Former Citizen TV news presenter Hussein Mohamed was last week appointed Head of Communications at the William Ruto Campaign Secretariat.
The broadcast journalist gave a wide-ranging interview to Sunday Nation where he spoke about his media career, his new job and why the best interviews he ever conducted were of his new boss, Ruto.
Here are some interview excerpts;
Kenyans know you as Hussein Mohamed from Citizen TV but there must be a Hussein Mohamed without the job as an extension of your identity. Who is that person?
Hussein Mohamed is just a simple guy who is in the communication field and a journalist who has tried to make a living for himself under difficult circumstances.
What you see is what you get and I can only thank God because it is His doing, not mine. I know that all these are opportunities that many don’t get.
I love the simple things in life and privacy regardless of being in the public domain. That’s me. That is who Hussein Mohamed is.
You are famous yet, despite having more than 300,000 followers on Twitter, you rarely post anything on social media. Why is that so?
Everybody has their style and interests. When this craze about social media began I wasn’t crazy about it because I’m a reserved person.
Even when I was working at Citizen TV I regarded the tenure as just another job and I would retreat back to my private life after anchoring bulletins.
I did not see the need to tell people what I was doing all the time. I was a journalist, and I regarded that as a job. I like to walk. I do that a lot. And I ride bodabodas when there is traffic.
In other words, I avoid complicating my life.
Will that change now that you have joined Deputy President William Ruto’s campaign team?
I don’t think it will. I didn’t change in the 10 years I was a public figure, so why should I now.
Tell us about your background. Where were you born? Which schools did you attend? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Nairobi, at Moi Air Base in Eastleigh. If I served my country in the field of journalism, then I’m picking from where my dad left. He was a soldier in the Kenya Air Force. I grew up at the base with my eight siblings until I was 19.
My elder brother sadly passed on in the year 2000. I used to play a lot of football with my brothers and friends there and I still have a lot of connections to that place.
I went to Moi Air Base Primary School before joining Jamhuri High School for secondary education.
At Moi Air Base more than 95 per cent of the children we grew up with ended up going to boarding school and my dad was under pressure to take me to one but God knows why it didn’t happen. Still, Jamhuri High taught me how to be street-smart, which is very important.
After that I studied for a diploma in broadcast journalism at Kenya Institute of Mass Communication before joining University of Nairobi for an undergraduate degree in political science and communications.
I also have a Master’s degree in diplomacy from University of Nairobi and I’m now thinking of enrolling for a PhD.
I have been married for eight years and we have been blessed with two beautiful children. My firstborn is a son who just turned four and my other child is two.
Why did you leave Citizen TV at a time when it appeared your career was at its peak?
I thank God for my achievements. I started as an intern with the Kenya News Agency in 2007, and so to reach the heights I did was no mean feat. But I was getting too comfortable, so I thought about it for a while and decided to thrust myself into a life of discomfort.
It was time; I could feel it in my gut. It just wasn’t as thrilling anymore for me. I mean, I would like to think that during my time in the media, together with others, we helped open up — in our own small ways — the democratic space and normalise scrutiny, and I mean thorough scrutiny, of our governance systems. But as time went by I realised you could only do so much in the media if you wanted to change the country for the better. I had to pursue other interests. Looking back, I thank God for making that decision.
As a journalist, what was the most challenging part of your job?
The balancing I had to do as I handled the high-level and sensitive political shows in a politically charged country with diverse opinions. That was difficult.
There is a thin line between objectivity and bias. In Kenya, people move, delete and redraw that line according to their interests.
Editorial policies from time to time were also a challenge, largely because of ownership. I didn’t face that problem, but I can imagine what journalists are going through now in the country.
It’s quite evident in this election that media houses have taken political positions — against and for political factions — openly supporting and openly condemning, yet still demanding to be regarded as balanced.
That’s a challenge that many journalists are going through and many have confided in me about their struggles with their conscience.
How did you prepare for the big interviews? How was it behind the scenes before and after an interview?
Behind the scenes was a lot of work. It was all about research for me. Nothing beats that. You have to be ready to put in a lot of work.
I had a team that I worked with on content generation, execution, and other production aesthetics and I’m always indebted to all those I worked with.
Ultimately, however, you personally have to put in the extra effort to make it work. There’s a lot more but maybe I’ll write a book someday.
Which interview do you regard as the best, and why?
It’s hard to choose. There were many and ‘best’ is relative, especially to the viewer, because the one rule I applied was that it was not about me but the viewer.
Nonetheless, the best ones I did were the ones with my new boss, Deputy President William Ruto. They were captivating, thrilling, and fiery.
The DP never tried even once to interfere with my questions, in fact, he used to tell me: My friend, uliza swali unataka. Niko tayari. That’s why, and you can see online, his interviews drew a lot of viewership.
But it speaks to one great quality that I liked about him; his democratic ideals. He believes that anyone can ask him anything about the management of this country because it’s the citizen’s right to know.
That’s why interviews with him end up being conversations about changing the country. I also must say I was amazed by his sharpness and brilliance and deep understanding of issues affecting the Kenyan people.
