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Simeon Nyachae: the larger-than-life civil servant who made his mark on Kenya

Two men in suits shake hands with a school building in the background
Simeon Nyachae (right) welcomes President Uhuru Kenyatta to his alma mater, Kisii School in western Kenya, during the institution’s 80th anniversary in 2014. State House Kenya/Courtesy

Simeon Nyachae, who passed away in early February at the age of 88, was among the men who shaped Kenya and made it one of Africa’s leading economies. For Kenya’s first 40 years of independence he was highly visible in government and helped to craft an economy oriented to the private sector that also was favourable to both large and small-scale agriculture.

Nyachae held senior leadership positions under all three of Kenya’s first presidents – Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki – from 1963 to 2007.

Nyachae was among the favourite sons of Musa Nyandusi, who was the senior chief in Kisii District in western Kenya and supervisor of its other chiefs. This was the highest government post an African could hold in the colonial government. As independence approached Nyandusi was able to influence an appointment for Nyachae as district assistant (or officer) – which had been the entry grade for British colonial officers – in Kisii. He then moved to Machakos district bordering the capital Nairobi.

After independence President Kenyatta made Nyachae district commissioner for Nyandarua. He was then promoted to provincial commissioner for the Rift Valley, the largest of the country’s eight provinces. Subsequently, he was moved to Central Province, the president’s home province outside Nairobi.

As Kenyatta was a strong centraliser and ruled through the civil service, these positions were equivalent to a governor or prefect. He was effectively in charge of the local activities of other government officials. The places where Nyachae served gave him considerable authority over the transformation of “White Highlands” estates from European hands into African-held small and large farms. This meant that his position was highly political.

Under President arap Moi, Nyachae rose in 1979 to the office of chief secretary and cabinet secretary, from which he retired in 1987.

Moi was much less of a centraliser than Kenyatta had been. He was interested in seeing a better distribution of resources among Kenya’s ethnic (or tribal) regions. To this end, Nyachae formed an alliance with Harris Mule, then the permanent secretary in the ministry of planning, and together they shepherded the “District Focus for Rural Development” into policy in the mid-1980s.

This involved devolving significant financial authority and responsibility to district county councils. In turn this presaged the decentralised structure provided by the current Kenyan constitution promulgated in 2010.

The purpose of both changes was to give Kenya’s multiple “tribes” greater control over the local distribution of government resources. In this way Kenya sought to mitigate the intensity of “tribal” competition for national political office which had been building up over the years. Indeed, it boiled over into considerable violence after the 2007 elections.

After retirement from the civil service, in 1992, Nyachae was elected a member of parliament from his home in Kisii and was re-elected in 1997. As an MP, Nyachae served in Moi’s cabinet, first as agriculture minister from 1992, and then as water minister. After the 1997 election, he served in finance before moving to industry.

He broke with Moi and contested the presidency in 2002, but lost to Mwai Kibaki. Nonetheless, President Kibaki appointed Nyachae as minister of energy in a government of national unity. In 2005 Nyachae chose to retire from public life for health reasons.

Wealth and interests

With financial support from his father, Nyachae had begun a very small bakery even before he joined the civil service. At Kenya’s independence, most African leaders of the independence generation were given opportunities by Kenyatta to take over previously European parts of the economy.

They had privileged access to farms in the ‘White Highlands’, loans, government permits, contracts, and the like and became instantly wealthy. Nyachae was no exception. His bakery expanded, he acquired at least two large farms, and other businesses he established did well.

As was true for other members of the new African elite, the agricultural commodities they produced were largely the same as those of small farmers. By pursuing public policies that profited their farms, they were helping a large number of poorer Kenyan farmers as well. This Kenyan coincidence of large and small-holder agricultural interests was very unusual in Africa and a part of the key to its economic success.

Nyachae shared those interests and thus joined in promoting business, agricultural and rural development policies with long-term, broad benefits that reached widely in the economy. Furthermore, unlike many others he was a ‘nationalist’, in that he was concerned with the welfare of all parts of the country and much less focused on immediate personal gain or in advancing sectional (that is, ‘tribal’) advantage.

Nyachae’s wealth also gave him the economic independence to risk government displeasure when he wanted to quietly oppose political measures he found unwise. He believed strongly in supporting the interests of the presidents he served, but when others with political influence tried to gain unseemly advantage at government expense, Nyachae was willing to interfere. Several times he blocked conspiracies to remove dedicated civil servants who were in the way.

He believed the efforts he made to stop corruption were behind Moi’s decisions to transfer him to minor cabinet portfolios from being minister of agriculture and later of finance.

Ultimately, particularly around the Goldenberg corruption scandal in which senior government officials were implicated, he lost influence with President Moi and broke with him in 1999.

Round the clock manager

Nyachae always served at the intersection of politics and administration. Nevertheless, he was more of a firm manager than a politician. In addition to being a ‘nationalist’ he was known for his exceptional drive, long hours, self-discipline and the speed with which he wrote memos.

More important, his success as a manager came from the support he provided gifted civil service professionals in gaining links to presidential support and in his willingness to take risks in opposing misguided endeavours of lesser politicians.

Nyachae is survived by numerous children and their offspring, but he insisted when I last spoke to him that it was contrary to Gusii tradition to enumerate them. He had four wives and was very proud of the effort he put into keeping their children united under his leadership. In this he was successful, as witnessed by the many occasions until the very end in which they were there to support him.

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