Ruth Kagia: The woman on whose shoulders Uhuru’s legacy rests

When President Uhuru Kenyatta met a high-powered team he had assembled to chart the way forward in growing the country’s economy in November last year, weeks after he had secured his re-election, Kenyans were not amused by the apparent exclusion of women.

The men in the room, who included Cabinet Secretaries Fred Matiang’i, Henry Rotich, Charles Keter, Adan Mohammed, James Macharia and Cleophus Mailu (who was left out in the post-2017 Cabinet), then Chief of Staff Joseph Kinyua and Treasury Principal Secretary Kamau Thugge, occupied the high table.

The only women in the room, Principal Secretaries Aidah Munano and Zeinab Hussein, and Ruth Kagia (Advisor, International Relations and Social Sectors) were ‘back benchers.’

The team had been assembled to discuss a dedicated blue print for economic growth and quick social benefits it had formulated.

At the time, President Uhuru had identified areas that his administration would proritise in his second term, including those covered under the Big Four Agenda, whose success would define his legacy when he leaves office in 2022.

Kenyans were left wondering why the president appeared to be ignoring the contribution of women in such key discussions. However, the president would prove his critics wrong when he increased the number of women in the Cabinet from five to six. In addition to handing them critical ministries, he appointed several others as PSs.

Kagia was elevated to the position of Deputy Chief of Staff, Strategy and Policy, placing her at the centre of formulating and driving the government’s political and socio-economic development programmes.

An education and human development expert, Kagia worked at the World Bank for 22 years, where she rose to the position of Country Director for Southern Africa, managing the bank’s portfolio in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mauritius and Madagascar.

She also served as Global Education Director, where she worked extensively on Millennium Development Goal issues and led the establishment of the Education for All Fast Track Initiative. Prior to her work at World Bank, Kagia worked for more than 10 years in government in education, research and management. She holds degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard University.

Ruth Kagia

At State House, she stands out as the only woman holding an influential position save for Kanze Dena and Munira Mohammed, who are in charge of communications. While she rarely attracts publicity like her colleagues in the Office of the President, Kagia has been playing key roles behind the scenes.

This is espoused partly by the fact that she has been a member of the president’s official delegation during his crucial trips to Canada, the United States and Cuba this year, during which Kenya secured several commitments and bilateral agreements.

According to sources, she was part of the team that burnt the midnight oil to fine-tune several deals with Cuba, which were headlined by the agreement on health cooperation that saw Kenya recruit 100 doctors to boost service delivery in rural hospitals.

As part of the agreement, 50 Kenyan doctors will also be trained in Cuba, which is reputed for its high standards in healthcare.

The Big Four Agenda fits well into Kagia’s thinking that despite Kenyans’ political differences, which have degenerated into chaos and instability after every election since the reintroduction of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s, the country can enjoy tranquility if the economy works well and is not disrupted by divisive politics.

“When our economy is robust, when it is on an upward trajectory, everybody benefits. There are more jobs, there is more cash in people’s pockets. It brings a sense of togetherness. On the other hand, when it is disrupted, whether as a result of politics or a catastrophes such as drought, the people who suffer most are the ordinary Kenyans who don’t have strong safety nets,” she told a forum organised by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance ahead of last year’s hotly-contested presidential election.

She noted that Kenyans need to look at what brings them together rather than what divides them.

In order to achieve the Big Four Agenda, Kenya has recast its diplomatic stance to focus more on economic and trade diplomacy.

Alongside Foreign Affairs CS Monica Juma, a former ambassador extraordinaire and plenipotentiary to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the Republic of Djibouti and Permanent Representative of Kenya to the AfricanUnion and her predecessor, Amina Mohammed (now at Education) who served in the UN as Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Kagia’s international experience is key to the success of the trade diplomacy push.

The other is Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau, who served as Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN.

For instance, she serves in the standing committee set up to coordinate and oversee the implementation of prioritised programmes under the blue economy, which is chaired by Chief of Defence Forces Samson Mwathethe.

Kenya is seeking to rally the world around the blue economy, starting with a high-level meeting set for Nairobi later next month. It will be co-hosted by Canada.

“Economic and trade diplomacy demands that Kenya aligns itself with countries and economic blocs of strategic importance. These efforts have seen the country increase its honorary consuls and use them to not only market and defend the country abroad, but also seek investments,” says media consultant Alfred Ochieng.

Ruth Kagia

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