Peninah Malonza: The historic rise of Kitui South's first Cabinet minister

Peninah Malonza

Cabinet Secretary nominee for Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage Peninah Malonza.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

The surprise nomination, rejection and then approval of former Kitui deputy governor Peninah Malonza as Tourism Cabinet Secretary is historic in several ways.

Besides being among the 10 women picked by President William Ruto, Ms Malonza is the first Cabinet secretary to be appointed from Kitui South constituency since independence and one of the only two ministers from Ukambani region in the new administration.

It is a big win for the arid Kitui South, which has been marginalised for decades, with all the previous cabinet appointments in the last four regimes since 1963 going only to Kitui Central and Mwingi North constituencies.

MPs on Wednesday morning voted to reject a parliamentary committee’s recommendation that declared Ms Malonza unsuitable for appointment, saying she had been unfairly targeted. 

The committee, chaired by Speaker Moses Wetang’ula, had declared Ms Malonza unsuitable, saying she did not show that she grasped the issues the ministry deals with.

“The nominee did not demonstrate knowledge on topical, administrative and technical issues touching on the ministry. She lacked the requisite abilities and professional experience to be approved for appointment to the office of Cabinet Secretary,” the committee said.

But MPs had ganged up against the report starting on Tuesday, castigating the committee and saying Ms Malonza had been unfairly targeted. 

They argued that Ms Malonza had the integrity and professional background that allows her to manage such an office.

After MPs voted to reject the committee’s rejection of Ms Malonza, Kitui Woman Representative Irene Kasalu moved a motion to declare her approved for the CS role.

Ms Malonza, a former senior executive with Compassion International, a non-governmental organisation, is best known for the five years she served as deputy governor between 2013 and 2017 and the acrimonious falling-out with her boss Governor Julius Malombe.

In an interesting political twist, Ms Malonza was named by former Kitui Senator David Musila as his running mate while still serving under Governor Malombe. She had campaigned hard to send her boss home in the 2017. Both Mr Malombe and Mr Musila lost the elections.

She takes over from Najib Balala, who served in the docket for more than 12 years cumulatively, spanning the late Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta regimes.

Alongside former Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua, the new CS will now be President Ruto’s political point person, especially in Kitui County, as the Head of State seeks to make inroads in Ukambani.

Dr Ruto had banked on Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai, whom he had worked hard to prop up politically, but the two fell out, with the MP sticking to Mr Kenyatta’s Jubilee party.

In appointing Ms Malonza, the President showed confidence in her capacity to mobilise grassroots support for his United Democratic Alliance (UDA) in a region dominated by the Wiper party.

Unlike other UDA candidates across the three counties in Ukambani who performed dismally in the last elections, Ms Malonza garnered 78,783 votes in her quest to unseat Ms Kasalu of Wiper, coming in a respectable second.

Her election performance significantly reflected the 89,419 votes that President Ruto received in Kitui County. 

The appointment also settles simmering political wars among UDA politicians in Ukambani who were jostling for President Ruto’s eye.

Ms Malonza, who hails from Kibwea in Mutomo, has her work cut out right from her home ground, which borders Tsavo East National Park, with a myriad of challenges to address, chief among them establishing a tourist route and opening the park’s Ikutha gate.

She is expected to steer the recovery of the tourism industry, which was battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Malonza joins the ministry when the tourism industry is expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels, with the number of international visitors growing by 91.3 per cent between January and August to 924,812, up from 483,246 in the same period last year.

This pushed up inbound tourism earnings, which more than doubled to Sh167.1 billion from Sh83.2 billion in a similar period last year.