Wow: This Man Joseph Jama Ole Lenku
Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Jama ole Lenku will not forget Pakistani national Wasim Iqbal Mohamed’s name any time soon.
Mr Mohamed’s application for the renewal of a work permit presented Mr Lenku with the latest in a series of storms that have engulfed him since he took up the job at the Ministry of Interior and National Co-ordination — a gulf away from his former life of managing hotel businesses, which he had mastered until he was tapped to join the Cabinet.
It was a fortnight ago when the imbroglio blew up in the public domain following a Saturday Nationinvestigation.
The controversy around Mr Mohamed centred on his application to renew a work permit, which Mr Lenku approved despite the advice of the National Intelligence Service that it should be declined.
Mr Lenku says he considered separate information about Mr Mohamed before arriving at his decision.
Mr Mohamed says he’s the victim of vicious and powerful business interests who wanted him out of the country so they could fill the gap and thrive on his deportation misery.
It didn’t work out.
His brother Nadeem Iqbal Mohamed had already been deported in November 2013, and subsequently put on a watch list as a prohibited immigrant for suspected involvement in organised crime, money laundering and financing Al-Shabaab.
Mr Lenku says such high-octane controversies are all in a day’s job in one of the most coveted and powerful Cabinet positions.
Foreigners working in the country and their local networks, he claims, can brand competitor businesses owned by other foreigners as covertly supporting unlawful activity just to clear the decks.
“They (competitors) can package information to make you look like a drug dealer or a terrorist and so I have learnt to scrutinise everything again and again before making my decisions,” he toldLifestyle of the rough and tumble that come with the top-perch office at Harambee House that he holds.
Mr Lenku is arguably Kenya’s most ridiculed Cabinet Secretary, taking hit after hit of salvos fired by anyone and everyone — from politicians and cartoonists to comedians and social media users.
He has been called a chef who was sent to the wrong “kitchen” – minding internal security – which some think is too hot for him.
But he remains unfazed.
His stately and highly secured sixth floor office at Harambee House, Nairobi — with a thick red carpet, high-end leather seats for guests, a magnificent desk with flags completing the picture behind it — does not seem to provide enough comfort, especially when phones ring off the hook whenever a crisis strikes.
The soft spoken Mr Lenku was virtually unknown when he was appointed to head the powerful Internal Security ministry in May 2013.
A terror attack, one of the worst in Kenya’s history, exposed him to scrutiny.
The three-day Westgate Mall siege widened the spectrum of criticism as the Cabinet Secretary stumbled over facts and figures while struggling to give scraps of whatever information he could glean from the crisis of apocalyptic proportions to a hungry media and an anxious nation.
“We did not do Westgate well but we meant well,” he admits when Lifestyle revisits the scene, weeks before the first anniversary of the assault.
Never before had the 44-year-old managed a crisis of that magnitude; and yet in his mind, he was determined to swim in the powerful currents and, hopefully, make it.
Calls for resignation or sacking were directed at him and then petered out after attention shifted to the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers caught on video supposedly looting from shops in the mall.
There were loud and hush-hush conversations about whether Mr Lenku at all knew what he was doing in office.
He weathered that September storm.
But Mr Lenku, who was plucked from the hotel industry right into the proverbial lion’s den, had not seen the worst of it as subsequent attacks have only piled pressure on him.
Fast forward to June, this year, when attackers struck at Mpeketoni, Lamu County, leaving a trail of blood and tears in their wake.
Yet again, Mr Lenku was in a tight spot with the chorus of those baying for his blood ballooning to include “friendly fire” from Jubilee politicians.
“It had become fashionable to lash out at Lenku. But I sometimes smiled it away. I harbour no bitterness, anger or fear. My conscience is clear and I’m giving it my all,” Mr Lenku told Lifestyle.
As he goes about his duties, one thing the Cabinet Secretary fervently hopes and prays for is that he will somehow shield his wife Edna, son Lemaiyan and daughters Silantoi, Simaloi and Naserian from the pressures that come with his position.
One thing Mr Lenku has never considered is quitting. He says he is not one to shy away from danger, crisis or challenge and “I am ready to die for my country”.
His biggest inspiration is his father Lenku ole Mpaa Kapei, a one-time paramount chief in Kajiado and respected leader of the Iterito age-group of the Maasai. His mother, Sentema Lenku, also came from the lineage of a powerful Maasai family.
As a Form Two student, he says, he once refused to return to school unless he had speared a lion to death in keeping with the traditions of his Maasai people.
It took his traditionalist father and other elders to convince him that modern moranism was the way to go — and that getting an education was more valuable than hunting lions.
The soft-spoken Mr Lenku — who attended Nkama Primary School, Nakuru High School, Utalii College and University of Nairobi — recalled his teenage lion killing aspirations in June when, after the Mpeketoni killings, he flew to the area that resembled a war zone.
He had to leave behind his family for a few days to face the crisis head-on.
But the reception he got was not that befitting a dignitary as an angry crowd that he hoped to reassure was instead charging menacingly towards him.
Mr Lenku says his security detail attempted to whisk him away, but he stood his ground.
“I understood that they were pained but how would it have looked if a Cabinet Secretary was to run away from this reality?” he asked.
Once again, it was a tough few days for him as he tried to get to the bottom of the matter even as all and sundry repeated calls for his sacking or resignation.
