Thomas Letangule remembers the words vividly, perhaps because of the stinging truth they carried or maybe due to what followed.
They were said to him during an interview for Chief Administrative Secretaries conducted by a panel from the Public Service Commission (PSC).
“We are tired of you. Now, from this interview, go and work… We need to get you out of these interviews to go and work.”
The words came from a PSC commissioner who was chairing the interview session.
“He was so categorical,” Mr Letangule recalls.
He thought his break had come. He thought those words meant he would be given a job and realise his dream of working with the government for yet another time after his six-year tenure as a commissioner with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that ended in January 2017.
However, when the final appointments were made, he was not to be among the Chief Administrative Secretary nominees as he had thought.
That was just one of the many interviews that Mr Letangule has recently attended. He has picked up the unwanted reputation of going up to the final stage of appointment but repeatedly failing to be picked.
In the last one year, he says, he has been to four high-profile interviews, the most recent one being the one for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in July.
He was one of the 15 DPP finalists to succeed Noordin Haji but – as it has happened with the recent recruitment processes for chief administrative secretaries, principal secretaries, and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission chairperson – his efforts bore no fruit.
It gets more stinging when you consider the fact that he also interviewed to be DPP in 2018 and did not sail through.
“I am the most interviewed person,” says Mr Letangule, aware that he is letting himself laugh at his own plight. “I can say, I’m the most high-profile interviewed person. Nobody can beat my record.”
Is he the man no state agency wants to hire?
During an interview at a Nairobi restaurant, one clear thing is that he does not pity himself or feel inadequate.
“You know, these jobs are political,” he says. “These commissioners (who do interviews) may have good intentions, but the decision-maker, you know, is the President.”
He thinks being an Ilchamus, a minority ethnic community that lives in Baringo County, has not helped matters much.
During the interview with Lifestyle, the perfume he is wearing lingers in the air almost as poetically as his words. He is the outspoken Letangule of yore, a man who could speak on behalf of fellow IEBC commissioners when the rest were quaking in their boots. He does not shy away from making controversial utterances.
So, has he finally given up on applying for State jobs? He says there is a new trick he wants to employ henceforth. More on that later.
It is telling that it is not a bald Mr Letangule we encounter when we arrive for our mid-morning interview. The 56-year-old used to be bald, with a hairline going south every other day. He no longer is. His scalp is bushy, thanks to a surgery that happened in Turkey in 2021.
“I was balding”, he says, “but now there is technology. I said to myself, ‘Why should I live with a bald head when I can (reverse) that?’”
“So, I went to transplant my hair in Turkey. Not very expensive, by the way. Small cost,” he says. Prodded further, he claims that an air ticket to Turkey is more expensive than the cost of the procedure.
“So, I transplanted 3,000 pieces of hair, one after another, using a new technology. It’s painless (done under anaesthesia). It’s done in Istanbul. One of my doctors, a very good lady doctor, asked me to take my picture here in Nairobi,” he says.
“(During the operation), they removed the hair from the back of my head. Some were removed from my beard. They look for hair everywhere,” he says, laughing. “She even looked at my chest. They look at where the strong hair is. You know, the strong hair is in the back of your head. And the beard hair is also very strong (for) those of us who are lucky to have a beard.”
Admitted to the bar 26 years ago, Mr Letangule owes his success story to his law practice. He worked with a law firm for just a year after studies before he opened his own, alongside a partner. They were operating from Nairobi’s Town House.
“Then around 2002, I became an activist for my community, Ilchamus, so I vied (for MP). Unfortunately, that election in Baringo was very hot because (President Daniel arap) Moi was retiring. His son (Gideon Moi) wanted to inherit the seat, and there was a lot of political pressure which then forced me to withdraw from the race. So, when I came back to practice, we had finished our resources and we were not doing well. We actually went to zero,” he says.
That saw a split in his law firm, and the partners went their separate ways.
“I started from scratch. If you read my book, Trailblazer, you will see that I just came and I told my partner, ‘I’m going.’ And I went to the streets. I took my files and went to the Transnational (Plaza) and gave a watchman to guard them for me for one month as we were looking for premises. I took a very bold move. So, I was operating from a hotel,” he tells Lifestyle.
That is how he began Letangule and Company Advocates, a law firm he heads to date.
“That was one major, helpful decision I ever made in my life — to go solo. That was one of the critical decisions of my life. I opened a small office in a Transnational Plaza with the little money I had, and that opened a serious take-off for me in terms of my career. Within five years, I moved to Upper Hill and I transitioned to buying my own office space where I am currently — at 4th Avenue Towers, where I occupy 3,000 square feet with other lawyers. We teamed up, working for corporates and all that,” he says.
He adds: “It enabled me to even have my own home in Karen and other things. And I also run other enterprises. I do bottled water. I do a dairy farm, smart farm.”
In 2011, he applied to be an IEBC commissioner. He landed the job in the team chaired by Issack Hassan that delivered the 2013 General Election — the first under the 2010 Constitution.
