Rashid Echesa: From among bucolics to high national duty

Rashid Echesa with his cabinet colleague Charles Keter attending a Cabinet meeting at State House Nairobi.

Few people of Rashid Mohammed Echesa’s social and educational background have had the good fortune to rise to national prominence at his age. Echesa, the son of a respected company driver Mohammed Lukungu, was born in a modest family in the neighbourhood of Mumias Sugar Company in Western Kenya.

He was by all accounts an ordinary child from an ordinary family, with a future that was not particularly bright, given the region’s rampant cases of material deprivation. According to some media reports, Echesa’s father was a truck driver who also burned charcoal to supplement his meager earnings to support his family, and his mother was a banana vendor in Shibale market.

Echesa’s gloomy prospects would be compounded when, only a few years later, he abandoned formal education to pursue itinerant trade and other menial engagements in Shibale, an informal neighborhood that housed some of the sugar company’s low cadre employees.

Echesa eventually found his way to Mumias Sugar Company as a manual laborer, an experience that exposed him to both current politics and some form of trade unionism, which he would later use to mobilize common sentiment among the region’s youth.

With the general Kakamega region, and particularly Mumias, being a key political battleground for leading politicians, it wasn’t long before some political luminaries recognized Echesa’s leadership and mobilisation abilities, his tenacity and bravery, all of which were considered valuable traits in the adversarial politics of the region then.
It was then that Echesa tasted power, albeit in crude, unrefined, and informal forms, but power nonetheless, allowing him to socialise with the political elite of the day. Rashid wormed his way into youth leadership of the Orange Democratic Movement, which was then the political party of choice in the wider Mumias area, courtesy of Raila Odinga’s enigmatic hold on the region’s general thinking, around 2007.

Invoking some distant kinship with Odinga, Echesa’s Wanga compatriots could not stomach extending their political support to his then-most compelling opponent, President Mwai Kibaki, and so Echesa’s alliance with Raila distinguished him as a possible future leader of the region.

Following Raila’s defeat in the 2007 elections and the ensuing political rethinking in the region, Echesa shifted his and his young followers’ support to a different camp, this time led by Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, Raila’s most recent political rivals. Once again, Echesa’s mobilization skills paid off, as he was able to secure a sizable chunk of votes in favor of his newfound political patrons. Come 2017, Echesa stuck it out with the two again—although more inclined to Deputy President William Ruto’s wing of the ruling coalition—and saw his influence grow bigger and his fortunes better.

Following the 2017 general elections and subsequent presidential elections, President Uhuru nominated Rashid Mohamed Echesa as his Cabinet Secretary in charge of Sports, Culture, and Heritage – the last word replacing ‘arts’ in the predecessor ministry.

However, in the context of Kenya’s political order, which is based on ethnic sensitivities and regional claims of entitlement or allegations of exclusion from the mainstream government, Echesa’s appointment as cabinet secretary was widely criticized by some opposition members. These critics argued that Western Kenya had many more educated and refined leaders who could better’represent’ the region in cabinet than the modestly educated, combative Echesa. In a sense, this allegation drew its rationale from the fact that, even with the scanty details about Echesa’s previous life, a minor detail stood out—his previous adventures in street pugilism in Mumias township—something that signaled, supposedly, an inclination towards spontaneous thuggery.

Regardless, Echesa breezed through parliamentary vetting, where the question of how he would manage the ministry despite his limited education was answered by referring to the fact that, as is customary, ministries are run by technocrats, including highly educated Permanent Secretaries—also the accounting officers—on whom Echesa expected to rely to compensate for his educational deficit. Simultaneously, Echesa used his vetting to thank President Uhuru for believing in him—and in all sons of humble origins—in a calculated move meant to remind the vetting board that the entire vetting should, in fact, consider the constitutional imperative of inclusivity in government rather than the elitism that, in his opinion, informed his critics’ sentiments. Later, he was quoted in a daily newspaper saying that “The President appointed me because I’m a child of the poor. He knew that by appointing me, I would uplift another poor kid.”

But overcoming the vetting challenge was the easy part; Echesa quickly discovered that running a sports ministry is fraught with many potential pitfalls, including never-ending wrangling, novel ways for cartels to evade detection and handling, and multiple competing interests that dominate virtually all domains of the entire docket.

