Sally Kosgei: A woman to watch

She was once the most powerful albeit reserved civil servant under President Moi. Now Dr. Sally Kosgei has made a headlong plunge into politics, and there she is making very many confusing moves. At times she appears to be backing ODM presidential candidate Kalonzo Musyoka, while at others she backs William Ruto. Recently she appeared at Raila Odinga’s side amid profuse praise from ODM’s de facto leader. So what is she up to? And what impact will her presence have in ODM and her native Rift Valley province.

She was the only person outside his immediate family whom presidential hopeful Raila Odinga referred to in a most affectionate manner during his vision launch last Sunday. Several weeks earlier, she had been at the separate launches of William Ruto and Kalonzo Musyoka’s presidential vision. There, too, too she was prominently displayed like a prized trophy.

Welcome to the new and brave world of the formerly reticent head of public service Dr Sally Kosgei. Judging from the company she keeps and her rather confrontational utterances nowadays, it is evident that the 58-year old former diplomat has decided to shed off the veneer of discretion and embraced the rough world of high stakes politics.

The big question, however, is; precisely which wing of ODM is Kosgei in, exactly what is she up to politically and just what in her political and economic background makes her tick?

Knowledgeable people in ODM say that Kosgei developed a close rapport with Raila during the brief period he served as a cabinet minister in the Moi regime. The relationship suffered a setback when Raila ditched Kanu and quit the cabinet towards the end of 2002 after former President Moi forced Uhuru Kenyatta on Kanu as his chosen successor at a time when Raila (and other Kanu stalwarts) were covetously eyeing the presidency.

Raila and other like-minded politicians such as former vice president Prof George Saitoti, former foreign affairs minister Kalonzo Musyoka and former office of the president minister William ole Ntimama quit Kanu and became the moving force that created the Rainbow Coalition that ultimately handed Kanu its first election defeat since independence.

Quite naturally Kosgei could not have continued relating closely with a politician who had rebelled against her boss, President Moi, in his hour of greatest need. She maintained her distance from Raila and Co until after Narc swept Kanu out of power and Moi handed over to Mwai Kibaki at the end of December 2002.

Although Raila was not the only senior politician in Narc who had served with Sally Kosgei in the Moi cabinet, he was one of the few, besides Saitoti, who got on well with her. Thus it was not surprising when the two quickly renewed their acquaintance and it was back to business as usual.

Indeed sources that were very close to the centre of power in those early days of Kibaki’s presidency intimate that Raila had tried to convince the newly inaugurated president to retain Dr Sally Kosgei as head of public service until 2005 when her contract was due to expire.

“It took the concerted efforts of Dr Chris Murungaru, Kiraitu Murungi and a few others who formed part of president Kibaki’s kitchen cabinet to thwart Raila’s attempt to have Sally stay on as head of Public Service,” recalls a source who was privy to the behind-the-scenes dealings of the time.

The argument put forward by members of Kibaki’s inner circle at the time was that it would have been impossible for the Kibaki administration to fully trust someone who had been so close to the previous regime to suddenly change, embrace and wholeheartedly implement policies of an administration she had been opposed to.

But perhaps even the bigger problem for Kosgei was the political orientation of her key sponsor in the Narc government; Raila Odinga. That Raila was viewed with distrust in the Kibaki administration even as he was being named to the high-profile Public Works ministry was one of the worst kept political secrets of the time. For Raila to try and push a situation where he would play godfather to the head of public service was something that many members of Kibaki’s inner core found politically unpalatable and made no secret about it.

It was thus not much of a surprise when Kosgei was shown the door after hardly three months in office in the new administration. What may have perhaps surprised many discerning observers of Kenya’s political scene is the bitterness with which Dr Kosgei appears to have taken her removal from office, considering her prominence in the ousted regime.

Joining the monied club …

In rather candid interview with a local newspaper a few weeks ago, Dr. Kosgei groused that after working so diligently for the government for some 20 years she was made to “leave with nothing”, never mind the fact that during her relatively short stint as head of public service Kosgei was able to join the exclusive club of monied and most influential Kenyans during the Moi regime. Talking to some of the former and current senior civil servants who worked closely with Kosgei, it emerges that she ruled with an iron fist and was vindictive almost to a point of pettiness.

Indeed, say those who worked under her, she is not quite the victim she paints herself to be.

“She is the kind of person who would be fed with a lie about you having said something nasty about her and from that day she carries a vendetta against you and starts looking for ways and means of kicking you out,” says a former PS who blames his removal from public service on Dr. Kosgei.

The former PS adds: “Most of the time Sally never even bothered to check whether what she had been told was true or not. She would simply start fighting you and may not even talk to you when you meet during official meetings. Once she had blacked you out, if you made calls to her office she would bluntly tell you that she did not wish to discuss anything with you no matter how important an official matter you wanted to discuss with her. She did not seem to know how to separate official and personal matters…”

Indeed, one person who did not beat about the bush about what he felt about Kosgei is former Kenyan ambassador to the United States Samson Chemai. When he was removed from the plum posting in Washington DC, Chemai went to court and not only sued the Government of Kenya but also Dr Sally Kosgei whom he accused of having influenced his removal on order to create room for her estranged husband Dr Yusuf Nzibo.

In his affidavit, Chemai made several serious claims against Kosgei accusing her of being high-handed and vindictive. In her response and defense, Kosgei naturally denied the charges. The case is pending in the Court of Appeal. Although she is credited to have been a foremost diplomat, some in the diplomatic community did not have much time for her especially when she was foreign affairs permanent secretary. The much celebrated former US ambassador to Kenya, the late Smith Hempstone, described her in his memoirs as…”an unpleasant woman with a big scar on her face.” He says he had vowed never to deal with her and assigned his deputy, Michael Southwick, a former fellow Stanford alumni of Sally, to handle her.