He reckons that had it not been the merit-based way of awarding jobs during the President Mwai Kibaki administration, he probably would not have landed the appointment.
“I think President Kibaki allowed systems to work,” he says.
Life as an IEBC commissioner, he says, was extremely demanding. There was the creation of constituency and ward boundaries then the General Election.
After the election, he headed the IEBC dispute resolution team that handled a number of cases, among them one that involved Kethi Kilonzo who sought to replace her late father Mutula Kilonzo as the Makueni senator.
“We really wanted the lady to be the candidate. But look, the law is clear, you have to be a registered voter,” he says. “So, we had no choice but to strike her out. The High Court agreed with us and proposed the party head now to bring another candidate. So, they brought the brother (Mutula Kilonzo Jr).”
At the IEBC, he also travelled a lot, going to places like South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, among others, for election-related matters.
“It was an enjoyable moment, although we were very busy. You technically lose your life. There is a lot of noise, you are travelling, your children are not seeing you,” he says. “But in all, the family understood I was working, so they gave me permission. Once in a while, I would go with them (to local destinations): if it’s Mombasa, I’d organise so that I have family around.”
The team was given a “dignified exit” from IEBC and left for the beleaguered Wafula Chebukati team that oversaw the 2017 and the 2022 general elections.
Having been an IEBC commissioner for six years took a toll on his law firm, and it is one of the reasons he has been seeking employment opportunities so fervently.
“In those six years in IEBC, I lost most of my clients,” he confesses. “I had built a solid practice as a practitioner, with heavy cases. But when I went back, I found a shell of a law firm. Clients had gone and I was starting almost from scratch.”
“You go to the IEBC and you come back, you know, clients have gone. Trying to rebuild is not easy. So, the only way to survive is to try to see whether you can get another small government job, which can push you. You know, I’m still young. (Some of my) children are still in school. Now, you are out of payslip. You know, a payslip is very important,” he says, laughing.
Another reason, he confesses, is that he thought President William Ruto would remember past engagements where he promised to “award” him. Though he does not go into specifics, Mr Letangule says he helped Dr Ruto and the then-president Uhuru Kenyatta make a critical decision in 2017 after ODM leader Raila Odinga withdrew from a presidential re-run.
“I think that’s the only time I ever received a call from now President Ruto, telling me, ‘Come to Karen.’ He was then Deputy President,” he says. “We were very happy when he ascended (to the presidency). Now, I thought my chances were very high. In fact, I thought I would be in the first line-up of government.”
As his list of failed interviews keeps growing (he calls himself “an experienced interviewee”), Mr Letangule thinks it is time to change tack.
“It looks like I have to change my strategy. If there is another job to be advertised, I think you just have to look for blessings first. That is the reality. You cannot accidentally enter this government. You can’t just fumble your way. You need to know people,” he says, matter-of-factly. “What I have now known is that these blind applications may not help.”
As far as family life is concerned Mr Letangule believes he has been blessed.
“One of my sons just did a degree in entrepreneurship in Melbourne (Australia). He started his own company there; he’s doing very well,” he says. “I have a son working in Poland. I have a daughter who is into banking, working in London (United Kingdom).”
In 2013, Mr Letangule lost his second wife in a case suspected to have been due to medical negligence. She bled while undergoing tests. He says that the eldest child left by the deceased wife is now in Form Two.
“So I’m moving on well. I live with them now. I’m a very happy family man. We go to our Nakuru farm, like during weekends, and we do projects together. I’m on good terms with my elder children,” he says.
Passionate about human rights, Mr Letangule has been involved in a number of high-profile cases, among them the suit about the “mathenge” weed where a toothless goat was taken to court as evidence.
“The High Court made orders that these people be compensated because one plant has destroyed livelihoods,” he says. “I am sitting with orders I don’t know how to enforce.”
Currently, he is preparing a lawsuit against Britain in a case that will interrogate agreements the colonial power entered with Maasai leaders in the early years of Kenya’s occupation. The case, he says, has the blessings of the three Maa governors.
“I’m leading a team of lawyers in drafting the Maasai case against the Anglo-Maasai agreements of 1904 (and) 1911. So, we are looking for reparations. It’s a strong, solid case,” he says. “We are (going after) the British government for reparations, compensation, and even an apology.”
Having studied the 2010 Constitution for his master’s in law in 2011, Mr Letangule believes that Article 100 of the document, which touches on inclusion of minorities, is largely overlooked.
“The only article which has never been implemented is Article 100, which specifically addresses the concerns of ethnic minority communities,” he says.
He believes that people from minority communities like him tend to be snubbed in appointments because they don’t come from vote-rich regions.
By the time our interview is over, Mr Letangule has picked up and ignored some calls on his iPhone, signed a chequebook brought by an aide, shown us his transplanted hair that “has just come from a shave”, shoved aside his earlier reservations about being photographed, and made us laugh a couple of times.
The countdown begins to the next government job shortlist.