Still, he says, as an ardent Christian he was determined that by God’s grace, he would surmount the odds.
Mr Lenku’s journey to the altar of baptism by fire started with his surprise nomination to the Cabinet last year.
Recalling the moment he was told President Uhuru Kenyatta had picked him for the powerful post, he says a cocktail of emotions engulfed him. He doesn’t say how the President arrived at his name, but it was a shocker.
And yet, he had no more than a layman’s knowledge of complex national security matters.
“I felt a tinge of excitement and fear. Excited that finally I would get to serve my country, and the fear of failure,” he says.
He had for about 10 years been petitioning God in prayer for an opportunity to serve his country in a bigger capacity.
“I’d pray and cry to God, asking Him whether what I had become was all there was to life,” Mr Lenku said. But he hadn’t bargained on how God would answer that prayer.
What he had become then was General Manager of Utalii Hotel, which was a senior position by many standards.
Having cut his teeth in the hospitality industry, helping to build Serena Hotels into the money minting juggernaut that they are today, and converting Utalii Hotel from a loss-making parastatal into a profitable enterprise, he knew he was something of an achiever.
“I learnt a lot of prudent management from the Serena Hotels. Serena shaped me,” he offers.
The bug for higher office had bitten him in 2003 when he made for the Kajiado South by-election following the death of Democratic Party stalwart and then President Mwai Kibaki’s political ally Godfrey Parpai.
He lost at the primaries and returned to the hotel industry.
When the Public Service Commission put up advertisements seeking principal secretaries last year, Mr Lenku applied. He made the shortlist but was never nominated.
What he did not know was that President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto were considering him for a higher position.
Few outside of the hotel industry had heard of Mr Lenku and, as with the rest of the Cabinet, he posted an impressive CV complete with a Master’s in Business Administration.
This was a big leap for the man born on October 20, 1970 in Lenkisim sub-location, Entonet location in Loitokitok Division, who grew up in a polygamous family with “nine mothers”.
But his new role at the apex of Kenya’s internal security was an entirely new territory – vast, complex and riddled with unforeseen possibilities of startling proportions.
It could dwarf even the best when dealing with sudden and deadly issues like terrorist attacks.
A man widely read in business, he had hardly ever touched a book on security.
His life of simplicity in the hotel industry changed dramatically. Suddenly, he was dealing with matters of life and death.
Here he was — a man to whom Browning, Beretta and Magnum were only names of pistols he had mostly heard in media reports when police gave briefings — now carrying the weight of the country’s security on his shoulders.
It was now his job to spearhead the government’s cardinal duty of protecting life and property.
One major task, which he has quietly been executing, was an in-house clean-up that he says has been taxing.
He had received directions from his bosses that the procurement systems at the Office of the President had long been steeped in deep-rooted corruption and needed an overhaul.
He explains that for years, billions of taxpayers’ shillings had been siphoned by gun barons and their civil service cohorts forming near-impenetrable cartels and covered under the guise of national security.
It was now his job to dismantle them. Away from the public glare, this has been one of his toughest jobs.
At one time, he says, he cancelled a tender worth more than Sh10 billion because Kenyans were about to overpay.
He also, for instance, could not understand why a foreigner had to service Office of the President vehicles.
Some of these moves prompted the President to caution him to enhance his personal security as the cartels had the capacity to hit back.
Then there were the seemingly mundane areas from where some people were minting millions of shillings.
He, for instance, suggested that rather than issue prisoners with slippers, which wear off quickly, sandals made from old tyres, commonly known akala or nginyera, would do.
“The whole of Maasailand is in nginyera and they don’t wear out quickly. Why can’t we issue those to prisoners and our own Kenyans can make them?” asks Mr Lenku.
He adds: “Massive resources were not going where they were supposed to. This office must be made to belong to all 40 million Kenyans not three companies winning all 40 tenders,” he says.
At one point, he was about to sign off a deportation order for a suspected drug dealer when an emissary approached him and offered Sh200 million.
“Just say where you want it dropped,” the emissary reportedly told the bewildered CS. He rejected the offer and signed the deportation order.
Mr Lenku believes the staff now understand that he is bigger than his physical looks and “they are happy with the changes”.
His moves to spruce up things at OP are said to have touched off whispers, rumours and veiled threats from some long-serving but unscrupulous civil servants suspected of working with the cartels.
“Walisema huyu mtu ni chef — mtu ya chai na mandazi — na ataenda tu. Kama (George) Saitoti na (John) Michuki hawakubadilisha anafikiria yeye ni nani (They would say that this man is only a chef — who prepares tea and buns. If Saitoti and Michuki didn’t change things here, who is he?)” recalls Mr Lenku.
Today, he believes his efforts have paid off and police officers, for example, have more vehicles and bullet proof vests despite the many lingering challenges and a sullied image.
He is optimistic that in the next three years, his ministry will overcome the police housing problem that has become the darkest blot on national security due to the squalor in which many officers live.
“We are working on a formula by which we will build 25,000 houses in three years. I know it’s possible,” says Mr Lenku.
He admits that the load of office is heavy – and that the President is a tough but supportive boss – but he takes off the steam by going to the gym for a minimum of one hour, three times a week.
That helps ward off fatigue for the minimum of 12 hours he has to spend working every day.
For now, Mr Lenku believes that the country’s security is in safe hands. But can Kenyans trust him?
Wow: This Man Joseph Jama Ole Lenku