Dr Fred Okengo Matiang’i — the CS for Interior and Coordination of National Government — is a man of large appetites. He eats life with a spade, not a big spoon. He’s not the kind of man to be lost in a crowd. He fills every room — both literally and figuratively. The man from Nyamira has a sharp tongue and even a more cutting wit. I watched him perform before MPs a fortnight ago and concluded that he has a tonne of emotional intelligence.
He can skewer you with highfalutin lexicon. Among Kenya’s top politicians, he’s a rare true philosopher king. He’s carving out a space for himself and stands to reap big in the fullness of time. Let’s dig deeper.
Dr Matiang’i isn’t a novel face to Kenyans. He’s had his share of controversies since he joined the Jubilee state as a Cabinet technocrat in 2013. He’s been criticised by civil society as heavy handed. The low point came when he shut down the press during the self-swearing in of ODM’s Raila Odinga following the botched 2017 elections.
He’s cracked down on dissent and bulldozed some difficult decisions in the dockets under his charge. But this is clear – Dr Matiang’i is a no-nonsense public servant. He can duke it out with the best of them, and give as much as he gets. He’s not a shrinking violet. In fact, you get the impression he relishes a good fight.
The apogee of Dr Matiangi’s power came on January 22, 2019, when President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed him through Executive Order 1 of 2019 the chair of the innocuously named National Development Implementation and Communication Cabinet Committee. That mouthful of verbiage obscured a seismic shift in the hierarchy of the state. With the stroke of a pen, Mr Kenyatta rendered DP William Ruto nugatory.
Dr Matiang’i effectively replaced Mr Ruto as the country’s numero dos, because that committee is composed of all the highest officials in the state. It runs the government and Dr Matiang’i — not Mr Ruto — sits atop it. Mr Kenyatta had made Dr Matiang’i deputy president in all but by title. A new political prince was born.
I have a confession to make. Dr Matiang’i for a long time worked for the State University of New York (SUNY) at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy as its Eastern Africa representative. SUNY is among the largest universities in the US and I teach at the University at Buffalo, one of its flagships. Dr Matiang’i and I also had a mutual friend, the late distinguished Africanist, Prof Joel Barkan, who wrote prodigiously on Kenya.
By all accounts, Dr Matiang’i was an excellent academic leader and policy wonk during his work with SUNY. He holds a PhD from the University of Nairobi. He’s one of the few accomplished, worldly, and erudite senior officials in the state.
Dr Matiang’i is among a minuscule cadre of younger leaders who could very well go all the way to the top in our lifetimes. There aren’t many high-profile competitors in that relatively youthful league, except Mr Ruto. He’s next in line after Wiper’s Kalonzo Musyoka, Narc Kenya’s Martha Karua, Amani’s Musalia Mudavadi, and ODM’s Raila Odinga. He’s in the next “starting 11” if he’s not a “starter” already.
I am not discounting Governor Kivutha Kibawana or Governor Charity Ngilu. But they are older than him. He’s in pole position because Kenyans only elect to the presidency those with executive experience, and he’s got lots of it. Those in civil society had better watch him and gain some executive experience.
I don’t think Kenyans had seen Dr Matiang’i in his true element until MPs “grilled” him over the supposed “downgrading” of Mr Ruto’s security detail. In a staccato but unflappable style, Dr Matiang’i took Mr Ruto and his brigand to the cleaners.
They say be careful what you wish for. Kenyans didn’t know the extent of Mr Ruto’s massive riches, or the cost to poor taxpayers who pay to guard him and his moolah, including his chickens. Nor that he’s arrogated unto himself the power to assign policemen to guard his friends. All in all, we learnt that Mr Ruto is protected by a whopping 257 armed GSU and police personnel – more than eight times his predecessors.
Dr Matiang’i calmly defrocked and exposed Mr Ruto as a “hustler” hypocrite who lives larger than the “dynasties” on state largesse. The man owns five helicopters, tens of thousands of acres of farms and land, and an eye-popping battery of private homes, hotels, and businesses.
It was a knockout by Dr Matiang’i. To prove his bona fides as a philosopher king, Dr Matiang’i coined a new term — sympathy addiction — a witty riff off “sex addiction” to describe Mr Ruto. Like or hate him, Dr Matiang’i is now firmly in the public’s zeitgeist as a possible future head of state. He’s the first Kisii since the late Simeon Nyachae with clear a shot.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.