When he started out as a politician, Festus Mwangi Kiunjuri was seen by many as a mere political rookie. But this would turn out to be a great underestimation of his prowess as things evolved over the years. Politics was always Kiunjuri’s passion. In university he was a fiery student leader, which probably shaped his future political exploits in a significant way.
Kiunjuri studied for a Bachelor of Education degree at Egerton University and graduated in 1994. Although he taught for a few years after graduating, his thoughts were fixed on something else. After a while he bought an old lorry and ventured into the transport business in Nanyuki Town, working as both owner and tout. He operated from the Nanyuki main bus terminus where he spent most of his free time discussing politics with the locals. It was from here that he started entertaining the idea of plunging into national politics.
Because he was quite well known in Nanyuki, he gained the trust of many locals in the area. He not only spoke their language but also mixed freely with them despite having a university education. This may have come easy for him because of his humble background. His father worked at a dispensary in the Kahurura Forest area in Kieni, Nyeri County, as a dresser while his mother was a housewife who engaged in peasant farming. Their meagre earnings were often stretched to the limit. In fact, Kiunjuri, the 11th out of 12 children, wore his first pair of shoes when he got to Standard Four. By age 10, it had become increasingly clear to him that he had to take his destiny into his own hands.
Born Kiunjuri Festus Mwangi on 29 April 1969, he attended Kahura Primary School and later joined Dr Kiano Boys School and Kangema High School for his secondary and high school education respectively. Throughout his years in school, he was known for working hard as he was determined to make a difference in his life. As a university student he sold clothes and vegetables on the side. He sourced the vegetables from Kinangop, where they were cheap and abundant, and sold them in Githurai in Nairobi. This helped him fund his education. The transport business was just another demonstration that he was not afraid of hard work. Add to that his oratory skills and eclectic mastery of the Gikuyu language — no wonder the Nanyuki locals saw in him a budding leader. And Kiunjuri did not disappoint.
However, older and more seasoned politicians in Laikipia dismissed him as a greenhorn and a mere transport tout who had no chance of ever breaking into their sphere. It was quite inconceivable to them that a tout could end up as a Member of Parliament. At the time, the Democratic Party was widely popular in the Mt. Kenya region and these political bigwigs wanted Mwai Kibaki, the party chief, to intervene so Kiunjuri would not carry the party ticket. But they had underestimated Kiunjuri’s resolve, which turned out to be a grave mistake.
Kiunjuri was a joy to listen to when he had the microphone. He was as brutal as he was humorous. Later, he responded to his detractors thus: “When I won the DP ticket (in the primaries), wealthy men wanted Mwai Kibaki to hear none of it. When they took their grievance to him, Kibaki told them that if Nanyuki had so many touts, it was only fair that one of them should represent them. That is how I became an MP.”
Kiunjuri threw his hat into the political ring in 1997. His opponents had the financial muscle while he was as poor as they come. He could not even afford the KES 50,000 required for nomination and ended up selling off his lorry to raise the funds. Through sheer tenacity and dogged determination, he ploughed through the tough political landscape with admirable panache. The people of Laikipia East Constituency rewarded him by electing him to Parliament on a Democratic Party ticket. He was only 28 years old.
So good was he at expressing himself that in 2017 the Speaker of the National Assembly, Justin Muturi, remarked: “I once told the President, ‘If there is one person we can count on to spread the word to our people, on condition that he speaks neither Kiswahili nor English, it is Mwangi Kiunjuri. This guy has a gift. Give him a microphone and let him speak in Gikuyu. Mr. President, that guy is good.’”
In Parliament Kiunjuri distinguished himself as a fearless debater, mercilessly battling more seasoned politicians. In 2002 and 2007 he was reelected to Parliament, by which time he had distinguished himself as a political heavyweight in the Mt. Kenya region. The man who had been grossly underestimated at the start of his political career had become the force to reckon with in Central Kenya’s politics. He was the chairman of the Grand National Union (GNU), the Organising Secretary of the Democratic Youth Congress and Chairman of the Democratic Youth Initiative. During his first term as MP he served as Vice Chairperson of the Parliamentary Investment Committee.
A calculating politician, Kiunjuri was longer on charm than smarts. He belonged in the category of politicians who could galvanise crowds by incandescent rhetoric without actually offering any means by which to actualise his promises. He did not have to — his oratory skills and powers of persuasion appeared to be all he needed to light up his political career. However, these qualities lost their charm in 2013, when he vied to become Governor of Laikipia County on a Grand National Union Party ticket. At the time he was swimming against the political currents as Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA) party had become a strong force in the region. He lost the contest to little-known Joshua Irungu, the TNA candidate. Kiunjuri was later to say, “I was winning the Laikipia seat a few days to the election. Then Uhuru landed with his red choppers. From there things went south very fast.”
