Raychelle Omamo – Defence boss and diplomat who studied law to please father

Raychelle Omamo is the first Kenyan woman to hold the top job in the Defence ministry. She was also the first woman to chair the Law Society of Kenya. She has been a career diplomat having served in France, Portugal, The Holy See and the Republic of Serbia.

The nomination of Raychelle Awuor Omamo as Cabinet Secretary of State for Defence took Kenyans off guard. Never before had a woman served in the docket associated with masculinity.

With nearly 30 years’ experience as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, Omamo is used to trailblazing. She was the first woman chairperson of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) and the first woman Ambassador of Kenya to France, Portugal, The Holy See and the Republic of Serbia. The senior counsel was also Kenya’s Permanent Delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Omamo was involved in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Kenya and was a member of the Attorney General’s Task Force on the Review of Landlord and Tenant Legislation (1999–2000). She was an assisting counsel to the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land (the Ndung’u Commission).

While Omamo’s appointment was a first for Kenya, she was joining a galaxy of women, who have served in defence in Botswana, Canada, France, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, India, Japan, Pakistan, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The articulate minister said she was excited by the appointment, describing it as an adventure and an opportunity to learn something new and draw from her experiences. Only four months after she assumed office in May, 2013, she faced her baptism of fire when Al-Shabaab terrorists attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi’s Westlands. They killed 67 hostages and injured 175.

Conspicuously missing as the Westgate tragedy unfolded, Omamo explained her absence as strategy. “We take into account issues that media or someone sitting at home may not take into account — like avoiding to give terrorists undue airtime.”

Could diplomacy have helped avert the Westgate raid? Diplomacy is the first line of defence, she explains. “We sent our troops to Somalia after 20 years of diplomacy. This was not a knee-jerk reaction.” The military tool is used as a last resort. Entry into Somalia was informed by an unhealthy level of threat to Kenya.

There are weighty decisions you have to make, many things that touch on national security; it’s a serious job

How has Omamo adjusted to guns and artillery? “You’re not working in an environment of aggression,” she corrects. “And I don’t command combat operations. We facilitate the armed forces to discharge their constitutional mandate. We draft policies to ensure that the mandate is met in an environment of security.”

Omamo’s docket includes overseeing operational policy decisions, budgets and senior personnel promotions. “There are weighty decisions you have to make, many things that touch on national security; it’s a serious job.” She has had to lean a lot on her skills as a diplomat, orator, researcher, planner and one who thinks on her feet.

Defence staff are courteous, orderly, and disciplined, she says. Previously used to combining force and tact, Omamo finds the defence environment tranquil and ‘extremely refreshing’. “It’s nice to be in an institution where things work. People are strategic and focused in their thinking.” She attributes that to the command and control structure of the military.

Omamo graduated from the University of Kent in England and went through the Kenya School of Law before starting an elusive job hunt. One fine afternoon, she met Advocate John Ndegwa, who listened to her predicament and invited her to share his office.

With a Ksh4000 loan from her lawyer sister, she got some letterheads. “Luckily the office had a desk and chair.” That is how she started her law firm, intending to give it a six-month try before checking on a job she had been promised.

She relied on mentors, mostly men, she describes as “really good advocates and senior counsels”. They would send her clients, show her how to draft pleadings, prepare submissions and call her at the end of the week to ask how she was faring, send her precedents and help her build a library.

Tea time was another avenue of exposure. Omamo describes the informal networks and communities of practice as forums of mutual support.

Would she do it again? “Probably not! I’d get employed for 10 years and get experience and clients, because it really took long to pick up.”

Omamo credits her mentors for interesting her in LSK politics, which thrust her to the top. “It wasn’t easy. You first had to get into the council.” She ran for chairperson, lost and said, “Never more”. But women advocates told her, ‘Why not? Second time finds you more experienced.’

“We campaigned hard; it wasn’t given to us on a silver platter.” She considers it ‘a real honour’ to have been elected the first woman chairperson of the LSK at a time most professional bodies did not have women in leadership posts. “LSK was a pioneer for this cause. They took a chance on me when no one else was doing that.”

She continued to get support from mentors, who served as her sounding boards. They would tell her when she went ‘off the path’ and criticise her without breaking her spirit. “They’d support me without allowing me to have a big head.”

