Life & Work
Francis Wangusi: the hardened man who reformed Kenya’s ICT sector
Thursday March 02 2023
The death of Francis Wangusi, the former director-general of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), has brought down curtains on a man who engineered the most decisive ICT reforms in the country, taming telcos and reining in on media operators in the process.
Wangusi died on March 1 at 1.30pm at the Nairobi Hospital where he had been undergoing treatment, his family said.
At CA, his institutional memory allowed him to get things right and his credentials were unmatched.
What most Kenyans do not know is that Wangusi was a trained space scientist with a master’s from the International Space University of France. His speciality was the satellite.
Almost single-handedly, the straight-faced man who also loved his bottle consigned the media and the telecommunication operators in their place, earning many foes.
But where he lost friends in the media, Wangusi earned endearment among Kenyans during turbulence from steep growth and digital disruption.
Read: Wangusi: The CA boss with thick skin
He ascended to the helm of the communications regulator in 2012. Kenya was beginning to transition from analogue to digital transmission ahead of the June 2015 global deadline for the switchover.
His tenure at CA was tempest-tossed, with battles from within and without. Notably, the man was wanted among media operators over his stern stance on policy and regulation implementation.
In 2015, for instance, private broadcasters moved to court seeking more time to secure their own set-top boxes that would distribute their content.
Wangusi would win against them after the Supreme Court ruled that the country’s digital migration must continue. Later, a free-to-air signal distribution licence was issued to the fuming media operators.
This would become the first mega milestone among many under Wangusi’s watch. Thanks to his unyielding stand, Kenya had discarded analogue broadcasting and joined the rest of the world in beaming television and radio broadcasts via digital signals.
Riding on that feat, a second three-year term in office was in the offing. In June 2015, his tenure was renewed by the CA board, effectively knocking out 28 other contestants who were eyeing the position.
Before joining CA, then called the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), in 2000, Wangusi had worked at the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation. He had also lectured at the Kenya College for Communications Technology, now Multimedia University.
In 2018, a vicious boardroom coup saw him sent on a three-month compulsory leave, allegedly for effecting irregular staff promotions.
He stayed on after obtaining a court order to reinstate him. He would accuse the board and the ICT ministry of defying courts to lock him out of office.
When he finally did leave office in 2019, the scientist became a forgotten man. It was a case of serving the country with dedication and slipping into oblivion at the end of duty.
For someone who had served at the apex of the country’s communication engine, money, power and influence were his staple. Wangusi’s last days, though, were lonely and miserable.
An advancing cancer did not make his retirement any easier, sources say. Last month, his church, the Quakers Friends International Centre Church, made a blood appeal for him.
“He is admitted at Nairobi Hospital with low blood levels and…side effects after his sixth cycle of chemotherapy,” the appeal signed by Pastor Walter Bilimu read.
The man had his fair share of controversies too. In 2017, Wangusi had made a bid to fit “spy gadgets” meant to monitor conversations and read text messages sent on mobile devices, ostensibly to fight crime in the country. A public uproar ensued, with Kenyans accusing the government of attempting to clip their freedom of speech during the political season.
Read: Communications Authority plan to snoop on phones illegal: Court
It was also under Wangusi that in January 2018, the government switched off the signals for independent television stations — NTV, Citizen TV and KTN — for planning to broadcast a contentious, mock swearing-in ceremony for opposition leader Raila Odinga.
The government justified the move saying broadcasting the event would have been a “serious security breach”.
Read: Anger as regulator shuts down TV stations
When the time came to leave in 2019 at the end of his tenure, he insisted on staying on even after his replacement had been named.
“They are bringing in the most junior person, and I found it difficult to make her run a department. I saw the news in the media,” he ranted during an interview, vowing not to hand over to his successor.
It took the intervention of then ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru to tell Wangusi off. He left reluctantly, marking the end of a dramatic tenure.
Read: Wangusi makes U-turn on stay in office
Foray into politics
Wangusi had also tried his hand at politics, vying for the Bungoma governor’s seat in 2022. In a race that featured then-incumbent Wycliffe Wangamati, first governor Kenneth Lusaka and human rights activist Zacharia Barasa, Wangusi was a third-tier candidate.
Mr Lusaka eventually recaptured the seat. From then on, Wangusi kept a low profile, barely appearing publicly.
“Wangusi served his country well. His footprints remain notable,” political analyst Javas Bigambo eulogised him.
Wangusi is the longest-serving CA director-general to date, having previously held the position on an interim basis for a year following a civil suit filed by the Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) in 2011.
In 2013, former President Uhuru Kenyatta awarded Wangusi the State recognition of the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) for his leadership.
Many Kenyans may already have forgotten him, but the era of Wangusi at CA will easily go down in history as the most transformative in Kenya’s ICT industry.