But his defeat was not fatal. There was still something in him that made him abidingly relevant. Uhuru, who was elected President in 2013, could not ignore his political clout. He fished Kiunjuri out of the political wilderness in 2015 and appointed him Cabinet Secretary for Devolution and Planning to replace Anne Waiguru, who had headed the ministry since 2013. His star was on the rise again.
This was not the first time Kiunjuri was joining government, having served during President Kibaki’s tenure as Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, the Ministry of Energy and later, the Ministry of Public Works (from 2002 to 2013). And before his appointment to Uhuru’s Cabinet he was Chairperson of the Athi Water Services Board.
After Uhuru’s reelection on 26 October 2017, Kiunjuri was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation. At the time, his relationship with the President was thought to be quite close given the fact that upon his reelection the President dropped quite a number of Cabinet secretaries but retained Kiunjuri. It is not known at exactly what point this relationship soured but on 14 January 2020, the President fired Kiunjuri and replaced him with Peter Munya. Political observers opined that the writing had been on the wall for some time as he had been fiercely criticised for his handling of the Agriculture docket.
It became abundantly clear that the President had lost faith in his Cabinet Secretary the day he rebuked him in public for paying maize cartels at the expense of farmers. A visibly annoyed Uhuru warned the CS that if he continued to pay the cartels, swift action would be taken against him. He was sacked shortly afterwards.
At one point during Kiunjuri’s tenure, when the country was ravaged by locusts, he asked members of the public to take photos of any insects suspected to be locusts and post them on social media platforms for official identification by his ministry. Kenyans responded with characteristic humour — they branded Kiunjuri the locust while others wondered, after his sacking, “Now that Kiunjuri has been sacked, to whom shall we send the photos of the locusts?”
Kiunjuri reacted with bravado to his sacking. He called a press conference shortly after and declared that he had been expecting the axe to fall on his head for some time. Claiming that he had had to endure humiliation, he described his time at the Ministry of Agriculture as walking on hot coals, but promised to be back.
“I have faced many challenges in my life journey. What I have never failed to do is to try. I have courage, determination and faith knowing it will be bumpy and challenging. We shall overcome. I shall remain as I have always been throughout my political career — independent, principled and firm. I urge my supporters to remain faithful … do not cry for me. Make no mistake I am not going anywhere. I will continue to serve this country. The cooking spoon has broken but the ugali must still be cooked. If a cow miscarries today, it will give birth again tomorrow.”
Kiunjuri’s departure from the Cabinet was also thought to have been occasioned by his stand on a number of issues. Widely thought to be Uhuru’s likely successor as the political kingpin of Central Kenya, an ambition he did a poor job of hiding, he was accused of openly challenging his boss’s supremacy in the region. In addition, at a time when the President appeared to have fallen out with the Deputy President, William Ruto, Kiunjuri was accused of being a Ruto sympathiser. This accusation had a ring of truth to it as Kiunjuri openly associated with what became known as the ‘Tanga Tanga’ movement spearheaded by the DP.
In 2017, Uhuru, with his eyes firmly fixed on promoting the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and building his legacy through the Big Four Agenda (under the pillars of Food Security, Affordable Housing, Manufacturing and Universal Health Coverage), implored his Cabinet secretaries to stay away from politics and help him achieve his goals instead. But Kiunjuri appeared bent on defying his boss — he went around Mt. Kenya to insist that the BBI blueprint must cater for the region’s interests. At one point he caused shockwaves when he convened a press conference at Parliament Buildings, which was attended by over 40 MPs, and openly defied the President’s stand on the BBI.
Kiunjuri knew the BBI and the Big Four Agenda were the President’s pet projects. None of that seemed to matter.
Political observers believe Kiunjuri was the architect of his own fate. Indisputably, he was a man who dreamt big and was admirably self-driven. But he also had an exaggerated sense of self-importance. For instance, when he was first appointed as Assistant Minister, he furiously called a press conference and dismissed the appointment as being too junior for him. He had apparently expected a full ministerial position. A few days later he ate humble pie and accepted the position.
His days at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation came to an abrupt end when he engaged in a public spat with his boss, Charity Ngilu, whom he accused of engaging in corruption. President Kibaki promptly fired him and replaced him with Ferdinand Waititu.
His defiant forays in the Mt. Kenya region against Uhuru were also not a new thing, having done the same against Kibaki when the latter was the undisputed political champion in the region. Small wonder then that he was fired from government, not once but twice, by two different administrations.