Has brief experiment with a technocratic cabinet failed?

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Eric Nyakagwa

When President Uhuru Kenyatta chose to appoint three cabinet secretaries from amongst politicians in 2013 – Land’s Charity Ngilu, Labour’s Kazungu Kambi and Mining’s Najib Balala – he went against his own promise before elections that only he and his deputy William Ruto would be the only politicians sitting at cabinet meetings.

At the time, he defended his decision by stating they would cease to be politicians by relinquishing any party positions they then held. It did not take long for the President and his advisers to realise that picking public and private sector technocrats, some with admittedly enviable qualifications, was not enough to ensure efficient and effective management of government and the affairs of the nation. This manifested itself in the form of runaway insecurity terrorism in various parts of the country former hotelier Joseph Lenku, to whom the Interior docket had been entrusted.

Uhuru was forced to turn to what commentators and the public deemed safe pair of hands in the person of Lt Gen (Rtd) Joseph Nkaissery whose performance has, surprisingly been below par. In his defence, up from criticism following the Garissa University College attack, he has been able to navigate various storms by sometimes resorting to old school political and military tricks.

Though Ngilu and Kambi have since left following their suspension and subsequent replacement after their inclusion in an EACC graft dossier that President Uhuru tabled in Parliament last March, the number of politicians in Cabinet increased with the appointment of New Ford Kenya leader Eugene Wamalwa to the Water and Irrigation ministry. His appointment was seen not only as Jubilee’s reward for  his support for the UhuRuto ticket in the 2013 General Election in which he put on hold his own ambitions, but also as a 2017 strategy to win voters in the New  Ford-K base in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia Counties. As well, last month’s nomination and approval of Charles Keter (Kericho senator), Dan Kazungu (Malindi MP) and former assistant minister Mwangi Kiunjuri to Cabinet are further testimony of the President’s calculations to steady the Jubilee boat in the wake of swirling corruption allegations that have claimed the careers of key loyalists such as Ann Waiguru, who headed the expansive Devolution and Planning ministry. The political angle is not difficult to see. In appointing Keter, a confidante of DP William Ruto, to replace Davis Chirchir as Energy CS, Uhuru was seen to be countering rebellion in Rift Valley led by Bomet governor Isaac Ruto.

On the other, Kiunjuri’s appointment was not only meant to bring on board a seasoned politician but was also mean to address the grievances of the Kikuyu Diaspora in the Rift Valley who have, for long, complained they have never been considered for a full cabinet position since the ascent to power of Mwai Kibaki in 2002, despite their support for their kinsmen from Central Kenya. The last time the region had one of their own in Cabinet was during the Jomo Kenyatta and Moi regimes when Dr GG Kariuki served in, among others, the powerful Internal Security docket.

Kiunjuri, during the vetting process, denied his was a political reward noting that under Kenya’s presidential system, all the country’s regions deserve to be considered. He also warded off questions over his tussle with Ngilu during their tenure at the Water ministry, insisting he was the whistle blower in the saga surrounding multi-billion dam projects. The irony is not lost on many that as Kinjuri was making his way back to the corridors of power, Ngilu was finding her space in the cold.

Kazungu’s nomination and subsequent appointment is seen as Jubilee’s way of testing the waters in the Cord-dominated Coast region.

The politicians nominated to Cabinet passed the vetting process rather easily despite the fact that some of them face integrity questions, and the obvious political considerations behind their ascendancy to the top echelons of the executive. The National Assembly, angry with the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission for exposing alleged graft among their own, chose to turn the heat on the anti-corruption agency rather than on the nominees’ credentials.

Deputy Minority Leader Jakoyo Midiwo best captured the moment when he noted that one time, he, Kiunjuri and former Environment minister Chirau Mwakwere were implicated in a Koinange Street prostitution scandal, and that he had no reason to deny Kiunjuri the chance to join cabinet when he (Midiwo) is an MP while Kiunjuri is jobless.

Whatever the factors, President Uhuru and his deputy Ruto considered in picking the seven new choices for cabinet, questions are bound to be asked as to whether the country’s experimentation with a non-political Cabinet has failed.

