The Kenya Forum | Richard Leakey Dies at 77 – Public Service Reformer, Conservationist and Anthropologist - The Kenya Forum

January 4, 2022


Leakey was a giant of a man in more ways than one.

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Richard Leakey Dies at 77 – Public Service Reformer, Conservationist and Anthropologist

Richard Leakey Dies at 77 – Public Service Reformer, Conservationist and Anthropologist

A young Richard Leakey

Richard Leakey, a former Head of the Public Service, redoubtable conservationist, and internationally acclaimed anthropologist, has died at the age of 77.

Leakey was a giant of a man in more ways than one. It was perhaps only his redoubtable strength of character that a allowed him to reach the age of 77, having survived a fall from a horse (in which he broke his skull), being attacked by a puff adder, a plane crash (and possible assassination attempt) and kidney failure.

Leakey Third-Generation Kenyan

Born in 1944 in Nairobi, Richard Leakey, a third-generation Kenyan, was the son (one of three) of the internationally famous archeologists Louis Seymour Leakey and Mary Leakey. Richard’s own career as an anthropologist began accompanying his father to excavations in Kenya.

After an itinerant start to his career (he dropped out of school at age 16), Richard Leakey became the director of National Museums of Kenya when he was just 22.

Wildlife And Conservation

In 1990 Leakey was made chairman of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department, now known at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) following increasing poaching in the country. His suggestion to rangers of the KWS at one meeting that if they came under fire from poachers that they should fire back was an indication of his robust approach, welcomed by some but not endearing him to ‘humanitarians’.

Himself devoted to the preservation of wildlife, Richard Leakey campaigned to end the scourge of corruption in the KWS, crack down on poaching and protect the national parks. They were worthy ambitions but also ones that made him enemies in government and elsewhere.

Leakey’s zeal and knowledge however, afforded him the chance to transform the KWS from a corrupt loss-making operation to one which could attract international funding. In 1991 he personally raised $150 million to support the KWS’s operations and projects.

Plane Crash

In 1983 Leakey miraculously survived a plane crash but both his legs were crushed and thereafter he walked on artificial limbs.

In 1993 Leakey resigned from the KWS citing government interference as a reason for his departure.

The ‘Dream Team’

In 1999, however, Leaky was appointed as the Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service in Kenya, tasked to head a group of technocrats that became known as the ‘Dream Team’ to bring discipline in the public service. The aim was to engender greater confidence in the donor community at a time when the World Bank and the and the International Monetary Fund had suspended loans to Kenya over endemic corruption and political intolerance.

The ‘Dream Team’, all drawn from the private sector, included Martin Odour-Otieno (formerly Director of Finance and Planning at Barclays Bank) who became Permanent Secretary for Finance and Planning; Mwangazi Mwachofi (formerly a representative of the International Finance Corporation) who became Permanent Secretary to the National Treasury; Titus Naikuni (formerly Managing Director of Magadi Soda Company) who became Permanent Secretary for Transport and Communication; Shem Migot Adholla (from the World bank) appointed as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture; and Wilfred Mwangi (formerly with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre). Who became Permanent Secretary in the Mistry of Energy.
Richard Leakey’s ‘Dream Team’ began the no mean task of attempting to restructure the civil service and tackling corruption, inefficiency and nepotism.

Two months after being established the ‘Dream Team’ struck at the Coffee Board of Kenya, putting it under State control and sacking both the board’s general manager and financial controller.

The Dream Is Over

It was not surprising, despite good intentions and strong resolve, that the Leakey team ran into opposition and recalcitrance from civil servants who not only found that their sinecures were under threat but also disliked the considerable salaries the IMF and World Bank were paying to the ‘Dream Team’.

By 2001 too many powerful vested interests and politically connected individuals had combined to bring an end to the ‘Dream Teams’ work. Leakey’ plans to cut the number of civil servants was overruled by Parliament. The dream was over.


Richard Leakey briefly entered politics in Kenya founding an opposition party, ‘Safina’ in 1997 campaigning now led by lawyer and civil society activist Paul Muite.

Leakey also made a return to the KWS from 1998-99 following pressure from international donors, and a similarly brief return as Secretary to the Cabinet from 1999 to 2001.

The Origins Of Man

Richard Leakey co-authored two books with Roger Lewin, Origins (1977) and People of the Lake (1978). It was Leakey’s work that placed the home of mankind in Africa to ancestors living 3.5 million years ago. In 1981 Leakey’s last book The Making of Mankind was published that concentrated on his anthropological work.

In 1977 Richard Leakey was featured on the front cover of Time Magazine which 20 years later heralded him as one of the top thinkers of the previous century.

Richard Leakey’s daughter Louise continues his work as a paleontologist and anthropologist in Eastern Africa.


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