“One time I told the President, 'If there is one person we can count to spread word to our people, on condition that he neither speaks Swahili or English, it is Mwangi Kiunjuri. This guy has a gift. Give him a microphone and let him speak in Gikuyu. Mr President, that guy is good',” these were the words of National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi when he accompanied Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri to a campaign rally in 2017.
Muturi is not only a speaker, but also a long-time ally and aide to President Uhuru Kenyatta. After Tuesday’s Cabinet reshuffle in which Kiunjuri was sacked, the question many will be asking is, what went wrong?
To understand Kiunjuri’s problem, you must first understand his strength.
A man who previously worked as a driver and as a tout does not come so far without a special gift.
Kiunjuri is a man of immense political talent. Without a big name or the benefit of deep pockets, Kiunjuri was elected Laikipia East MP at the age of 28 years – that was during the 1997 General Election.
In the same general election, 36-year old Uhuru Kenyatta lost the Gatundu South parliamentary seat while 31-year old William Ruto made his debut to Parliament.
“All these people, including Uhuru Kenyatta found me in Parliament, I got to Parliament the same day with William Ruto, many years ago,” he often tells his friends.
At the time of his election, Kiunjuri was operating a lorry which he owned but also worked as its tout at the Nanyuki terminus.
It was not that he was uneducated or lacked a formal job. He already had a Bachelor’s degree in Education and had worked briefly as a high school teacher.
“I was not keen about the teaching career, I knew I wanted bigger things and this was limiting me,” the former CS said in a past interview.
It is hard to understand how one would leave a promising teaching career to become a tout in search of “bigger things”.
But at that time, many of the voters in Nanyuki - where Kiunjuri was seeking election - were in the transport business riding on the mwisho wa lami business.
“When I won the DP ticket, wealthy men wanted Mwai Kibaki to hear none of it. After they took their grievances, Kibaki told them that if Nanyuki had so many touts, it was only fair that one of them represents them. That is how I became an MP.”
It was a big gamble that paid off handsomely and Kiunjuri’s decisions have since been driven by the dream for bigger things.
When Kiunjuri’s mentor, Kibaki, was elected President in 2002 – the former tout from Nanyuki was picked as Assistant Minister for Energy which he held until 2007.
Kiunjuri would later play a key role in Kibaki’s re-election in 2007 but to his surprise, Kibaki picked him to become Water Assistant Minister.
An angry Kiunjuri immediately called for a press conference where he dismissed President Kibaki’s appointment as too junior for him.
He had expected a Cabinet ministerial position but instead, he was demoted from the lucrative energy ministry to the less glamorous Water Ministry.
The man from Laikipia would a few days later make a surprise appearance at State House where he was sworn in for the same assistant ministerial position he had rejected.
It was a big but strategic humble pie for the former tout who had an increasingly bulging ego.
In private, he often bragged that the Laikipia East MP’s seat was his until 2030 when he would leave it to his son Kiunjuri.
In 2010, his stay at the Water Ministry came to an abrupt end after a highly publicized scuffle his boss and then Water Minister Charity Ngilu whom he accused of engaging in corruption.
Kiunjuri had punched above his weight and Ngilu emerged victorious after President Kibaki replaced Kiunjuri with Ferdinand Waititu.
As Kibaki’s term came to an end, Kiunjuri started strategizing for a position as the Mt Kenya kingpin.
While still serving on a PNU parliamentary ticket, he worked with the late Nderitu Gachagua to co-found the Grand National Union (GNU), serving as party leader while Gachagua took over as Secretary General.
“In 2011, Gachagua and I decided to field a candidate during a ward by-election in Othaya. What we did not know was that President Kibaki was following the by-election and in the last week, he decided to come campaign for his party’s candidate. We immediately retreated although we refused to withdraw our candidate,” he said of the incident.
Those were the guts of a “big dreamer” that he could take on President Kibaki in his own constituency at a time when the former President was the Mt Kenya kingpin. The GNU candidate lost by less than a hundred votes.
Despite the daring political chess move, Kiunjuri was not to be the Mt regional kingpin as Uhuru Kenyatta emerged as the region’s favorite under the TNA party.
But Kiunjuri was willing to flex his muscles - he declined to fold his GNU party which he used to contest the Laikipia gubernatorial election while at the same time supporting Kenyatta’s presidential candidature.
“I was winning the Laikipia seat until a week to the election when I saw Uhuru in red choppers. From there things went south very fast,” he recalled.
He lost to a little known Joshua Irungu whose only strength was vying on the TNA party that was dominant in the region.
After two years in the political cold, Mwangi Kiunjuri got a major political boost when President Kenyatta picked him to replace Anne Waiguru as Devolution CS.
A number of political observers had for long assumed that Kiunjuri would replace Kenyatta as the region’s political kingpin.
But Kenyatta’s insiders insist that The President will remain as the Mt Kenya kingpin even if he retires in 2022 – a reality that increasingly alienated Kiunjuri.
The CS, having close allies in the political class, used his influence to undermine and issue ultimatums on the BBI process which has become President Kenyatta’s pet project.
He also emerged as the point man to Ruto’s political forays into Mt Kenya.
During the burial of Martha Gachagua, the mother to Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, Kiunjuri is reported to have refused to address complaints raised regarding Agriculture related matters - according to Kieni MP Kanini Kega, a close Uhuru ally. That incident, a week ago, is likely to have sealed his fate.
Political observers have in the past few weeks opined that Kiunjuri’s character was that of a man who was desperate to be sacked – perhaps believing it would be easier to snatch Kenyatta’s political power in an adversarial contest as opposed to the silent maneuvers that have characterized their relationship.
If Kiunjuri succeeds, he will be the new Mt Kenya kingpin after a big gamble reminiscent of his exit from the class room to the Nanyuki terminus.
If his search for bigger dreams aborts, his will be a story mirroring the tragedy of Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology.
Daedalus and his son Icarus were imprisoned by the king of the island Crete. While escaping from exile using wings made of wax, Icarus flew too close to the sun against his father’s advice. The wax melted and he quickly fell down into the sea and to this death.