Nicholas Biwott’s five-decade long career of dedicated public service began upon his return to Kenya from university in Melbourne, in December 1964.
During the administration of the first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (1963-78) – the country’s hero of independence, and a towering figure of African nationalism whose name ranks alongside those of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana – Biwott served as District Officer for South Imenti and Theraki, Meru District from 1965 to 1966.
As a young administrator, Biwott sought to hasten the development of the nascent country. Keenly aware of the need to support a wide range of projects, industries and infrastructure, he instituted community fund-raising programmes to support local services, grow the economy and create jobs. These enabled the building of schools in Nkubu and Kanyakini; a health centre at Nkwene; roads and irrigation projects across the District; as well as the promotion of coffee and tea plantations and employment at the quarries in Egoji.
He also played a central role in dealing with the troublesome legacy of British colonial rule. Tasked with helping to rehabilitate the Mau Mau – the group which fought against the British Army, authorities and settlers in Kenya in an uprising from 1952 to 1960 – Biwott helped persuade them to renounce violence and, through the ‘Million Acre’ scheme, organized the resettlement of many on to their own land, previously owned by European settlers. He also coordinated the resistance to the ‘Shifta’ movement of ethnic Somalis living in the north of Kenya, who sought to secede and become part of the Somali Republic.
Having returned from his studies in Australia for good, in 1968, Biwott began his steady rise up through Kenya’s ministerial departments, starting out at the Ministry of Agriculture. As Personal Assistant to the Minister, Bruce McKenzie, he helped guide Kenya’s early agricultural policy and modernise a key pillar of the Kenyan economy: coordinating cereal production, the marketing of cereal crops and policy on fertilisers, as well as developing research into new strains of wheat and maize better suited to Kenya’s growing conditions.
It was whilst at the Ministry of Agriculture that Biwott started to develop what would become the hallmark of his career in public life – cooperation between East African states. He took the lead in coordinating the Ministry’s work with the East African Council of Ministers, helping guide Kenya’s policy in the development of key infrastructure, such as ports and railways, and services, including East African Airways, jointly run by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Moving to the Treasury - led by Mwai Kibaki, who would go on to become Kenya’s third President from 2002 to 2013 - as Senior Secretary in 1971, Biwott continued to drive Kenya’s international cooperation with countries near and far.
In a short space of time, he created and headed up the government’s foreign aid department, the External Aid Division; and facilitated the establishment of the French School in Nairobi (now the Lycée Denis Diderot), the French Cultural Centre, and the Kenyan office of the Goethe-Institut, the Frederick-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation. His legacy and influence in this area continues to this day, with these institutions contributing to Nairobi’s flourishing cultural scene.
Following a personal recommendation from President Kenyatta, Biwott was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1972, working with Kenyatta’s successor as President, Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), who at the time was Vice-President and Minister of Home Affairs. Serving as Under Secretary from 1974, Biwott dedicated his tenure to deepening the links between Kenya and the emerging nations of the African continent, working closely with the Commonwealth and the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa, and promoting the policy of ‘good neighbourliness’ towards the nations bordering Kenya.
When arap Moi assumed the mantle of Kenya’s leader as her second President in 1978, Biwott was promoted to Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President, a position at the nerve centre of politics and the very heart of Kenyan public life.
In 1979, Biwott was advanced to the position of Minister of State, with a wide-ranging portfolio encompassing matters from science and technology to cabinet affairs, land settlement & immigration.
Here, he established what is regarded as one of the country’s greatest modern achievements – the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). This leading healthcare research and development facility, supported by major international donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, carries out vital medical research and for more than forty years, has saved and improved the lives of millions across sub-Saharan Africa in the fight against malaria, HIV/AIDS, and, currently, COVID-19.
This decade also saw the start of Biwott’s 28-year long parliamentary career, when he was elected to the National Assembly as Member of Parliament for Keiyo-Marakwet, representing the Kenya African National Union party (KANU), in 1979. A notably dedicated Member of Parliament, he would return to his constituency every weekend from Nairobi, until he left Parliament in 2007.
Promoted to Minister of Regional Development, Science and Technology in 1982, Biwott continued to accelerate Kenya’s development, by learning from other international partners, such as Australia and the USA, and instituting their best practices in Kenya.
