Prof. Judi Wakhungu: Don with a diplomatic touch

Kenya’s Ambassador to the Holy See Prof Judi Wakhungu at the Vatican with Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State.

At his inauguration in April 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta signalled a firm resolve to protect and conserve Kenya’s natural resources, a first for a newly sworn in Kenyan Head of State. Promising to exploit natural resources in a way that benefits the current generation while safeguarding the interests of generations to come, he asserted that the environment was a national heritage that must be protected.

Interestingly, this proclamation was first made by founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s Tourism and Wildlife Minister, Mathews Ogutu, in the 1970s.

“My government will strike a decisive blow against all those that threaten it. Poaching and the destruction of our environment has no future in this country. The responsibility to protect our environment belongs not just to the government, but to each and every one of us. We will do all this, and more,” Uhuru said.

The newly elected President’s concern for wildlife should not have come as a surprise. An entrepreneur with interests in the tourist hotel industry and former chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board and Finance Minister under Presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki respectively, he was well appraised of the challenges facing wildlife conservation and management, and their impact on tourism and economic development.

Uhuru was also assuming office at a time when Kenya — and Africa at large — was experiencing a gruesome resurgence in elephant and rhino poaching.

With 1 kg of raw ivory selling at over Ksh 83,700 on the global ivory black market according to wildlife crime experts, such was the incentive for poachers that barely months before he won the Presidential election, one of the deadliest poaching incidents seen since the 1980s was reported in Tsavo East National Park. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers discovered 11 elephant carcasses with bullet wounds and their tusks hacked off on 13 January 2013.
Days earlier, then Prime Minister Raila Odinga had announced that six KWS rangers and at least 360 elephants had been killed the previous year.

Conservationists feared this new wave of poaching could herald a return of the infamous wildlife wars of the 1980s when elephant and rhino poaching in Kenya caused a national and global outcry.

Armed poaching in Africa has international ramifications. It points to insecurity in national parks and game reserves, which scares off international tourists, thereby starving the country of much needed foreign exchange. Illegal sale of wildlife products is also the second biggest organised crime syndicate after the narcotics trade globally and is suspected to fund insurgency and the purchase of illegal weapons in fragile states.

Poaching also has ecological ramifications. Killing the largest elephants and rhino has genetic and ecological implications within trans-boundary ecosystems — in our case the Serengeti–Mara, Kilimanjaro–Longido–Kajiado – and Tsavo West Mkomazi/Umba ecosystems, which traverse the Kenya–Tanzania international borders.

The difficult duty of halting this dangerous spiral and managing the environment in total fell to energy expert, Prof. Judi Wakhungu, when she was nominated Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Environment, Water and Natural Resources.
Former KWS human resources director and Kenyatta National Hospital Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Richard Lesiyampe, and career banker James Teko Lopoyetum served as her Principal secretaries (PSs) for Environment and Water respectively. They were replaced by Charles Sunkuli (Environment) and Dr. Margaret Mwakima (Natural Resources) in a 2015 Cabinet reshuffle.

Wakhungu’s appointment was a departure from the norm in several ways. First, it was the first time in Kenya’s history that a CS who was both a scientist and a woman would be in charge of natural resources. Previously, a woman — the redoubtable zoologist, environmentalist, human rights campaigner and Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wangari Maathai — had only deputised the Minister for Wildlife.

Second, tourism had been hived off the conservation docket and moved to the Commerce ministry, the dominant practice in developed nations.

And third, renaming it ‘Environment, Water and Natural Resources’ as opposed to the usual ‘Tourism and Wildlife’ suggested a more cerebral, holistic and ecosystem approach to conversation by the new government, which made Wakhungu an inspired choice for CS.

While Wakhungu, like most of her colleagues appointed from outside of politics, was barely known beyond her immediate professional and academic circles, her parents were highly accomplished and she grew up in a family of high achievers — uncles, former Vice President Moody Awori and the late pioneer kidney specialist, Professor Nelson Awori; and maternal aunt, the pioneer female banker and businesswoman, Mary Okello.

