Simon Chelugui: The hesitant Baron

Simon Chelugui and UK’s Secretary of State for Health Sajid Javid, are cheered by President Uhuru Kenyatta after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Health Workforce Collaboration between the two countries

At 46, Simon Kiprono Chelugui was one of the youngest Cabinet secretaries to join President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Cabinet in January 2018. The soft-spoken entrepreneur from Baringo County was picked to head the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation, a docket that was poised to play a crucial role in the attainment of the President’s Big Four Agenda legacy projects.

In its 2017 campaign manifesto, the Jubilee administration acknowledged that water was the source of livelihoods and was instrumental in conserving the environment as well as promoting agriculture, industry and the generation of hydro-electric power.

Even though Kenya’s economy depends primarily on agriculture — the sector provides about one-third of the country’s income — the country is largely dry, with about 80 per cent classified as arid and semi-arid. The country’s high-potential agricultural land amounts to only 17 per cent yet it sustains a disproportionate 75 per cent of the population. Experts have also pointed out that up to 15 million Kenyans have no access to clean water. This unstainable state of affairs called for innovative solutions such as more inventive water harvesting-cum-storage facilities, which previous administrations seemed not to really been able to initiate. To improve the health and quality of life in Kenya, the Jubilee Party had promised on the campaign trail to provide sustainable access to safe water, enhance sewerage systems and expand acreage under irrigation.

The expectation behind Chelugui’s nomination and subsequent appointment would therefore have been that he would tap into his wealth of training and experience in corporate governance, policy formulation and entrepreneurship to bring these ambitious promises to life. Chelugui had a master’s degree in finance, investment and strategic management under his belt, and by the time of his appointment he had also earned his stripes leading different institutions, including the Betting Control and Licensing Board, the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) Board and companies dealing with water engineering works.

The new CS took to his new position like a fish to water, promising to complete construction of all the 57 dams promised in the Jubilee manifesto and increase water coverage in the country from 60 to 80 per cent. By the time he left office, however, it was not clear how much of this had been achieved, although he did take pride in having initiated reforms under the Water Act 2016 that he said had “transformed the water sector agencies”. These reforms included renaming the different water boards as water works, and the National Water and Sewerage Corporation became the National Water Harvesting Authority. “The institutions will be responsible for the design and construction of water storage and harvesting bodies,” he said.

He had also pledged to, in conjunction with the Ministry of Infrastructure, establish a water salination plant in Lamu County to purify water from the Indian Ocean and distribute it for domestic use in the coast region.

Born in 1971 in Kisanana Village in Mogotio, Baringo County, Chelugui was a wealthy investor with a keen eye for business opportunities. This entrepreneurial bug bit him while he was still a Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of Nairobi. During his vetting by the National Assembly Committee on Appointments following his nomination to the Cabinet, Chelugui shocked the panelists when he estimated his net worth at about KES 796 million, easily making him the richest Cabinet nominee at that time. He said the wealth included real estate, farming and moveable assets.

Although he had put his foot forward to test the political waters of Mogotio Constituency and Baringo County in past election cycles, Chelugui came across as more of a technocrat than a dyed-in-the-wool politician. So it was not surprising that in the run-up to the 2022 General Election, he chose to remain in Uhuru’s outgoing administration despite media speculation that he would be among several government leaders expected to resign and run for elective positions on 9 August.

Chelugui had had mixed fortunes in elective politics. He first tried his hand in 1997, straight after graduating from university. At the time, Mogotio had just been hived off Koibatek District and Mogotio Constituency split from Eldama Ravine Constituency. Chelugui faced off with the ‘big boys’, among them William Morogo, the incumbent MP and Minister for Transport in President Daniel arap Moi’s administration. Suffice to say that he lost to the more experienced politician.

Little was heard of him after that until he was appointed Director of the CDF Board in 2008 where he would serve until 2011. In the 2013 General Election, which also included county government positions courtesy of the 2010 Constitution, Chelugui expressed interest in the Baringo governorship but lost in the United Republican Party (URP) primaries. He jumped ship and teamed up with Stanley Kiptis, who was contesting the governor’s seat on a Kenya African National Union ticket, as his running mate. They lost to Benjamin Cheboi, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Higher Education Loans Board and URP candidate.

Two years later, he was appointed as a director of the Betting Control and Licensing Board. He left in 2017 to prepare the ground for his second bid at the Baringo governorship but changed his mind and ran for the senatorial seat against the incumbent, Gideon Moi, who trounced the Moi Kabarak High School alumnus by a clear margin — Gideon garnered 116,201 votes against Chelugui’s 70,182.

As the President and Deputy President, William Ruto, embarked on their second and final term in office, something in their relationship shifted fundamentally. As the glue that once held them together began to melt and the chips began to fall spectacularly, Cabinet secretaries and other senior government officials were increasingly profiled as being either pro-Uhuru or pro-Ruto. Chelugui was perceived as being among those allied to the DP.

