Five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli said it is much safer for a leader to be feared than loved. Anne Waiguru, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Devolution and Planning, is the kind of leader who elicits both love and fear.
Waiguru is spoken of as a combative, no-nonsense go-getter and hard-worker. Waiguru, the person, smiles, loves dancing, carries lunch to work and is a doting mother to three sons.
She is among six women in Kenya’s cabinet of 18 and the only female Cabinet Secretary in the Presidency. Outside the presidential framework, Waiguru wields considerable power and influence. Her docket has the largest budget in government – KSh84 billion ($967 million), controlling key government functions of devolution, public service management, economic planning, women, youth affairs, special programs, and arid and semi-arid land dockets.
Working with Waiguru is not for the faint-hearted. With a heavy docket to manage, she pushes hard and keeps long hours. Those who have worked with her describe her as detailed and forceful, breaking all barriers. A government officer who worked in one of the ministries under Waiguru says she rules with an iron fist, it is either her way or the highway.
Waiguru describes herself as “extremely focused, disciplined, hard-working, smart and flexible”.
“I am able to change when I discover I am going in the wrong direction,” she says.
She confesses to placing a very high premium on hard work, an attribute she inherited from her late father who was a police officer.
“He is the reason I am here. It didn’t matter where you ended up, discipline and standards were always a big deal to my father.” She studied in Kenya at the Egerton University for her under-graduation and later pursued a master’s degree in economic policy from the University of Nairobi.
Rolling up her sleeves is part of her character. While preparing for the launch of the KSh6 billion ($70 million) Uwezo (Swahili for empowerment) Fund meant for youth and women, she went to the venue on the eve of the event and did something that shocked her team.
“She practically showed us how she wanted the chairs arranged. They had to be the same without special preferences to the President, his Deputy or herself. She said uwezo is about empowerment and equality of Kenyans,” says Dennis Itumbi, Director, Digital, New Media and Diaspora in the Executive Office of the President.
Her hands-on personality is not only about work. She also sets the bar high for her sons.
“They have a strong personality for a mother and I spend a lot of time with them.” One of her sons is a musician and to support him, she also took up music lessons. Her youngest son, who is 10, wants to be President of Kenya and has even expressed his ambitions to his mother’s boss. The eldest, 19, is already running an IT business.
Tears and Twitter
Now in her early 40s, Waiguru joined the public service under an initiative of the World Bank as a Technical Advisor to the Public Service Reform Secretariat in what was then the Cabinet Office. Prior to that, she had briefly worked at Citigroup NA.
After completing her term at the Reform Secretariat, Waiguru moved to head the Economic Stimulus Programme (ESP), to accelerate Kenya’s economic growth following the slump caused by the 2007/8 post-election violence.
At the helm of ESP, she was instrumental in ensuring all health centers had maternal units with beds.
“Many women in rural Kenya do not make it to a health center and give birth by the roadside. To avoid this, we tried to have them come to the health center every three weeks. We gave health workers bicycles and motorbikes to regularly check on expectant mothers at home. These are the things that keep me in public service.”
Waiguru confesses she did not nurse dreams of becoming a minister.
“The one thing I really wanted to be for a very long time, was a Permanent Secretary because it was the highest level a civil servant attained then that would allow me to influence policies,” she says.
After ESP, she moved on to become Director of the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS). This was a defining moment in her career. She had to lead the implementation of financial policies and programs to ensure efficient and transparent use of government money.
The media described her cabinet appointment in April 2013 as ‘a meteoric rise’. Waiguru was a trailblazer in government reforms and had upset the status quo. The rumor mills on social media went on overdrive. Having worked with President Kenyatta while he was Finance Minister, her appointment was seen as a reward. She was seen as a woman who had suddenly risen from nowhere. The stories got to her.
“I cried and worried in the beginning until I got used to the newspaper articles. You are used to someone criticizing you positively but some people are outright nasty. I now read comments on Twitter and laugh.”
Looking back, she wishes she knew earlier on in her public service career about the need to have the skin of a rhino.
“People asked why I was given the position. The same was not asked about my [male] colleagues. When we [women] do very well, people are surprised. When men do very well, it was expected. I see it even now when people tell me that I am doing very well as if they did not expect me to. They would not be surprised if a man did the same.”
The appointment suddenly threw her in the limelight, but she has never been a public person.
“I am very good one-on-one and in the background. I would never take myself to the media and hence people did not know I existed.”
Waiguru says women have to work four times as hard as men to get recognition because the society is still patriarchal.
“For a woman, half the time you must have proved a point before you are even considered for a position. It is very rare to hear someone say a woman has potential. A woman has to have a few accomplishments.”
Despite the high expectations, Waiguru does not have sleepless nights.
“I am very conscious of the fact that I am human and have limitations, so I do the best I can. Once I have done all I can, I go home and sleep easy because even if I stay awake nothing is going to change anyway. When there is a crisis you will not find me worried. What is the worst that can happen in life?”
Waiguru has had days when Murphy’s Law applied. In November 2013, she had to manage a crisis after health workers went on strike for 11 days over devolution of services from national to county governments. There were reported deaths as hospital services were paralyzed. In January 2014, Waiguru had to flag off food aid to Turkana, in northern Kenya. The media described the drought as a national shame.
“I don’t think flagging off food was a shame. With disasters, the issue is when it happens, are you prepared for it? We were prepared, you did not hear us asking the private sector for money or food. We are still buying and distributing food.”
While putting her heart in her work, Waiguru says she is passionate but not attached.
“Serving in the public service changes the way you see things. When you are out there, you tell government what it can do better but when you are in here with all our problems no one will ever give you a pat on the back. Your passion drives you.”
As Waiguru marked one year in office in April, she says devolution will be her main success story. She wants Anne Waiguru to be synonymous with transformation.
“I want people to talk about my contribution to the transformation of Kenya because I was committed to it and I had the ability to make that a reality,” she says.