million bed nights in 2019 and 4.48 million the previous year.

These impressive figures were backed by intentional promotions and publicity strategies, including trade fairs, road shows, marketing and advertising campaigns (both physical and online) aimed at making Kenya the first choice for the global tourist. Among the economic areas that benefited from the ripple effect was the aviation sector, which witnessed increased air traffic. For instance, entry through Jomo Kenyatta and Moi international airports registered substantial growth of 6.07 per cent and 8.56 per cent respectively, according to the Tourism Sector Performance Report 2019. “This is an indication that air connectivity will continue to be a major driver for growth of international arrivals,” read the report.

Balala is credited with the development of the National Tourism Blueprint (NTB) 2030, which seeks to guide and accelerate the development of Kenya’s tourism sector. His goal was to promote a mix of traditional markets and visitors from the rest from Africa.

“Africa has a high population of middle-class capable of undertaking tourist activities. We have to undertake initiatives to maximise inter-Africa tourism by more explicitly targeting the untapped regional market,” he told a meeting of African Tourism Ministers in October 2018.

Also to his credit is the foundation and establishment of the Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre – Kenya Chapter and Tourism Promotion Fund to support the development, promotion and branding of tourism in Kenya. When it came to politics, Balala was a good example of what ‘survival of the fittest’ looks like. Despite the fluidity of Kenya’s politics, where leaders seem to change and/or create political parties at the drop of a hat, the CS managed to traverse different regimes and emerge with little, if any, harm or stain. Like a giraffe, the father of four let foresight lead the way.

“No one wants to be in the Opposition. It’s cold there and even those who are keen on being elected know that. I have been in government since 1998 and I will be in the next one and serve in any position that is there for the good of all Kenyans,” he once said. No wonder one local daily once labelled him as a man with nine lives. Asked by the same newspaper about the uncertainty surrounding him ahead of the 2022 General Election, for which he did not offer himself as a candidate for any of the elective seats, Balala said, “Sometimes too much politics clouds your deliverables. And people don’t eat politics. Sometimes you have to pull back and reflect and wait for the next turn. I will serve my term to the end of President Kenyatta’s tenure.”

His election as Mayor of Mombasa (1998-1999) at the tender age of 30 was not mere happenstance. Here was a man equipped with an academic qualification in international urban management from the University of Toronto, Canada, as well as a certificate of attendance to The Executive Program for Leaders in Development from the prestigious Harvard University. As MP for Mvita (for two consecutive terms starting in 2002), he paled against the colossal personality of his predecessor, Shariff Nassir, who had held the seat for three consecutive terms since 1988.
Still, Balala’s voice on some key national concerns stood out in Parliament, such as his spirited effort to have a transparent and accountable NGO sector. “Self-regulation is very important. We know there is the NGO Council. Of late, we have found it to be very problematic. It has been fighting with the NGO Co-ordination Board as well as within itself. We need to see discipline and order with the Independent Regulatory Council that is proposed in this Bill,” he told Parliament on 5 December 2012 during a Motion that sought to establish the independent Public Benefit Regulatory Authority.

It is against this background that an online newspaper warned anyone who might have been looking forward to reading Balala’s political eulogy: “It would be a mistake to count out Najib, who has amassed over two decades of experience in the political realm. His influence has been enhanced by his networks and outreach, which have seen him trade the private sector business for public life in politics.”

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