I have recently been reacquainted with Hon. Koigi wa Wamwere, former MP Subuki and former MP Nakuru North, after many years since we last spoke. I knew Koigi when he was an MP in the 1970’s.
At that time he and I were on opposite sides of the political divide. Back then, Koigi and his "comrades" James Orengo, Abuya Abuya, Chelagat Mutai, Chibule wa Tsuma, Mwashengu wa Mwachofi and Lawrence Sifuna spent all their time opposing virtually everything that the government tried to do, both under our founding president Jomo Kenyatta and under his successor, Daniel arap Moi.
Because the men within the group were fond of growing beards in the Marxist style, I liked to jokingly refer to them as the “Seven bearded sisters”, a coinage based on the title of Anthony Sampson’s very popular book at the time The Seven Sisters: The great oil companies & the world they shaped.
A poor agrarian nation
I found Koigi and his friends to be an extreme nuisance to what I considered to be the essential things and the processes needed to transform what was a poor agrarian nation into a newly emerging economy, a newly industrialized country.
That was always the dream during all the time I worked for Kenyatta and certainly in the early years of the Moi era when I was still in high office.
For Kenyatta had given us a very clear vision for taking the country forward. Appreciating fully that what we had inherited at independence was an agricultural economy, his clarion call was for “Uhuru na Kazi” affirming that independence did not mean that we could now take it easy and relax, but rather that we should work harder than ever, to build a strong nation.
Farming was the key economic activity of the time, and the only sure way to create employment was to ensure that as many people as possible had land which they could work on.
Along with this we worked to invite new investment in tourism and industry. But the only viable short-term solution to the need for economic opportunity, was cash crop farming.
Meantime, as a government, we were told to focus on “the three enemies” of our nation: poverty, ignorance and disease. By which Kenyatta meant that the government should not only create economic opportunity in cash crop farming, but also provide the Kenyan people with schools (to fight ignorance) and health facilities (to fight disease).
These are the things we were working towards, with great clarity. It was an uphill task as our population was also growing very fast – at one point, Kenya had the highest population growth rate in the world.
But even as we struggled to provide Kenyans with a better quality of life, people like Koigi criticized everything we did; accused us of failing to provide “the fruits of Uhuru”; and opposed us at every level.
Nowadays Koigi and I get along very well even though I know he disagrees with me fundamentally. He thinks I did a lot of things wrong. I also disagree with him.
I feel he was essentially wasting his time by opposing the government and that he could have contributed more constructively in a variety of other ways.
But the key thing I seek to mention here is that as Attorney General and as Minister for Constitutional Affairs after I was elected to parliament to represent Kikuyu constituency, in both cases I interacted daily with what we may call ordinary MPs, the ones that were not serving in the Cabinet. In those days Cabinets were very small so very few of us were in the Cabinet.
Every day you had to answer questions raised by Koigi and his fellow MPs. Thereafter we would have tea, though sometimes we would disagree very strongly and not want to talk to each other.
But that interaction was valuable. That interaction reminded those of us in high office what the other side felt, where the other side thought we were going wrong, where we might be going overboard if indeed we were.
And because we met them all the time in parliament, we likewise were able to tell them why we thought they were wrong, why some of the things they were talking about were impractical, and why some of the things they were proposing were just unworkable.
A Cabinet totally isolated
So it was a huge mistake for Kenya to go for a presidential winner-takes-all electoral system. The Westminster system served as well. We had a system where even the President would occasionally come to parliament and his ministers were there all the time.
We interacted with MPs, we had coffee with them, we had lunch with them, we were forced to listen to their criticism and however irritating we may have found it at the time, all these were beneficial for the country.
Now we have a cabinet totally isolated from parliament yet it’s supposed to implement the will of the Kenyan people, which, in many ways, is best expressed through those they have voted into parliament.
We now have a system where when a Cabinet Secretary is summoned before a parliamentary committee, they are coming to meet hostile strangers, not people they interact with daily and who know them and who they know.
The sad episode witnessed a few months back involving Dr Monica Juma is instructive here. Absent the impression of MPs that she was against their interests, Dr Juma would be ably serving as the Secretary to the Cabinet right now.
Precisely because she had not interacted much with MPs who perceived her as an enemy, a very capable woman was denied a job she was eminently qualified to hold.
True, she was a Principal Secretary and not a Cabinet Secretary but her case is nonetheless an important cautionary tale. That absence of interaction is something which is wrong and going forward we will pay a steep price for it.
I personally believe there is nothing to be ashamed of in admitting you made a mistake. I myself at the end of a one year circus which was called at the time the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry said plainly that it was a mistake for me to have gone into politics. Once I had finished my time as Attorney General, I should have just retired.
Now I look back with deep satisfaction on the years I have spent outside political office: looking into my business interests, bringing up my family, rejoicing in having grandchildren. I can truly say they have been some of the happiest years of my life.
I may have been unhappy over the years to see so much that I worked for within government not taken up and expanded on to its full potential. But I have no regrets about what we did at the time I was in office.
The Kenyatta government, which I served for 15 years, and undoubtedly the Moi government which I served for approximately five years - those were governments dedicated to ending poverty to bringing economic progress; to providing education to every Kenyan child; to providing health services to every Kenyan who needed it; and to providing the means for generating prosperity in every corner including areas we knew would never vote for Kenyatta if there was a presidential election.
The Westminster system served us well
The presidential system has divided us, it has brought about all this nonsense I hear about called the tyranny of numbers. What we need is a president who is also an MP, who has a constituency he has to answer for, who occasionally has to talk to ordinary voters in his own constituency, the way British Prime Ministers do.
The Westminster system served us well. Some false enthusiasm led us to adopt the presidential system. It’s time to admit we made a mistake and go back to the Westminster system.
It has excellent checks and balances. It forces ministers routinely to have to justify themselves to parliament and it has clear separation of powers just like any other system.
I believe we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. We should have corrected whatever might have been a mistake in our Westminster system instead of abandoning it.
And I believe that so long as we retain this divisive presidential system we now have, we will continue to pay a steep price for it in having a top leadership which, irrespective of who is president, will unavoidably be very isolated from the concerns of ordinary people on a day to day basis.