What was your first encounter with the DP?
I first met the DP at a news conference when he was the Agriculture Minister. At the time I was reporting from the field before I became an anchor.
It’s interesting that you are now joining him as his Director of Communications after a string of interviews with him. How did that happen?
The team around him initially got in touch and I had a few meetings with him myself. But the long and short of it is, I was attracted to this team by the personal brilliance of the DP, and the practical promise of the bottom-up economic policy that he champions.
I’m also drawn to his work ethic. He is constantly working, from very early in the morning till late at night. Plus, he genuinely cares about people who struggle to make a living and rewards effort.
I’ve seen him help people he doesn’t know, and many for that matter, and I remember him telling me years back after an interview with him, when a colleague requested some assistance from him, that if he can help someone in any way because of the office he holds, then he will never hesitate, as long as its legal, because he knows where he came from.
He is generous to a fault. He is also a firm and courageous individual, a quality that I personally admire and one which is sorely needed in the leadership of our country.
What happened at Bomas last year was a clear example. In the presence of the President and the former Prime Minister, he was jeered and heckled but still delivered a defining speech about his reservations with the BBI. Ultimately, he was vindicated.
What have you been up to since you left the newsroom?
I went into consultancy as an individual and also via my firm, and I’ve moved around the country a lot for the last two years.
I’ve worked with nine county governments, for example, supporting their communication functions and structures, specifically in strategic communications and knowledge management under the USAID.
I’ve also worked with United Nations and many other organisations and gained a wealth of knowledge and experience while at it. Most importantly, I got time to spend with my family.
How would you describe the media industry in Kenya today?
Vibrant, as always, but passive on a lot of critical matters affecting the country, especially on the political scene. I would like to see more critical analysis and probing to hold people to their words. Coverage of key issues in the country point to this.
The BBI for example; I think the media failed to analyse the danger posed by the document with regard to the doctrine of separation of powers and the principle of checks and balances.
The media also failed to acknowledge that we do not need a constitutional change under article 203, to effect 35 per cent revenue allocation to counties.
Do you really believe in the philosophy of UDA?
We have an alliance that discusses the plight of the millions of Kenyans at the lower end of our social pyramid; the people who have been perennially marginalised because of the top-down political and economic policies deliberately implemented to maintain the status of the elite.
And by the way, this elite, privileged, and exclusivist model is a continuation of our colonial legacy.
The fact that UDA is trying to break this negative legacy is for me quite revolutionary. So what is this bottom-up model about? And why do I ascribe to it? The President and DP invested heavily in infrastructure since 2013 and it was good to lay the foundation for economic expansion.
In 2017, the plan was to put money in agriculture, manufacturing, health, and housing because these sectors have the best potential to generate wealth and jobs and to keep the population healthy. And then the handshake happened and BBI took precedence.
The UDA Party leader has promised to revolutionise the economy by reducing emphasis on hard infrastructure and instead investing resources to generate productivity, with emphasis on micro, small and medium enterprises across the country.
It will encourage and facilitate the formation of many economic interest groups, from ward to national levels. The UDA Manifesto, to be unveiled in a few months, will contain all the relevant details.
What will be your role in his team and what are you bringing to the table?
I’m bringing my skills as a journalist and communicator after working for a long time in the media industry.
But I’m also here to learn because I have found very distinguished people here, and it’s a unique opportunity for me to learn. I’m the Director of Communications for the WSR Presidential Campaign.
What about his Communications Director Emmanuel Talam and spokesman David Mugonyi? What roles will they play in this new arrangement?
The communication team has been doing a brilliant job and these are people I have worked with.
We started working with them a long time ago when we were all journalists together. It is very simple, there is the UDA party, then there is the presidential campaign secretariat.
I deal now with the presidential campaign secretariat as the communication I head. Talam is the Director Communications at the DP’s office while Mugonyi is the Secretary of Communications at the DP’s office, so there is a clear distinction yet we all have to complement each other because we are working from the same man to make sure we get him to be the next president of the republic.
Does your family approve of this move?
Yes, they do, and if there’s anyone in the larger extended family that may have reservations, then I will personally convince them all.
Do you have any political ambitions?
No, I’m a professional, and my task together with the team is to communicate the DP’s agenda and see him sworn in as the Fifth President of the republic because I know what he means for this country and I want to see this country change for the better.
Will your role in politics impact your career as a journalist? Is this the end of Mohamed Hussein the journalist?
First, God knows what lies ahead and I pray for his guidance. However, the mere fact that you ask that question is to me a tragedy for the political fabric of this country.
I’m assuming you are asking that because politics is deemed dirty in Kenya. Some people in politics may be dirty, but politics is not. We have demonised politics for so long that our generation grows up knowing it as a bad thing.
So, who should lead then? That’s why we have people whose only credentials are guts but are visionless, holding many political offices in Kenya.
So, every smart professional or even entrepreneur or hustler should sit back and let other people lead? That has to change. We must play an active role in the management of our resources and livelihoods.