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Kiunjuri: Minister who flew too close to the sun

Mwangi Kiunjuri
Sacked Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE 

From his early days in the national limelight, Festus Mwangi Kiunjuri has always been a man shrouded in controversy. His life both in the political cycles and the public service has also been full of ups and downs.

In 2013, he went against the political grain to popularise his Grand National Unity party (GNU), defying the regional loyalty to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s TNA.

In 2014, however, Mr Kiunjuri joined forces with Mr Kenyatta to support his presidential 2017 reelection after officially dissolving his party, a thing that he had refused in 2013.

His loyalty to the President paid off following his nomination as Minister for Devolution, one of the key cabinet dockets.

And in 2018, Kiunjuri’s star seemed to shine even brighter after President Kenyatta switched him from the Devolution docket to Agriculture—a move that was widely viewed as a vote of confidence in him, given immense importance of farming to the country’s economy.

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Significantly, his transfer to the Agriculture ministry came in the wake of a prolonged drought that had left thousands facing starvation and the ministry on the spot over irregular payment of money to maize importers at the expense of local farmers who had supplied their produce to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB).

With this kind of chaos, Mr Kiunjuri seemed to have unintentionally walked into a role of “Mr Fix-it” as he took over from his predecessor Willy Bett who had been dropped from the docket to assume a new role as Kenya’s Ambassador to India.

Also given the scope of the mess in the ministry, it was going to be a rather short honeymoon for him.

And indeed the road would soon be rocky for him. Apart from protests by disgruntled farmers irked by delayed payments by the NCPB, Kiunjuri also had to endure a series of embarrassing public tongue lashing by the President who took issue with alleged scandals rocking the Agriculture ministry.

The President’s first public attack on the minister was on October 4,2018 during the official opening of the Nairobi International Trade Fair.

Mr Kiunjuri again found himself on the receiving end of Mr Kenyatta’s wrath on October 20 when the President accused his ministry of undermining local farmers by allowing traders to import maize and paying them large sums at the expense of local growers.

“The time for games is over. Look for those stealing public resources, bring them we take them to jail or you (Kiunjuri) will find yourself in trouble over these issues,” the President told a stunned Kiunjuri to his face during this year’s Mashujaa Day celebrations at the Bukhungu Stadium in Kakamega.

These public admonitions confirmed that all wasn’t well between the President and Mr Kiunjuri. The frosty relationship culminated in the Cabinet secretary being sent packing this week, and replaced by Peter Munya who was moved from the Industrialisation docket.

Soon after his sacking on Tuesday, Mr Kiunjuri confirmed what had been evident all along — that his working relationship with his boss had irretrievably deteriorated. He said he had suffered humiliation that could only be eloquently told by his closest friends and immediate family”.

Analysts say Mr Kinjuri’s open defiance of the Building Bridges Initiative(BBI) — which is brainchild of Mr Kenyatta and the Orange Democratic Party(ODM) leader Raila Odinga—may have broken the final straw in his frosty relation with the President.

Mr Kiunjuri openly defied Mr Kenyatta’s directive not to participate in politics. Apparently, the directive by his boss just fell on deaf ears, if his actions are anything to go by.

He recently shocked many when he joined Members of parliament from the Mt Kenya region to openly reject the BBI.

Perhaps piqued by such level of impudence and growing public complaints over numerous gaffes including mishandling sensitive national issues such as maize importation and the now infamous locust invasion, the President decided to part ways with his former ally.

But Kiunjuri has literally gone down fighting. A visibly angry former CS fired salvos against those celebrating his downfall, boldy stating that he is “going nowhere”.

“I have courage, determination and faith, knowing that it will be bumpy and challenging. I shall remain independent, principled and firm as I have been throughout my political career,” he said in a four-page statement soon after his sacking on Tuesday.

Will Mr Kiunjuri, like a phoenix, rise from the current ashes? Only time will tell.

The former CS previously served as a primary school teacher before he joined politics in 1997 to be elected MP for Laikipia East, a position he held till 2013 when he vied for the gubernatorial seat for Laikipia and lost before eventually being appointed as Devolution Secretary in 2015 and later the Agriculture CS.

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