There are two paths to a full career in the Kenya Defence Forces. One, you can join as a recruit and pass out as a private, the lowest rank. From there, you climb one rung after the other through these ranks: senior private, lance corporal, corporal, sergeant, senior sergeant, warrant officer 2 and finally, when you are in the region of age 60 and nearing the end of your service, you can be a warrant officer 1. This is the highest rank among non-commissioned officers.
Alternatively, you can go the more prestigious route. You can join as an officer cadet and get commissioned as a second lieutenant, the lowest rank among officers. From there, you embark on your life’s journey, one step at a time: lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, brigadier (one star), major general (two stars), lieutenant general (three stars) and finally, general (four stars), the highest rank.
In Kenya at any one time, only one man (yes, man) holds the rank of general. He commands all the land, air and sea forces. As in the first case, by the time he is scaling that height, he is also in the neighbourhood of the age of 60.
Although not unusual, these two paths rarely intersect. And when they do, it is always in one direction – non-commissioned officer to commissioned officer.
They are like the tracks of a railway line, for the most part running parallel to one another but once in a while, for example in a station, coming together. This happens to people with special skills who join the commissioned ranks in a category called special duty officers.
Kenya Air Force Major Paul Tergat’s career followed this trajectory. He joined the defence forces as a recruit and rose to become a senior sergeant. It was at that point that he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He has since climbed three rungs of the ladder to become a major.
What special skills did his bosses identify that made them put him on a course that could see him wear stars on his shoulders some day? It couldn’t be running alone. Since independence, the armed forces have produced the bulk of our world beating athletes. But they mostly remain non-commissioned officers.
Whatever the skills were, the man who lived inside the personality of world marathon champion spoke persuasively for him. Tergat is a highly competitive man with a stable character. He has never let his successes get in the way of his humility. He always had a hard kick, but only one reserved for the final dash to the finish line and not the proverbial "thank you" from a donkey.
When he accepted to become Ambassador against Hunger for the World Food Programme, he said: “When I was a child, we went without food. We only survived because of the famine relief from the World Food Programme.” As a result, he was able to go to school which, in case, was the place to be because there was an assured lunch from WFP.
Tergat doesn’t burn bridges behind him. The more he achieved in the tracks of the world, the more loyal he remained to his unit at Moi Air Base, Eastleigh.
In inter-unit meetings, enough people suggested that he had become too big for such competitions and begged him, and only half in jest, to “leave it to us.”
He never did. For him, there never was a “small meeting.” His unit and service - that is, the Air Force - always came first. Some in a similar position wore their success on their sleeves and started looking down on their beginnings. Not surprisingly, their careers soon resembled the sight of a shooting star – now you see it, now you don’t.
Tergat climbs up his ladder carefully, one step at a time, always making sure that the rung he is stepping off is still firm. He is a wise enough man to know that the vagaries of fate could make him need it.
Now he has one foot inside the office of president of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya. Barring surprises, he will be sitting in the chair by close of business on Friday next week. To the presidency of Nock will be added his glittering resume: five-time world cross country champion, former world marathon champion, 1996 and 2000 Olympic 10,000 metres silver medallist and International Olympic Committee member in addition to the WFP job.
Tergat is a common presence among the sports journalism fraternity with his privately-run Sports Personality of the Year Awards. And his Paul Tergat Foundation seeks to help disadvantaged sports people in Kenya. It is indeed a long distance to travel for a child whose parents were too poor to afford for him life’s most basic need: food.
Nominations for candidates to Nock’s various positions ended on Friday but we won’t know the final list until early next week after the poll managers, the Centre for Multi-party Democracy, have vetted it.
But this column has it on good authority that the current president, Kipchoge Keino, won’t be running again. A source close to him told me his decision to call it a day is final.
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And so a man known for his personal integrity dives into the shark infested waters of Kenya’s sports politics with his eyes wide open – or so we presume.
The other day, as the forces who have used Nock as a feeding trough raised one technicality or another to keep the status quo went on overdrive, Tergat said: “Let’s expedite this process. We are running out of time. We have many stakeholders to work for, and the main ones are the athletes.”
Tergat needs all the support he can because he is in for a very hard time. Nock is not an island in Kenya; it is Kenya itself. In this place, corruption is a mere legal challenge that can easily be circumvented by anybody with money. If that person also has political power or connections, so much the better.
The difference is this: stealing other people’s money brings you no social opprobrium. You don’t lose face. In fact, it can be a big boost for you if your sights are set on a high office. You will get millions of admirers. Stealing and becoming rich can make you a hero. People embrace you.
Corruption has never stopped anybody from being the honoured speaker before a church congregation. In fact, as a result of it, people have founded and owned profitable churches while being exalted by their followers as prophets of God. Lonely can be the life of anybody who disagrees with this social arrangement.
That is why somebody who was busted from under his bed and kit stolen from Olympic athletes can show up on television discussing Nock’s way forward.
That is why somebody facing charges of theft of Sh25 million is still globe-trotting on national sports business. Crowds have been filmed chanting: “Mwizi wetu! Mwizi wetu! Mwizi wetu!” to protest arraignment of their political leaders charged with theft. Mwizi wetu means “our thief.”
In Kenya, there is no social shame with being a thief, as long as you don’t go for your neighbour’s newly-hatched chickens.
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Corruption has cultural sanction in our country. Mkono mtupu haulambwi, says the Swahili saying that expresses deep scorn for an empty hand which brings nothing. Achote! Goes the clear demand to somebody seeking a service that he or she is entitled to. It is Sheng for demanding a bribe.
I am wondering how Tergat is going to navigate these waters. Stealing from athletes is such a deep seated practice among sports leaders that it has come to be accepted as normal. The archives of our newspapers are littered with cases of theft after every major trip abroad. Some officials earmark new plots of land, business ventures or even holidays to indulge in debauchery with funds meant for the use of athletes.
Consider this: according to the CMD, Nock’s special general meeting resolved that in matters to do with integrity, Chapter 6 of Kenya’s constitution would only apply to the positions of president and treasurer. Nobody else should be bound by it. Think about that guile.
Think about the character of a person who finds fault with a law that, among other requirements, says that one should be selected on “the basis of personal integrity, competence and suitability” and that you should not make decisions “influenced by nepotism, favouritism, other improper motives or corrupt practices.” Such a person can only be a crook.
And in the ranks of people leading the federations that make up the membership of Nock, there is no shortage of such people. They are the ones that Paul Tergat must work with. He must either devour them, or they will devour him.
He will face incredibly tough choices – either to play ball, turn a blind eye, or go for them whatever the cost.
Once long ago, the Soviet Union, as Russia was called, had a habit of installing aged leaders when the chief died. In 1985, it made a break with that. It installed 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev. In pleading with the delegates to the convention that ratified his selection, the Soviet President, Andrei Gromyko, made this memorable description of Gorbachev: “Comrades, this man has a nice smile. But he has iron teeth.”
Paul Tergat has a nice smile. But to swim among the sharks who populate Kenya’s Olympic movement, he will need iron teeth.