Growing up surrounded by achievers, Wakhungu is quoted saying she could not understand why all bosses were men, and that she was both driven and inspired by her successful relatives to dream big. Dream big she did. Other than acing primary and secondary school exams, she became an athlete of repute, ranking as Kenya’s top female tennis player to represent the country at the 1987 All Africa Games. She picked the baton from her older sister, Susan, a corporate executive with international credentials, who won gold and silver for Kenya at the 1978 edition of the games.

After high school, Wakhungu received a Bachelor of Science in Geology from St Lawrence University in New York and, after stints as a geology lecturer at the University of Nairobi and as a government geologist (both firsts for a Kenyan woman), a Master of Science in Petroleum Geology from Acadia University, Canada.

In 1993, Wakhungu was awarded a PhD in Energy Resources Management from Pennsylvania State University in the US. The university afterwards engaged her as Associate Professor, Science, Technology and Society, and Director, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Institute till 2002 when she returned to Kenya to head the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) as Executive Director/Professor. She headed ACTS — an international inter-governmental (IGO) science, technology, and environmental policy think-tank — from 2002 to 2013 when she was appointed CS Environment, Water and Natural Resources.

Other than these academic and professional credentials, Wakhungu was bringing to Cabinet, and her ministerial docket, international experience earned as an advisor/director of several global institutions, including The World Bank, the Legatum Centre at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the United Nations Commission of Science and Technology for Development.

She had also served in the same capacity at the Global Energy Policy and Planning Programme of the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study (IFIAS), based in Toronto, Canada, and the Renewable Energy Technology Dissemination Project of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

How would she manage the transition from the orderly world of academia and international institutions into a Cabinet docket, where policy is often overshadowed by politics? Only time would tell.

What was not in doubt is that while her ministry was titled ‘Environment, Water and Natural Resources’, the real elephant in the room was, well, elephants — to wit, KWS!

Yet it was water that would present an immediate crisis.

The sector had undergone massive reforms under Water Minister, Martha Karua, during the Kibaki Presidency, with the Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA) established under the Water Act of 2002 to regulate use and management of water resources on behalf of the national government.

But crisis emerged because the Uhuru government had been elected under the new 2010 Constitution which devolved several State functions, among them certain aspects of water resource management, to county governments.

The newly elected governors stepped into office demanding to ‘own’ all the resources within their jurisdiction for the benefit of their people. This included water, a national and transient resource. Not surprisingly, these demands created conflicts with water-stressed countries that depend on water from better-endowed neighbouring counties.

Case in point was Kajiado, which was threatening to block the water pipes to neighbouring Machakos and Makueni counties unless the two paid levees for the resource. Further, the bulk of water consumed in Mombasa is drawn from Mzima Springs in Taita Taveta County and water-related conflicts would have shut down Kenya’s tourism hub.

It took spirited negotiations between the ministry and respective governors and, in 2016, the enactment of a new Water Act outlining State, County government and community level water resource management roles and responsibilities to calm the waters.

This notwithstanding, policy gaps created duplication, conflicts and confusion within stakeholder institutions with responsibility over water resource management, undermining enforcement of regulations and exposing the water resource to degradation.

The situation was worsened because national, county and community level institutions lacked capacity to execute their mandates. These challenges, and the regional water disparities that have plagued Kenya since independence, remain because of the massive resources required to set the sector on an even keel. Other than the Water Act of 2016, Wakhungu midwifed the National Wetlands and Conservation Management and the Integrated Coastal Zone Management policies, which provide a framework for protection and management of water resources. This is critical.
The role of water in driving industrial development, enhancing food security and public health and nourishing national parks and game reserves cannot be overstated.

She also midwifed the Climate Change Act 2016 and Wildlife Conservation & Management Act 2013. But it is Natural Resources — specifically Wildlife — that taxed the Professor, as it had her predecessors in the ministry.