Kosgei and multimillion NSSF deal

In 2003, Kosgei moved to court seeking to have a Sh181 million suit filed against her by the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) in connection with alleged fraudulent sale of prime property within the city struck out.

NSSF had earlier on sued Dr Kosgei to recover the money after the worker’s body had been unable to take possession of the property in Parklands. The property that Kosgei had sold to NSSF ostensibly passing it off as her own had been gazetted by the government as a national monument.

In the deal clinched when Dr Kosgei held the highest public office in the land, the former public service boss, through her company, Guardian International, had acquired the property from the Kenya Railways Corporation. Kenya Railaways was selling the property at KShs 80 million.

According to documents filed in court at the time, by the time Kosgei sold the plot to NSSF at Kshs170 million in May 1995, she had only paid KShs 19.2 million of the purchase price. It is not clear whether she has since paid the balance. Nevertheless, the bottom line remains that in this one deal alone the former head of civil service made a cool Kshs 100 million (or more if she never got to pay the balance).

NSSF has claimed that the former head of public service had fraudulently acquired the property through abuse of her position in the government and applied the same unfair influence when she sold it to them.

Kosgei through her lawyers Okwach & Co Advocates argued that the complaint disclosed no reasonable cause of action against her and Guardian International adding that even if there was any cause of action, it was timebarred since the suit was filed six years after the transaction. In her sworn affidavit, Kosgei said that she bought the property from Kenya Railways after she “learnt of its sale through an advertisement in a daily newspaper.”

She however confirmed one rather interesting issue in the whole saga: that the sale of the property, its transfer and registration of the transfer in the name of NSSF was done at a breakneck speed. Everything was completed in a single day, which raised eyebrows given the bureaucratic nature of land transactions. The matter is still pending in court.

A woman with an impressive CV and history…

There is no doubt, though, that the court cases hanging over her head notwithstanding Dr Sally Kosgei has been an achiever with an impressive CV and equally rich history.

Before her last public appointment in March 2001 when president Moi made her the first woman to hold the powerful post of head of public service and secretary to the cabinet, Dr Kosgei had held various other prominent positions in the government.

She is perhaps most famous for the period she served as permanent secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, a post she was appointed to after having served as Kenya’s high commissioner at the prestigious court of St James, London.

Dr Kosgei’s appointment as foreign affairs PS made her the second woman to be appointed a PS in independent Kenya. The first to hold such a position was Mrs Margaret Githinji who served as PS in the Ministry of trade and industry in the late 80s and early 90s.

Incidentally, the relationship between the two women pioneers in public service was never cordial. They engaged in constant turf wars with Githinji accusing Kosgei of meddling in her docket especially when it came to foreign trade matters. Ultimately, Githinji lost her job under circumstances which she thought Kosgei had a hand in.

However, those who know Dr Kosgei closely say that she appeared more suited for the foreign affairs docket than any other public posting she has had save perhaps that of Kenya’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

“She knew her stuff well and aggressively pushed Kenya’s agenda in international circles both as high commissioner and foreign affairs PS,” says and official who served with her at the Old Treasury Building, the present headquarters of the ministry of Foreign Affairs.

However when she was appointed PS to the treasury after the 1997 general elections to work with the then finance minister Simeon Nyachae, Kosgei appears to have been out of her depth. The suspicious relationship between her and her new boss-an equally strong headed personality just like her-did not help things and soon President Moi found himself having to choose between Nyachae and Kosgei. He chose to move Kosgei from the treasury in order to placate Nyachae and his political constituency.

As she revs to join politics in earnest, Kosgei will find the going a little disconcerting compared to what she was used in the hierarchical world of civil service. In Aldai constituency she will be struggling to unseat an incumbent-lawyer Jim Choge- who comes from a family with a long political history.

This promises to be one bruising battle but it is dependent on how the ODM presidential nominations pan out. Should Raila clinch the ODM presidential nomination, as everyone seems to predict, and possibly fall out with William Ruto, Kosgei will have to choose whether to stick with Raila and risk Ruto’s wrath-depending on whether he consolidates his position as the Rift Valley political kingpin-supporting her opponent. The other option will be to break ranks with Raila and stick with Ruto in the hope of smoothing her win the Aldai seat.

It is most unlikely that Kosgei will have much to do with Kalonzo Musyoka unlike-in the most unlikely event- he becomes the official ODM torchbearer backed by all the big boys especially Raila and Ruto.

It will also be interesting to see how Sally tackles the Moi factor in Rift Valley province should she become an important ODM point person in the province as she is positioning herself to be. Retired president Moi has vowed time and again that he will have nothing to do with ODM and that he will hold a high voltage campaign against the party candidates come election time.

Like Ruto, Sally is a creation of the former president; much as she may wish to help her friends in ODM, it is unlikely that she will go full throttle against her mentor. Besides angling herself as the ODM point-person in North Rift, Sally has been positioning herself as the ‘womens’ candidate’, a move seen as a smart way to bargain for the vice presidency in an ODM government.

For Raila, Sally is certainly a big catch in the North Rift now that Ruto appears to be drifting away, wallowing in ambition and “big-headedness”. While Sally may have deep pockets to finance a serious campaign, however, her political skills, if any, are still untested.

Ultimately, for one used to the command-chain world of civil service, the unpredictability of politics may prove a step climb.

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One Response to Sally Kosgei: A woman to watch

Anonymous said...

I like this caption.It happens Sally Kosgei is my namesake and my role model.Kudos for this