The ministry, like other government entities, saw itself as playing a critical role in the affairs of the country, as reflected in the bold value, vision, and mission statements. The ministry’s vision was and continues to be “…to be a global leader in the provision of sports, arts and cultural services and promotion of the Kenyan film industry for sustainable growth and employment creation”, driven by mission “…to develop, promote, preserve and disseminate Kenya’s cultural and arts heritage; promotion of sports; through formation and implementation of policies, programmes and projects for mproved livelihood of the Kenyan people.”

Echesa was expected to oversee a number of functions under the State Department for Sports, as outlined in Executive Order No. 1 of 2018. The functions included developing, managing, and implementing a sports policy; enforcing and implementing the World Anti-Doping Code and the Convention against Doping; promoting and coordinating sports training education; regulating sports; expanding the sports industry for sustainable livelihood; developing and managing sports facilities; and establishing and managing sports academies to nurture talent.

To accomplish all of this, Echesa had to be the titular head of the operationalizing structures within the sports department. Among the structures he oversaw were the sports stadium management board and the Kenya Sports Authority (as established by the Kenya Sports Authority Act of 2012); Kenya Anti-Doping Agency; Sports Kenya (from Sports Act No 25 of 2013); National Sports Fund (under the Kenya Academy of Sports Act of 2013); and the Registrar of Sports. Echesa’s jurisdiction included the Sports Tribunal.

Then there was the less visible Department of Culture and Heritage, which was part of the same ministry. The primary functions of this department included oversight of National Heritage Policy and Management, National Archives and Public Records Management, and management of national museums and monuments. Others were the management of historical sites, oversight of national library services to the general public, music research and conservation, culture policy management, and policy for the development of fine, creative, and performing arts.
Working with critical knowledge-based institutions within the ministry in general, and the Department of Culture and Heritage in particular, was unavoidable.

The National Museums of Kenya, established under the National Museums and Heritage Act of 2006; the Kenya National Library Services Board (given legal life by the Kenya National Library Service Act, Cap 225); the Kenya National Commission for Culture and Social Services; and the Kenya Cultural Centre were among the institutions (informed by the Kenya Cultural Centre Act, Cap 218).

Other institutions were the Permanent Presidential Music Commission; the Kenya National Theatre; the Nairobi Music Society; and the Kenya Conservatoire of Music; the British Council in Kenya; H.H. the Aga Khan Ismailia Provincial Council; and the St John Ambulance Association.

Even with these structures in place, Echesa’s performance in the ministry left much to be desired, and he was rebuked on some basic issues by a visibly disappointed President Kenyatta. In 2018, President Kenyatta visited Raila Odinga’s home in Bondo to lay a wreath on the mausoleum of Raila’s late father, who was also Kenya’s first vice-president after independence.

When President Uhuru visited Bondo in December 2018, he went to lay a wreath at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s mausoleum and was unhappy with its state. As the minister in charge, Echesa struggled to explain why the historical site at Kang’o ka Jaramogi was in such disrepair.”

Even with the support of technocrats throughout the ministry and the government, it was clear that Echesa was at his wits end, making blunder after blunder and failing in some very basic aspects of protocol while remaining voluble in political pronouncements – perhaps unaware that cabinet secretaries were constitutionally barred from politicking.

In January 2018, local media reported that the government had deported eight Pakistani women who had come to Kenya to work as dancers. The eight were allegedly helpless victims of a human trafficking syndicate, but had been smuggled into the country under the guise of promoting transnational culture, a claim the ministry denied. “The only role played by the Ministry of Sports and Heritage was to support the Pakistani Nationals application for special passes to participate in an Indian cultural festival via issuance of a ‘Letter of No Objection’ to the Director of Immigration Services as part of the Ministry’s mandate in promoting cultural integration,” said Charles Wambia, the then Director of Administration at the Sports, Culture and Heritage ministry.

This, among many other adverse reports implicating Echesa eventually led to his dismissal in early 2020, after serving as cabinet secretary for a whole of thirteen months. In an executive order issued on the last day of February 2020, it emerged that “…in accordance with Article 152(5) of the Constitution, as read together with Article 152(1)(d) of the Constitution, the appointment of Mr. Rashid Echesa Mohamed, as a Cabinet Secretary has been vacated.” As is the tradition with such developments, no reasons were given for vacating Echesa’s appointment as a cabinet secretary, although his below-par performance at the ministry was somewhat known by many.

