George Natembeya was thought to be one of the toughest administrators in Kenya, having worked in different areas of the republic.
Earlier this month, he announced he would join politics and contest the Trans Nzoia governor’s seat on a Democratic Action Party (DAP-K) ticket.
Mr Natembeya says his firmg stand and tough demeanour were adopted from former internal security minister John Michuki. He says he still applies the late minister’s strategies in his work.
He spoke about his experiences, disappointments, regrets and successes.
Who is George Natembeya?
I was born in Trans Nzoia in 1971 to parents who were squatters at that time, but we moved immediately to Bungoma, where my grandfather had land. I studied in Bungoma and in 1986 I joined the Mother of Apostles Seminary up to 1989, when I sat my KCSE and qualified to join university. I was admitted to the University of Nairobi main campus, where I completed a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.
That was when multipartyism resumed and students were really involved (in politics) and study calendars were interrupted. I spent a bit of time at home because of that, but I completed my studies in December 1995.
When did you join government and what was your first assignment?
In March 1996, I was employed as a district officer (DO) and posted to Transmara at the district commissioner’s office. I was later given a scholarship to study for a masters’ degree in anthropology and so I left after working for six months. The government was gracious enough to give me a fully paid study leave, (though I had) not completed my induction. I completed the master’s in 1998 and graduated in 1999.
Upon completion, I went back to work and I was posted to Nakuru, where I started my actual fieldwork. I have worked in Uasin Gishu, Narok, Nandi Hills, Trans Nzoia. I was later called to Harambee House for a ‘brief assignment’ under the late John Michuki, who was then the minister for national security and provincial administration.
Mr Michuki is known to have been a no-nonsense kind of leader. Tell us what it was like working under him.
We had a very good working relationship and I was surprised at the kind of chemistry that we had.
When I arrived in Nairobi, he called me to his office and told me to draft a memo, and then gave me some key highlights of what I needed to capture. It was a three-paragraph memo and I presented it to him. Later the secretary told me that the minister was happy with it.
I used to write all of Mr Michuki’s speeches and I mastered the tone, phrases and sentence flow that he wanted, depending on whether he was delivering a warning, wanting to be diplomatic in speech and all. At some point, I was the only person who would do a memo, a letter and a speech and the minister would sign without even reading it.
Some letters would even be written in other senior officials’ offices and he would ask, ‘Has Natembeya looked at this’?
He was very particular, keen and specific, even on where a colon, hyphen, full stop should be.
I learned a lot from Mr Michuki. I learned about work ethics - though he was an elderly man, he would work until very late and make sure the work was completed. At that time, he multitasked. He was the member of Parliament for Kangema and also a minister. He would be in Kangema, later go to Parliament, and have meetings in his office. In those days, the minister in charge of security had to accompany the President to any assignment outside the office. It was mandatory, for the purpose of implementing presidential directives.
Because of this closeness to him, I became like a member of his family. I knew all his children, his wife and his family members. When he passed on, some of his children called me to tell me ‘Pole’. They knew that his death had hit me hard and they realised it.
I admired how he handled public issues. He did not entertain nonsense at work and he had targets that had to be met. He was always busy and he has become my point of reference. That is why you always see me out there working.
He was an administrator in colonial times and at that time, people were very forceful and you had to be very strict. Michuki was in 1957 employed as a clerk in the provincial administration and in 1961, he became the first African district commissioner in Nyeri district.
He taught me to be firm and never be helpless. He used to emphasise the power of government in making things happen. There is a quote he liked: that the government can remove all your teeth and ask you to go and report.
Are you, therefore, saying that he was your good mentor and contributed to the tough demeanour you portray in your pronouncements?
Absolutely. He encouraged me to be honest, to be firm, to have integrity and never lie. He was a true Kenyan and he wished he had more time. He used to wish he would be given 30 more years because he believed he would have changed this country.
It is actually a privilege for me to have worked under him and also for the government.
What is this attribute that you had that enabled you to rise through the ranks from being a PA to becoming a regional commissioner?
I believe in service to the people. I believe it is possible to come from nowhere and rise to whatever ranks someone wants. I rose without the support of anybody. I believe in offering solutions to the people. I always say that if you come to my office and you do not find a solution to your problem then your problem has no solution in Kenya. You cannot come to my office crying and leave crying.
One of the toughest assignments was to actualise the Mau evictions and that is a highly emotive issue politically here in the Rift Valley. You have had a lot of verbal attacks from all corners. There were times you were told ‘Natembeya Atatembea’. What went through your mind then?
The scramble for the Mau happened when I was a very young DO in Mulot. There were very senior people in government who would even send me to go and check what was happening on their land. Sometimes we would go and see people felling indigenous trees and this really hurt me, but the helplessness at that point could not allow me to do anything.
