Of the list of powerful women who have circulated within both the Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta administrations, few are as intriguing as Mary Wambui (wa Munene).
She has had her controversies, like that of the Artur brothers saga, or more sensationally her claim to be Kibaki’s second spouse.
Her ever-mutating persona — from Kanu to Narc to PNU to TNA to Jubilee “activist” and latter-day MP — is emblematic of a woman intent to remain inside the sphere of power despite the shifting tides of politics. Nor does the advance of age deter her.
For now, let me not dwell too much on her contentious marital identity. But who can forget that she was always at the centre of the most gripping family dramas of the Kibaki presidency (“I have only one dear wife, Lucy”)?
Her appointment to the National Employment Authority (NEA) as chairperson has unleashed a firestorm. I fully appreciate the public rage, though minus the typical Kenyan hypocrisy. Her age, her lack of known professional credentials, all look wrong for the job.
Granted, Wambui has done lots of political campaign work for Uhuru since the TNA days, using her own considerable resources and deploying herself mostly to rural women in Nyeri County who understand her language but who get confused by Jubilee’s artificial, “digital” tales.
Unlike with other non-executive parastatal board chairmen, the law requires the NEA chairperson to be professionally qualified, in this case in human resource management.
A 2017 video clip of Wambui showering praises on the Jubilee administration while speaking in a language vaguely resembling English went viral immediately her appointment was made public.
Here’s an extract: “If you go round in the village, people have got light, and actually like now, it is not like before, when we used to be told we cannot get light, that the light is going to be divided; this time if you go, you get the light during the night and during the day.” I suppose in this case “light” meant electricity. “To be divided …” is trickier. My guess is Wambui was talking of power rationing.
To be honest, my low opinion of her NEA appointment has less to do with her qualifications, or lack of them, as it has to do with the extremely poor optics Uhuru displayed in flaunting her appointment.
It’s not Wambui who is wrong here. She’s merely the lightning rod for the deep public discontent — especially among the youth — with the Jubilee government. Can’t there be something else more useful she can do for Uhuru, behind the scenes? Like perhaps helping the pro-Kieleweke Embrace women team connect with the grass roots?
After all, those who know her attest to her formidable mobilisation skills, low education notwithstanding.
Let me be considerate to the 69-year-old lady. Age should not really matter. What ought to matter is effectiveness.
I’ve seen so-called youths in public jobs spending all their time posting selfies on social media whereas there are 70-year-olds who get state appointments and really put passion into those jobs.
My preferred measure is to ask myself if, with her limitations, Wambui will be in a position to inflict harm in the docket she has been assigned. There is always the possibility we could have ended up with somebody else truly horrible.
The youth who are baying for her scalp are far from spotless. Jaguar, the Starehe MP pushing for legislation to fix the public-sector retirement age at 50, had some months back been criminally charged with hate speech. Other state-employed “youths” we know all too well are just overhyped, um, “slay kings”.
What should concern us here is that NEA has a director-general as CEO. Any damage Wambui can do in that office, whose mandate is to keep a database of the unemployed and to find jobs and internships for them, will be limited.
We surely could have done worse, such as to get another Mulu Mutisya, who in the Nyayo regime was trotted through a variety of parastatal boardrooms where he could not read a single word of the written minutes.
I am a charitable fellow and I know ma’am has gone through a lot. I specifically recall certain very poignant moments in her public life: Her being blocked by (Kibaki) presidential guards from a public function in Othaya in February 2013 that Kibaki was attending with Mama Lucy; or her inscrutable expression at a 2007 PNU campaign rally in Nairobi when Lucy was dancing herself lame with a PNU women troupe at the high podium as if to spite Wambui, who sat watching quietly at a lower stand.
Above all, there was that unforgettable press conference where Lucy stood with a baleful look as Kibaki painfully read a statement to the media about her (Lucy) being his only dear wife. Oh my.
Wow! But who are we to begrudge Mama Winnie her new job? As the latest marathon-inspired hashtag goes, #NoKenyanIsLimited!