In September 2012, KWS Director Julius Kipng’etich resigned after eight years at the helm, his otherwise stellar performance as Kenya’s Chief Game Warden dampened by a disturbing rise in elephant and rhino poaching. A month later, the Kibaki administration appointed Vihiga County Commissioner, William Kibet Kiprono, to replace him. It was a curious choice, one that was even questioned in Parliament. As County Commissioner, of a small county to boot, his military rank was equivalent to that of a park warden. He was, therefore, outranked by KWS regional assistant directors and highly experienced commanders who served at deputy director level.

Critics warned that he would not only be unable to command the boardroom, but that he was ill-prepared to manage a key State institution with a Ksh 7 billion annual budget and over 3,500 members of staff; an institution whose influence straddled several economic sectors.

Whatever the case, Kiprono was unable to stem the bleeding that had begun under Kipng’etich. Poachers only seemed to become more brazen, even killing a rhino inside Nairobi National Park in August 2013.

In April of the following year, Environment and Natural Resources PS Lesiyampe was compelled to suspend six senior KWS officers and appoint an inter-ministerial team comprising officials from The National Treasury, the ministries of Devolution and Planning, Interior and Coordination of National Government, and Environment and Natural Resources to probe on the issue.

This was followed by the formation of a special Elite Inter-Agency Anti-Poaching Unit whose officers were drawn from KWS, the Administration Police (AP) and the General Service Unit (GSU). It appeared KWS and its once vaunted ranger field force had been in decline for years and seemed unable to rise to the challenge of safeguarding parks and reserves, or the wildlife in private conservancies where most of the poaching was going on.

The poaching crisis would, however, provide two crowning moments for Wakhungu’s tenure.

In 2016, working with KWS Board Chairman Dr. Richard Leakey (now deceased), Wakhungu captured global headlines when she championed the burning of more than 100 tonnes of Kenya’s entire stockpile of ivory and rhino horns by the President.

This helped to galvanise the rejection of efforts to open legal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at the 2016 Conference of Parties (CoP) meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Another milestone was the establishment of Eastern and Central Africa’s first Wildlife forensic and genetics laboratory at the KWS headquarters in Nairobi. The lab would, among other things, link confiscated wildlife products to the DNA of poached carcasses at scenes of crime, therefore aiding prosecution of suspects.

The Professor also made remarkable scores in environmental management, notably overseeing a national ban on the use of plastic polythene bags, and the enactment of the Environmental Management & Coordination Amendment Act 2015 (EMCA CAP 387), a National Environment Policy, Education for Sustainable Development Policy, a Wetlands and Conservation Management Policy, the Hazardous Waste Regulation Policy, a National Action Plan on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Green Economy Strategy. These achievements notwithstanding, it could be argued that she should have appointed a substantive KWS Director with the ability to dealt more decisively with the management and poaching challenges facing the institution.

Kiprono was allowed to stay on despite being unable to handle the job. After his exit and transfer back to the provincial administration, shortlisted and interviewed candidates for a new KWS director were set aside by the Board chaired by Leakey, and CfC Bank CEO, Kitili Mbathi, appointed instead. He lasted barely a year.

The lack of a substantive director for prolonged periods almost hobbled the parastatal as Board Chairman, Leakey, who founded KWS, seemed to be pulling in one direction, and the ministry another.

A telling example is a 2017 circular issued by Wakhungu stating that the Board had overstepped its mandate by seeking to have direct interaction with KWS staff while by-passing management. However, despite the fact that wildlife management in Kenya is a vicious docket — heavily politicised, with far too many powerful and vested local and international interests at play at any given time. – Wakhungu delivered admirably and exceedingly well on policy and legislation, and is unparalleled in this regard, using her solid grasp of academia and international strategy development.

In January 2018, she left the ministry and her many accomplishments to take up her appointment as the Kenya Ambassador to the French Republic, Portugal, Serbia, Monaco and The Holy See.

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