Despite Rashid Echesa’s many gaffes, the echnocrats in the ministry and President Kenyatta made certain that the ministry delivered some critical achievements during Echesa’s tenure as cabinet secretary.

Among the accomplishments was Kenya’s continued participation in international sporting extravaganzas, such as the March 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. Kenya was represented by a 300-strong delegation comprised of teams from various sports, including athletics, golf, rugby, cricket, and hockey, at that event, one of the first on Echesa’s watch. During his tenure, Kenya also competed in the IAAF Championships in Doha, Qatar.

Notably, President Kenyatta expressed personal concern about how the ministry would handle the Kenyan teams in the event. According to the Presidential Press Unit, the president directed the ministry’s sports federations to ensure that what was owed to Kenyan athletes was paid. According to the PSCU, “The President directed the Cabinet Secretary of Sports and Heritage Rashid Echesa and other senior ministry officials to ensure that the team is well taken care of before and after the games.”

Local sports cultures and events continued, albeit with the usual difficulties. Football leagues, as well as rugby and gold tournaments, continued. The flow of these leagues keeps Kenya on the global sporting calendar, while also opening doors for potential career opportunities for the youth.

This is related to the fact that Harambee Stars, the national football team coached by French national Sebastien Migne, qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations Finals during Echesa’s tenure. Although the team faced numerous challenges, including the coach going without pay for extended periods of time, it gave Kenyans hope that the country’s most popular sport was returning to its former glory.

In terms of expanding sports infrastructure, it was during Echesa’s tenure at the ministry that Nyayo Stadium was renovated. And, while the process took far longer than expected – until well after he left office— he is credited with kicking off what had previously been nothing more than wishful thinking. Of course, President Kenyatta was also eager to fulfill his campaign promise of expanding Kenya’s sports infrastructure.

The Ministry of Sports, Culture, and Heritage also awarded contracts to developers to renovate the Kipchoge Keino and Kamariny stadiums in Eldoret and Iten, respectively, during his tenure.

In relation to this, the other major stadium, Kasarani International Sports Centre, not only remained operational, but also hosted a number of sporting events during Echesa’s tenure. The stadium had previously been renovated to host the 2017 International Associations of Athletics Federation (IAAF) U18 Championships, and it served as the default venue for local and international sporting events in 2018 and 2019.

The ministry’s hosting of the IAAF’s U18 Championships under Echesa was so successful that Kenya was awarded the hosting rights for the 2020 World U20 Championship. Echesa immediately mobilised a whopping Ksh1.5 billion for fiesta preparations.

Despite entering the ministry under cloudy circumstances and succeeding Hassan Wario, whose tenure was either controversial or colourless, objective observers began to admit that Echesa had made significant progress. In a January 2019 Daily Nation editorial, the respected daily wrote that “…having been in office for approximately 10 months now, Sports Cabinet Secretary Rashid Mohammed Echesa has made commendable progress.”

The same editorial added that “…to his credit, Echesa has done well to, inter alia, reduce uppercuts unleashed by warring boxing officials, make some headway in trying to have cricket leaders play with a straight bat and successfully, albeit in fits and starts, kick-start refurbishment of our worn-out stadiums.”

Echesa oversaw and officiated the KEPSA Sports, Culture, and Arts Sector Board Participates in State Department Stakeholder Workshop, which took place in Nanyuki’s Aberdare’s Country Club in June 2018.

Echesa also toured and initiated value-added projects around Kenyan heritage sites in terms of heritage and culture. His visit to the Kit Mikayi Museum in Kisumu, for example, prompted him to pledge that the ministry would build a five-star hotel to attract more visitors.

Similar initiatives happened with regard to the department of arts and heritage, for which Echesa hardly gets due credit perhaps because his hypervisibility in unsavoury public sideshows tends to obscure his achievements at the ministry. In the end, however, the tenure of Rashid Echesa in the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage is not entirely different from that of his colleagues who preceded or succeeded him. His unlikely arrival and expected exit from the ministry at the time that he did were quite in line with the nature of politics and government in Kenya, and must be read as such.

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