When I came back to Narok as a county commissioner, we would seize many vehicles carrying tons of charcoal and cedar posts from the forest. That water tower is important not just to Kenya but also to neighbouring Tanzania, the Serengeti and all. The Mara River was drying up and this to me was a threat.
I called my team, including the Administration Police and the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya Wildlife Services. At that time, there was a joint enforcement unit already (guarding) that forest but there was still a big problem still because there was a cartel. There were many people inside the forest from all communities.
We did committee minutes and sent them to Nairobi. Before the approval came, we were already in the forest evicting people who had encroached on the forest. The cutline was very clear and there was no question about it. Even the people who were inside that forest knew where the cutline was.
It was a multi-agency operation but I became the face of it. Politicians started attacking me but the same resolve that I learned from Michuki is what I applied.
How do you feel about the Mau now? Do you think it is a victory for you and do you feel it is now in safer hands as you exit?
I am very proud of what I did in that place. The results are glaring because even the rains have started becoming regular. The Mara River is also cleaner and fuller. Even the people who were opposed to the restoration of the Mau are now enjoying the rains. The Maasai Mara National Reserve is now restored. The wildebeest migration spectacle is now back.
The forest is currently being fenced. The millions of trees we planted are growing very well and I believe that in a few years we will have a full canopy there.
Were you ever discouraged at any point, feeling like giving up on the Mau?
At some point, the office almost abandoned me because the issue of the Mau restoration became too political, but I had support where it mattered, so I pressed on and I am happy.
Your two years as regional commissioner has seen you handle the issue of banditry, especially in northern counties and even as we speak there are ongoing attacks in the Kerio Valley. You were tough on politicians especially in Tiaty, Samburu and others, blaming them for the insecurity and some were arrested. Do you still maintain this position as the former RC?
Yes, I do. These are regions where something can happen and you beg political leaders to join you and they are reluctant to come and discuss the solutions, because they are part of the problem. Even when they do, immediately after you finish the meeting, some of them give out up to Sh300,000 (to young men). These young men go ahead to buy firearms and ammunition. That is what the money is meant for.
Politicians play a big role because they buy the firearms and ammunition for the youth to gain support. It is part of what gives them political mileage in that area. But it is the wrong way. Banditry in these areas is largely (caused) by lack of political leadership. Politicians have not come out strongly to condemn banditry, cattle rustling and these sporadic attacks.
Comment on the current attacks in Kerio Valley
Like I said, the attacks are politically motivated. Kerio Valley has relatively been quiet since 2017. If you study the pattern, it happens just before elections. We have not had serious security issues in Kerio Valley until last year, which was the election-eve year. During this period, the voter is right. Whatever they ask for - whether it is firearms, ammunition, water or food - the politicians are providing them. They are careful not to leave a trail. That is why when we go to court it is hard to get witnesses to testify.
You are on record asking the political elite to follow the footsteps of West Pokot Governor John Lonyangapuo. Why?
The governor is a professor and he has lived up to the true meaning of the title because he does not entertain these things. He had been trying to provide alternatives and he attended the meetings we had asked him to attend because he gets involved. There are currently so many people from West Pokot who are even leasing land and doing businesses in Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu and other places. They even improve livestock breeds; do large-scale farming and businesses. That is true leadership.
The challenges between West Pokot and Turkana, West Pokot and Trans Nzoia, and West Pokot and Baringo are very minimal because they are just sucked into the mix by those who have to go through their areas like Pokot Central and they have to retaliate.
What is your biggest regret since you came to the Rift Valley?
The biggest and only regret I have is that when I came, we identified illicit firearms as a problem that is fuelling bandit attacks in the Rift Valley because communities were arming themselves. It was basically an arms race. We sat down with the security committee in the region and we agreed that we call all the security committees in the affected counties - Turkana, West Pokot, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Baringo, Laikipia and Samburu and we came up with an operation order.
We were going to go there and actually get these firearms. The foot soldiers were very motivated and the morale was very good. The plan was good, but we could not do it because there was no funding. There was no budget, nothing, and now as the RC, there was nothing I could do. We could not do the disarmament.
There was also the problem of international laws, since Kenya is part of the international community. The position that the international community has taken is that when it comes to disarmament, it has to be voluntary not forceful.
I am leaving regretting not having succeeded in disarmament but as I have said, it was because of lack of facilitation and political goodwill. It is a bit frustrating because, actually, I did not receive the correct position on why we were not carrying out disarmament.
Has voluntary disarmament worked then?
Not much. The people have not responded to voluntary disarmament well. You know there are a lot of firearms in that region but what (was surrendered was) just a drop in the ocean. Just about 20 or 30. Actually, even the communities that did not have the firearms have gone ahead to acquire them because they know the government will not take them by force!