He split the country’s sole regional development authority, creating localized bodies to deal with the needs of specific areas, such as the Lake Basin and Kerio Valley Development Authorities.
Entering the busiest phase of his public life, Biwott was made Minister of Energy in 1983, a portfolio he would hold for the next eight years and when he was widely seen as one of the most effective Cabinet ministers of his time. He was an instrumental figure in the rapid advances Kenya’s energy industry and infrastructure underwent in the 1980s, presiding over the foundation of the National Oil Corporation, and the construction of storage and pipeline facilities from Mombassa in the south, and northwards to Kisumu and Eldoret. He also oversaw major improvements to Kenya’s electricity supply, with a rural electrification programme, and the building of several key dams – such as Sondu Mirei Dam, Kiambere Hydroelectric Dam and Turkwell Hydroelectric Dam (with the latter two still producing more than 35% of Kenya’s Hydroelectricity today).
Biwott’s career in the Kenyan Government came to an abrupt halt in early 1991, however, when several false allegations were levelled against him.
Kenya was undergoing a fractious period in the lead-up to a new era of multi-party politics at this time, and prominent figures behind the President, such as Biwott, were attacked as a way of discrediting arap Moi himself.
Biwott brought several defamation actions in relation to these allegations. The actions were either not defended or the defendants were found to have no case, and Biwott was awarded millions of Kenyan Shillings, Kenya’s largest ever libel award up to that point.
From 1991 to 1997, Biwott was thus not part of the Kenyan Government and held no ministerial office, but continued to serve as an MP, now for Keiyo South, which he represented for KANU from 1992 to 2007 when he lost the seat in the General Election.
Nevertheless, due to his unique experience, diplomatic relationships with many of East Africa’s ministers and convening power, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly asked President arap Moi to once again give Biwott a position on the Kenyan Government’s front bench to lead on East African affairs.
Biwott returned to the Cabinet, initially as Minister of State in the President’s Office in 1997, and then to head up the newly created Ministry of East African and Regional Cooperation the following year.
Revisiting the leitmotif of his career, African cooperation, he became Chairman of the East Africa Council of Ministers and was instrumental in developing a road network for the region, as Chairman of the Common Market for East and Central Africa (COMESA).
Another major achievement in this field was his role in negotiating and drafting the Treaty of the East African Community, an intergovernmental organisation of six countries in the Great Lakes region – Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.
When his portfolio was expanded to include the Ministries of Trade, Industry and Tourism in 1999 – at which point he headed more ministries than any other Cabinet colleague – Biwott energetically established initiatives for Kenya’s burgeoning tourism sector, establishing a Tourist Trust Fund with the European Union; creating the country’s Tourism Police; and re-introducing the East Africa Safari Rallies.
Biwott continued his work with multilateral bodies to advance Kenya’s interests and position her as a principal African power, devising the Small Medium Trade Trust Fund with the EU; establishing the COMESA free trade area in 2000; serving as Chairman of the African Caribbean Pacific Group at the World Trade Organisation; and creating the Africa Trade Insurance to cover foreign investments against political risk.
Following the 2002 General Election, and the election of President Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013), Biwott’s decades-long ministerial career finally came to a close.
He was the first Cabinet minister to hand over his position to his opposite number, Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, and returned to the life of a senior parliamentarian, actively serving on the Devolution Committee of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission.
A keen proponent of Kenyan unity, Biwott was the sole Member of Parliament to abstain on a vote on holding a referendum on a new draft of the Constitution in 2005, stating that it ‘would divide the country along ethnic lines.’ In the years following the referendum, Kenya sadly saw some of the worst tribal violence in her history.
In 2005, Biwott ran for the chairmanship of KANU, losing the leadership race to Uhuru Kenyatta (the son of Jomo Kenyatta, who would follow in his father’s footsteps to become President in 2013).
After KANU allied itself with the Party of National Union, a coalition of conservative parties, Biwott founded the New Vision Party of independents, helping many who would not have had the funds to run for parliament to do so. In 2013, Biwott made his final bid for elected office, running for the seat of Elgeyo-Marakwet County in the Senate, but losing out to a wave of young leaders with a new vision for Kenya, led by William Ruto, who became Deputy President.