In enacting the Constitution, Kenyans opted for an executive cabinet as opposed to the previous political one; the thinking was that separating the Executive arm of government from politics would make it more effective. Previously, ministers were picked from among Members of Parliament; this was changed to ensure cabinet was more effective and accountable to the people through Parliament, which has powers to impeach them. It was also a way of ending the culture of political rewards seen in the form of “flying the national flag”, which was perfected previously to buy loyalty.

The framers of the 2010 Constitution went for a delegated executive authority from the people to a lean Cabinet of not more than 22 members, without allegiance to the person of the President. This is one of the ways Committee of Experts (CoG) that birthed the Constitution dispersed powers from an imperial president, in addition to creating various commissions, independent offices and county governments.

But even from the early stages of the formation of the post-March 2013 Cabinet, critics sounded a warning that while many would want to be governed by a well-functioning administration run by experts who can bring both experience and professional skills to the job, the reality was rather different.

Indeed, Uhuru’s departure from the rule book was seen as a breath of fresh air given that ministers, who doubled as MPs, were also susceptible to pressure from their supporters and political backers who expected them to use their good office to ensure they get a share of the national cake even if it meant violating the laws of the land. Many also had unimpressive academic credentials.

Former MP Koigi wa Wamwere was among those who warned from the onset that a cabinet of technocrats was unlikely to perform any better that a politically-constituted one. Writing in a local daily after President Uhuru and his deputy nominated majority of their Cabinet secretaries, Wamwere said that for them to succeed they would almost entirely depend on the duo’s political leadership.

“Because Uhuru and Ruto are heads of their government, performance of cabinet secretaries will depend entirely on their political leadership. The neck never leads the head and the slave does what the master wills,” he wrote. “Because they have high flying CVs, we are told cabinet secretaries will be more successful. But the highly educated Dream Team of Richard Leakey never worked any miracles under retired President Moi. Kenya will not be led into the First World by unknown and faceless technocrats who are recruited from within the same failed civil service, who are recommended into government by political connections that have put the country where it is now,” said Wamwere.

He wondered why Uhuru and Ruto opted for unknown faces as opposed to proven champions of change such as Professor Micere Mugo, Dr Kilemi Mwiria and Jacinta Mwatela, among others. “Is Uhuru’s government looking for tested technocrats with known passion for change, or technocrats that will give the government a good name without threatening the status quo?” he posed.

Writing on the same topic much later, Dr Nic Cheeseman, the Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, affirmed that the Cabinet of technocrats had failed to live up to its billing noting that some went off the radar as soon as they were appointed. Others, he said, found themselves in the limelight, only to make disastrous statements that undermined their own, and the government’s credibility.

He cited the botched response to the Westgate terrorist attack, which called into question the performance of not only the Cabinet Secretaries for Defence (Raychelle Omamo) and Foreign Affairs (Amina Mohammed), but of the whole Cabinet, which, it emerged, had been warned of the danger of a Westgate style attack on numerous occasions. According to Cheeseman, President Kenyatta had by then noted that his experiment was not working, and was the reason he had resorted to issuing threats to the Cabinet to the effect that their honeymoon was over, and that poorly performing individuals would be sacked.

Dr Cheeseman noted that unlike other countries where technocrats have helped turn around the fortunes of their countries such as in South Korea, in Kenya, this is difficult given that such technocrats are not insulated from public pressure, neither are they provided with consistent political support to enable them to plan and implement development strategies. So, instead of giving priority to the broader public good, their energies end up being put into seeking to win the next election.

Such a prediction has come to pass for Waiguru, whose multi-billion NYS projects, including those in the slums, were immersed in political undertones – that they were mainly focused in areas dominated by supporters of Raila Odinga.

According to Cheeseman, the problem can be traced to the manner of their nominations, which was surrounded by horse-trading, which made them susceptible to the political demands placed on them on a day-to-day basis by the Jubilee leadership. At the same time, Cabinet secretaries with no political muscle were unlikely to survive in an environment where power brokers in the name of the kitchen cabinet and tenderpreneurs rule the roost.

Indeed, in the words of Nkaissery, it took his appointment to the Interior ministry to end the culture of corruption that President Uhuru had long complained was prevalent in his Harambee House office. This, he told MPs, he did by locking out the cartels who used to influence the ministry’s major procurements. They had been so entrenched, he said, that they used to operate from both Harambee House (Uhuru’s office) and Harambee House Annex.^

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