I even spoke to the Interior Cabinet secretary before I resigned and I explained to him how serious the problem is. I told him that we have to conduct forceful disarmament no matter what it takes because it is going to be a big problem. The communities are arming themselves seriously, carrying arms in the open and they are now even confronting police officers. We have lost a lot of police officers, not by accident and stray bullets by bandits like in the past. Now, it is a deliberate manoeuvre. They lay an ambush, the police will be shot and killed and sometimes they even lose their firearms. So I still maintain that forceful disarmament has to be done. If not this year because of the issue of election and politics, it has to be done immediately.
Where are these firearms coming from?
They are coming in through the porous borders and you would be surprised to find that merchants buy these guns from Uganda and sell them to merchants from the other community they are warring with. … The common folk are the ones fighting. The issue of cattle rustling has also become commercial. There are lorries which carry the stolen livestock away.
How has it been transitioning from a public servant to a civilian?
The change has been tremendously dramatic. As an RC, I would sleep at 1am and wake up at 3.30 am. That is basically two and a half hours. I had to get reports from the 14 county commissioners, look at them, act on them or escalate to the principal secretary, to the Cabinet secretary, upwards. That is basically what I (had) to do from Monday to Monday.
Because of my mental clock, I still wake up at that time and I find myself looking at my phone and that is when I remember that I am no longer the RC. I have been doing this for the longest time and so my body has adopted that schedule but I will get used to it.
You are entering politics for the first time. Is it something you have entertained before and do you think it is going to be challenging for you?
Provincial administrators have always worked very closely with politicians. In the past, during elections, there was no IEBC. The returning officers were district commissioners who would look at queues and declare winners. Actually, the 1988 ‘mlolongo’ voting brought this clamour for multiparty democracy, because they would declare people with shorter queues to be the winners. The elections were being done very badly. We basically used to manage and monitor politics and we even used to sit on committees with politicians in them.
Michuki was a very serious politician; I would see what he was doing and learned from him.
I realised that for you to impact the communities more, you have to be a politician, because that is where the power to allocate the resources is. With (governors) now and with devolution and with the power the county governments have been given, I would be able to dream of anything and I can allocate resources to anything I feel will be beneficial to the people.
There are enormous budgets from the national government going to counties and there are ways you can mobilise resources and achieve what you want for the people. But some counties do not know what is beneficial to the people and that is why devolution has not transformed people’s lives. That is why I want to be there.
It is very clear in my mind what I want to go and do for the people of Trans Nzoia without asking for permission from anybody. The resources are allocated by the law, the formula is clearly laid down by the National Assembly and the Senate and when the money comes, you sit down with your MCAs and decide what to do. I am sure I am going to do this very well if I am given the chance.
There is this perception that you are a state-sponsored project, especially now that there seems to be a supremacy battle between Ford Kenya and the Democratic Alliance Party of Kenya (DAP-K), which has also openly declared that you are their suitable candidate for the Trans Nzoia’s governor’s seat. Are you a sponsored project?
In all honesty, all political parties in the country have sent emissaries to ask me to run under their party because they know the kind of support my candidature has attracted on the ground. I am not sponsored by anybody. I left a very good job, because it is no longer about me, but the people of Trans Nzoia. I may be a project, but a project of the people of Trans Nzoia and this will be demonstrated once we have completed the elections. I want to be a blessing to the people. I will be getting directives from them through public forums.
What was President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reaction when you revealed you wanted to go into politics?
The President supports my decision. He did not have any serious objection when he understood why I am doing it. He knows our people need good leadership, which has been lacking. The country is doing badly despite devolution.
What happens in the event that you do not win?
When you go into politics, you could either win or lose. Everyone who gets into politics goes there to win but we can’t all win. We will have one winner. I am offering myself as a servant. If it was about power or money, I would be comfortable as a regional commissioner but even if they refuse, life must go on. Life will not stop. I will do what other Kenyans have been doing to survive.
For me, I realised that in this world, you do not need much, actually. We struggle, grab and get so much but we do not need all of it. I have defined my limitations and I have strategised how to live without this. I will keep myself proactively engaged, serving Kenyans in other available platforms and capacities. All in all, I am not worried about losing because it is very unlikely.
Tell us something about you that you think people do not really know?
I am a lover of old rhumba, I love watching local football and I also support Arsenal, which has been very disappointing but I still support it.
Every time I am on TV or I am in the public I am addressing grave issues - banditry, terrorism, Mungiki, Mau forest issue, illicit alcohol and all, and so many people know my tough side only. I am generally a jovial guy. I laugh a lot and actually one of my weaknesses is that I laugh a lot and I rack jokes a lot.
Had you not gone into administration, what would you be doing as a qualified anthropologist?
I would be a teacher.
I thank the government for the opportunity to serve in the various capacities over the years. It is through the government that people got to know me. I also want to request the people of Trans Nzoia to give me the opportunity to serve them and put in place measures and projects that will be sustainable even when I will have left.
I gave this my best and I have no regrets. I am leaving on my own terms and I am happy.