Then in 2019 reports emerged of corruption scandals in some of the mega water projects around the country. The claims surrounding Itare Dam in Nakuru County and Kimwarer and Arror dams in Elgeyo Marakwet County threatened to consume Chelugui and he had to defend himself both at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, where he recorded a statement, and in Parliament where he was grilled by MPs. Chelugui denied involvement in the Kimwarer and Arror contracts, saying his ministry was not mandated with implementation since the two projects fell under the Ministry of Devolution.

Although he survived the looming imbroglio that would have swept him out of the Cabinet, things would degenerate so much that in January 2020, the President reshuffled the Cabinet in a move deemed to whittle down Ruto’s influence in the Executive. Two CSs thought to be allied to the Deputy President, Mwangi Kiunjuri (Agriculture) and Rashid Echesa (Sports and Culture) were purged from the Cabinet and others moved to other ministries. Chelugui was transferred to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, taking over from Ukur Yattani, who moved to the National Treasury. As the new head of the Labour docket, he promised to continue championing the cause of vulnerable groups, which had been started by his predecessors who included Phyllis Kandie. This was in reference to the ‘Inua Jamii’ cash transfer programme meant to benefit society’s most vulnerable groups.

Chelugui also promised to enhance the sourcing of employment opportunities from other countries. One such endeavour came to fruition in 2022, when 19 Kenyan nurses were recruited to work in the United Kingdom. This was the culmination of bilateral talks and the signing of an agreement between the President and British Prime Minster Boris Johnson to have Kenyan nurses employed by Britain’s National Health Service.

Simon Chelugui meets labour union leaders ahead of Labour Day 2022 celebrations.

The CS took over the Labour docket when various trade unions were threatening to have their members go on strike over disagreements with their employers. In June 2021, several trade unions in the public sector issued a joint notice of strike against a decision by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission to freeze all salary increases and any signing of Collective Bargaining Agreements for two years because of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the unions that signed the notice were the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers, Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union, Kenya Union of Clinical Officers and Kenya Union of Special Needs Education Teachers. Others were the Kenya University Staff Union and Union of National Research Institutes Staff of Kenya.

There was also the matter of Kenyan citizens employed as domestic workers in the Middle East being tortured and subjected to inhumane conditions by their employers. There was a public outcry that many workers, particularly those working in Saudi Arabia, were suffering mistreatment and some had even died in mysterious circumstances.

Appearing before the Parliamentary Committee on Labour Relations, Chelugui and his Principal Secretary, Dr. Peter Tum, told the MPs that a fact-finding report by the ministry had revealed that 93 Kenyan migrants had died in Saudi Arabia since 2019. The report indicated that they were among the 87,784 Kenyans working in the region and whose employment the ministry had facilitated.

The CS said while the government was investigating the reported deaths with help from the host countries, care was also being taken not to jeopardise the safety and work of other Kenyan migrants in the host countries. He said the government, under the President’s stewardship, had established a migrant workers’ fund and that the ministry had also increased the number of Labour attaches in the region and set up temporary rescue homes to cater for workers’ emergency needs.

But the greatest challenge to face the CS was the Covid-19 pandemic, which cost the labour sector dearly because of the ensuing lockdown. According to an International Labour Organisation report, the pandemic had a heavy and immediate toll on labour markets as the drastic containment measures caused an unprecedented collapse in employment and working hours. First to be affected were workers in the hospitality, manufacturing and processing sectors as organisations shut down their operations.

In a report by Private Enterprise Development in Low-Income Countries, it was estimated that in just one month of Covid-19 in Kenya, “overall formal employment fell by 16 per cent between March and April 2020”. During the Labour Day celebrations on 1 May 2022, Chelugui recounted meetings with partners and stakeholders seeking to mitigate the impact of the virus on workers’ lives and livelihoods.

“Upon the onset of Covid-19, we sat down with stakeholders and social partners and signed a memorandum of understanding that enabled employers to let employees work from home or share responsibilities in the timetable,” he said during the ceremony that was also attended by the President at the Nyayo National Stadium. The CS thanked the President for leading the country through the crisis by instituting measures to cushion Kenyan workers from the adverse effects of the pandemic.

Noting that the country was picking up from the aftershock of the virus, Chelugui urged Kenyans to conduct themselves peacefully during and after the 9 August 2022 General Election to maintain the gains made in the recovery process.

“We have just recovered from the effects of Covid-19, and my hope is that we don’t do anything that would be disruptive to this progress,” he said.

In the final analysis, owing to a multiplicity of issues that included the graft allegations around the dams in the Rift Valley and the protracted investigations; the hangover of the failed Galana-Kulalu Irrigation Scheme; the shuffling of ministries and departments; and the ebb and flow of politics, it is difficult to substantively measure Chelugui’s contribution to the Water and Labour dockets.

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