By Kevin Motaroki
Fred Matiang’i is something of an enigma in executive apparel, but there is never ambiguity to his method. He is the most consequential minister in Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. His ascendancy to the echelons of power has been as a result of a schism in a burgeoning nation’s certainties, within a dicey political scenario, which required the ruling Jubilee Party to want to be able to predict, with an appreciable degree of assurance, that certain core foundational and developmental functions, at a time of raised passions, would be adjudicated by a rational, liberal mind. Since his appointment in 2013, he has become President Kenyatta’s most trusted officer, even earning the tag ‘super minister’, and emerged as the strongest advocate for public service restructuring.
It has been suggested that some people – like French President Emmanuel Macron – can seduce a chair. Dr Fred Matiang’i could be said to seduce power.
No matter how many superlatives you can fit into his persona, you will come away with one surmise: he is not a simple man – conceptually or intellectually.
Some have said, of his work ethic, that he commands power, being but refusing to merely stay a technocrat. His streak of ‘uncontainable’ independence is difficult not to love, especially in a yes-men society. It is not a particularly attractive one in public practice, but it has its perks. For Matiang’i, it has, propitiously, elevated and made a name for him in both the private arena – where it is indispensable – and public service.
“He seizes his chances and works like he has nothing else to do… He is an extremely sharp person whose ethic you will be hard-pressed to discount.” This is how Dr Samuel Siringi, a lecturer of communication at the University of Nairobi, once described him to me. I barely knew him – the minister – then.
Why does it matter? Because we are in the domain of public service.
A government department was once a place dense with meaning, a building packed with the presence of technocrats, the smell of stationery – and the meaning of duty. Today, because many of us – Kenyans – have given up on the idea of free, quality, prompt service – we envisage no meaning in government, no ultimate pride in having one, and have little support for the people we give our money to serve us.
It is quite tragic, actually.
Like the docket he manages, Dr Matiang’i shoots straight, and shoots from the hip. He is – and knows it, as he once told me himself – “notoriously into details.” It is something he wears like a boy scout’s honours lapel.
Often mapped onto the persona of a military general, the Communication and Comparative Literature scholar chuckled when I told him about that characterisation. “Do I exude that?” he posed, pondered briefly, and continued:
“I am the product of good mentorship. Like everybody else, I became what I am now when I was growing up… I am the result of an exacting form of upbringing. What I am is a confirmation of the ideals my parents instilled in me.”
Armchair psychology will describe it as the most important principle of influence: if you have to assert authority, you are probably not in charge; so you let your confidence and dignity in decision-making speak to the fact. It is a style of execution – one, pegged on strict upbringing, that seeks to say, ‘look, I am your friend, but I am also in charge, so, you know, there is that…’
Like the minister will tell you himself, it is a management imperative.
The combination of these attributes and tokens of fate – a word he does not exactly believe in – is a mantra some have chosen to call Matiang’ism. So, what is it?
“Well, it begins with audacity and mettle… It is the capacity to take risks by, first, being truthful to Kenyans and, second, fashioning public service in a manner that upholds that truth.”
The Secretary didn’t say that about himself… in fact, I doubt he knows about Matiang’ism; an officer in his ministry did.
His tendency towards risk – more a gamble with his faith in himself, as he has said before – garnishes his life and career. When he was minister for ICT, he insisted that media owners had to abide by government-led digital migration. After much resistance, including a botched boycott, the move from analogue to digital happened, opening up media space and creating opportunities for the opposing media houses themselves. In the Education and Land dockets, he made bigger strides, freeing up the national examinations regime and implementing quality control in higher education, and scattering land cartels, respectively.
Even by his lofty standards, those were remarkable achievements.
Now, as a terrifyingly powerful super-minister, Matiang’i has learnt to not conform too much with reality as he has previously understood it, to confront the things which do not sit well with him and humanity in general, to never be shy to confront popular lies and myths often presented as the truth.
“This is my whole life, shattering myths – on performance, on service, and on fidelity to self,” he told me at a meeting in his office last year. “Often, it doesn’t require elaborate shake-ups, just wit and spine.”
One of Matiang’i’s most significant mentors is former Cabinet minister Simeon Nyachae, to whom he was also personal secretary between 1997 and 2002. In the Interior Secretary, one sees the best of Nyachae the disciplinarian, exacting time manager and administrator. His commitment to personal projects is complementary of life in public service, where his drive for excellence is a defining trait.
Now, as a terrifyingly powerful super-minister, Matiang’i has learnt to not conform too much with reality as he has previously understood it, to confront the things which do not sit well with him…
Whereas his exacting work ethic has endeared him to friend and foe alike, he has been variously described as “overbearing” and “a bulldozer” because and in spite of attaining his objectives. During his stint as Education CS, trade union leaders labelled him a tyrant because of his hard-line stance against “disruptive” mass industrial action. In 2017, he ran out of town long-serving Kenya Parents Association secretary-general Musau Ndunda, and initiated a law to make the post elective.
As Education CS, he often made impromptu visits to schools, exposing the rot in leadership at those institutions and instilling the fear of God in school and college heads. Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) boss at one time described him as a “bull in a China shop.” If he felt slighted, he did not respond to it.
On a grey morning in July 2017, following the sudden death of Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery, Kenyatta appointed him in acting capacity. Although he impressed by how seamlessly he presided over the two critical dockets of Education and Interior, he came under criticism over the manner security agencies, under his watch, responded to post-election protests in 2017. And when TV stations insisted on broadcasting live Raila’s subsequent mock swearing-in, he swiftly shut them down. It was a matter of national security, he said, and that was that.
During his time at Harambee House as well, he has pushed through security sector reforms, including successfully harmonising the National Police Service command structure, something his predecessors were unable – or unwilling – to do.
To some, he is a contradiction, a blend of haste courting result – two often contradictory concepts – which leads one to wonder if he isn’t a paradox trying to fit into a rapidly-changing public scenario he cannot possibly hope to control. For instance, where he once presided over specific functions in a specific docket, which allowed him the luxury to follow through and deliver lasting results, he now has to scramble to fit broad sweeping powers over more than a dozen ministries – not unlike pulling away from Jogoo to Harambee House too quickly and perhaps leaving with Interior ministry’s mandate still attached to his coattails.
But it would not be fair to fault the man for failing to have “conform” in his description, for that – at least in theory – would come at the expense of the results he has come to be known for. To his credit, he is remarkably poised at the demands of his many calls of duty, not just by super minister standards, but by any standard.
In one continuous fell swoop – if you can characterise six years that way – Matiang’i has demonstrated that the most noticeable problems in the public service space also happen to be the most solvable. (