Under her watch, the International Bar Association (IBA) helped LSK to establish a framework for Continuing Legal Education, which was rolled out after she left. “It’s now a strong initiative that keeps lawyers refreshed on legal developments.” Also introduced during her tenure were LSK’s monthly newsletter, the Legal Awareness Week and the Human Rights Report.

The ‘SMART’ strategic plan was another of Omamo’s success stories. “Consultants from the IBA came in to help us get a framework for LSK’s computerisation.” It allows for electronic communication with members and was also implemented after her tenure was over.

Omamo led the LSK when the constitutional review process was under threat. Her team mobilised the legal profession around the Yellow Ribbon Campaign, which championed the idea that the people had a sovereign right to chart their destiny and prepare a constitution on their own terms. “No institution was above the people.”

The top jurist describes LSK’s political engagement, transformation and strengthening of its administrative and operational structures as “extremely fulfilling” although she found taking the mantle from the illustrious Gibson Kamau Kuria daunting. His sacrifice for freedom and for political space made him legendary. His predecessors had also been courageous, intellectually awake, interesting and articulate. “I didn’t want to compromise LSK’s brand value.”

Omamo shunned the press in her first year in office “to focus on institutional transformation” and caught quite a bit of flak for not being ‘visible’. The second year found her more vocal. She ended up in the streets with advocates, marching to demand human rights. “I hope that when history is written, it will be read that the brand remained pure, perhaps even strengthened; that we stood in the gap for Kenyans and strengthened the LSK to serve the profession,” she says, admitting to have been ‘quite naughty and opinionated’. “I was in trouble a lot.”

And yet, she likens herself to the calm butterfly that doesn’t get agitated easily. “We meander here and there, pick this, stop, sometimes get lost, but eventually we still pollinate. I made a difference.”

The political bug bit the lawyer quite early in life. “I spent a lot of time with my father,” says the daughter of William Odongo Omamo, a pioneer agronomist and veteran politician remembered for his humour and eloquence in the 1980s. “I was interested in the things he did and the literature he read.” He pointed out leadership roles that she needn’t shy away from — like being a class prefect. “He was very happy when I served in the student council at Kent University.”

Omamo grew up in a traditional setting where parents had the final say and dropped clichés such as ‘work hard’, ‘be serious’, ‘be focused’… “My father chose my career for me. I really wanted to be a journalist. I pictured myself on a tanker in Gaza dishing out the war events. Now I was being forced to do something very boring …” She describes law as having a heavy workload. “It’s not an easy profession, but when I got into contact with real people and real issues, I found it fulfilling — and a lot of good has followed.”

The ambassador docket was Omamo’s most challenging, needing a mindset change from the activist LSK chairperson role that thrived on keeping government on its toes. She had to learn and learn quickly “about the country; about diplomacy; about diplomatic etiquette and how to manage an embassy.” She found herself taking instructions from Nairobi. She could not make her own decisions, not even on the budget, which the Treasury crafted in Nairobi.

She learned to negotiate. As a diplomat, one has to swallow their ego. “There are situations where you feel like telling someone off, but you can’t, because your country depends on your being discreet,” she says. “And all that as I was polishing my French!” In retrospect, she considers it a rich, but difficult experience that prepared her for her current office.

She views her achievements as a relay race, drawing from predecessors’ work. The number of signed bilateral agreements may serve as a yardstick, but they don’t necessarily improve Kenya, “so it’s a long-term, almost slow, fruition.”

While as a counsel she mostly relied on her knowledge, her reading and cross-examinations, in diplomacy, it’s about working together, which is ‘inspiring and humbling’. Being around people brings the best out of her, she says.

Away from work, Omamo, who has ‘a tiny circle of friends’, loves to be with her big family. “I spend much time at home, being an aunt, mentoring my nephews and nieces and listening to their curious, well-irrigated minds.”

An ardent reader and bird-watcher, Omamo dreams of a peaceful, corruption-free and egalitarian Kenya.

Words of Wisdom

  • “We’re all created in God’s image; that’s the power in us.”
  • “Opportunities are like birds. You never know what clothes they’ll come dressed in. They will come, perch for a while and then fly away. If you see them, grasp them.”
  • “You cannot direct change in many instances; sometimes you have to negotiate for it.”
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