A lifetime’s agenda for political reform

By NBM Writer

Academic, activist and politician Prof. Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o is a man who straddles defining events of several generations – defined by the lives and ideals of early liberation leaders and reformers in colonial Kenya, he became a political activist and in post-independence Kenya during President Daniel Moi’s regime, which he continues in the present-day as the Governor of Kisumu County.

Born in Ratta, Kisumu, Prof Nyong’o completed his undergraduate studies at Uganda’s Makerere University in 1971, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science.

During his time in Makerere, he served as Guild president of Makerere in 1969/70. From 1974, he worked for his graduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he obtained his Master’s and PhD in political science in 1977.

Before his election as Governor in 2017, Prof Nyong’o served as Senator between 2013 and 2017, and was a member of Parliament for more than two decades, during which time he held cabinet posts as the Minister for Planning and National Development from 2003 to 2005, and more recently, as Minister for Medical Services from 2008 until 2013.

After obtaining his PhD in political science from the University of Chicago in 1977, he held professorships at the University of Nairobi, El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, and Addis Ababa University, as well as a six-year stint as Head of Programs at the African Academy of Sciences. During his academic career, Professor Nyong’o published widely on issues of democracy, governance, and development in Africa.

Perhaps more importantly, Professor Nyong’o ardently agitated and advocated for all three of these in Kenya during an era of severe authoritarian rule. For these efforts he was, at turns, threatened, politically detained, and exiled in Mexico. For his reformist acts and campaigns, Prof Nyong’o is, in the eyes of many Kenyans, a true freedom fighter and a consummate public intellectual.

Since assuming public office in 1992, Professor Nyong’o has continued to push for a more inclusive, equitable, and democratic Kenya. In particular, as Minister for Medical Services, Prof Nyong’o oversaw sweeping reforms to Kenya’s hospitals, medical schools, human resource policies, medical supply and procurement agencies, and health insurance system – to try and create access to high-quality health care for all Kenyans.

During his time as a Minister of Medical Services, Prof Nyong’o oversaw a vast and complicated health system. Responding to a question about his credentials and performance during an interview in 2013 – he served as a Brundtland Senior Leadership Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health in Fall 2013 – he stated that his generally successful stint was borne out of his grasp of the issues in the ministry, his ability to articulate government policy, and his sensitivity to the people’s needs and concerns.

When occasion demanded it, he could easily rally the leaders in the ministry to pursue certain objectives, build coalitions with his colleagues to push certain key agenda in cabinet meetings, and implement health policies.

“I think in my case, I had two advantages, really,” recalled Prof Nyong’o. “Firstly, quite a number of senior civil servants in government, and not just my ministry, had been my students at University of Nairobi. For example, in the Ministry of Health, we had two ministries: the Ministry of Public Health, which was headed by a colleague of mine from the other side of the coalition, and then the Ministry of Medical Services, which I headed. And the person who was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Public Health was my graduate student at University of Nairobi. And, as fate would have it, the people who in the President’s office had a PhD had been my students. So there were a lot of linkages in government that made it possible to at least have put some supporters within government to deal with medical services.

“Secondly, I think, generally Health is a very difficult ministry to run. Because although health issues are important, government does not necessarily usually take health to be one of the front-line ministries. Health is not like education. In Education if you make a policy, you’ll see kids going to school in uniform in the morning, and teachers holding meetings and applauding what you are doing. In health, you don’t necessarily see it – you cannot easily parade patients in hospitals. Although I was very passionate about issues in health, it did not follow that government, as a whole, could rally behind you immediately on those issues. You really need a President who is concerned about health to make your life easier as a minster for health,” Prof Nyong’o offers.

But although his stay in government was comfortable, Prof Nyong’o says he enjoyed opposition politics better than being in government. He recalled during the Harvard interview: “Although things were difficult, and you are hunted, and put in police cells and in detention, somehow you felt you are making progress. Because you knew that your opponent was like Goliath. But every time you did something and it had an impact, you were telling them they would come down at some point; you had a sense of satisfaction. And then with time they changed policy to at least open up certain frontiers for participation. You felt you were doing something.”

For him, seeing the governance space open up, especially in 1992 when Opposition leaders finally forced the President to allow for multiparty politics, was great. He remembers it as “a fantastic kind of rebirth.” So when he went into a government that the former Opposition did not fully control, achievement was not as easy to come by. And his decision to run for Governor in 2017 was partly in response to this gap – to be in a positon where he could influence governance and development in the manner that being in the trenches had prepared him.

Sign Up