The Poverty of Low Expectations
There is a peculiar, if predictable, malaise that afflicts many African postcolonial societies and the mindsets of institutions and individuals: an unsettling sensation of being less than, combined with a desperate yearning to become like them—the former colonial masters—that generates perpetual mimicry and underperformance. This is what underscores the imperatives of existential, epistemic, and economic decolonization.
I commented in an earlier reflection on USIU-Africa’s duality, as a Kenyan and an American university, which is as seductive as it is debilitating, a source of both innovation and inertia. It engenders a perpetual search for a cohesive identity, a precarious institutional culture characterized by uneven expectations, the warring demands of Africanness and Americanness, in which their respective perils, rather than their possibilities, tend to be accentuated.
I frequently encountered and countered the proverbial “African time” by participants and invited speakers turning up late at campus meetings and events, and students complaining about lecturers who came late to class or not at all. I was often surprised by the poor quality of annual reports from some departments and divisions, and delays in the work of several institutional committees and projects. The University Council didn’t acquit itself well either: its committee meetings were often cancelled due to lack of quorum, and in many meetings, it was clear to management that some members had not read the reports we painstakingly prepared.
I repeatedly made it known that I valued timeliness, rigorous standards, robust deliberations, and adherence to high expectations, ethical behavior, and exceptional performance. It was gratifying to see some met the demands of institutional excellence, but many others did not. As is often the case, the laggards were the loudest complainants, who sought to fuel a culture of intolerance, incivility, and illiberalism that reflected the dysfunctions of the larger national polity.
At stake was a battle against the culture of mediocrity evident in all manner of spaces and organizations. The brilliant, young Kenyan journalist, Larry Madowo, incisively captured the culture of low expectations in an article in The Daily Nation of November 15, 2016, titled “Why do Kenyans accept such low standards in everything?” He called it “the at least mindset.” It is worth quoting at some length.
“This ‘at least’ mindset Kenyans have is just an apology for low standards…. When we are surprised that anything begins on time, we unconsciously allow the organizers of future events to be tardy because we’ve already made it acceptable. We are not outraged when a notorious politician does objectively horrible things because “at least” he cares for the people.
We make excuses for bad behavior because “at least” they haven’t killed anyone. We make excuses for grand corruption even in the face of incontrovertible evidence because the other side is just as bad…
When you criticize anything in Kenya, there is never a shortage of people who will tell you to be positive and stop being so pessimistic. The argument is always that “at least” something is being done.
We accept bare minimums when we are entitled to so much more. Optimism cannot, and should, not be a substitute for a solid critique… You can’t build a merit-based society if any effort demands to be applauded, however little. We scrape the bottom of the barrel so many times, come up with almost nothing and are still pleased that ‘at least’ it’s not entirely empty.”
The following year, in his commencement address at USIU-Africa, the Chief Executive Officer of the Commission for University Education (CUE), Dr. Mwenda Ntarangwi, quoted Madowo’s article above. He implored the graduating students to eschew the “at least mindset.” “Does patriotism mean accepting low standards?” he asked. “Should it not be the other way round, that patriotism means we love this nation so much that we accept nothing but the best from it and that we also give it the best? As you leave here today let me ask you to please change this culture of ‘at least’ and model and expect excellence in all that you do.”
I was troubled by the culture of authoritarianism and discretionary decision making I found, in which the vice chancellor made all decisions even on petty matters. I commented in previous reflections on the debilitating cultures of xenophobia, sexism, and unethical research practices.
The Seductions and Sanctions of Ethnicity
The biggest elephant in the room was ethnic chauvinism, dubbed “tribalism”, a colonial construct that reduces Africans to members of atavistic “tribes.” It is a sad commentary on the endurance of colonial civilizational conceits that many in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent uncritically embrace the term “tribe” for their ethnic groups or nations. I told my students not to use it in my classes for its racist origins and offensiveness to describe African identities that elsewhere are dignified by terms such as ethnicity or nationality and are not mutilated by suffix “tribe” after the name. Who would describe an Englishman or Englishwoman a member of the English tribe?
There is a large literature on the colonial invention of “traditions” and “tribes” that many contemporary Africans swear by to invoke some imaginary precolonial cultural authenticity. A distinction is often made between moral ethnicity (ethnicity as a sociocultural identity) and political ethnicity (ethnicity as a political ideology). As an identity ethnicity is not the problem, it acquires its disruptive poison through political mobilization in contestations for power and privileges.
Such is the pervasive and perverse conceit in constructions of cultural and political hierarchies that the marshaling of ethnic identities in national and institutional life is seen as an African pathology. Yet, in the United States and other multicultural societies in the global North ethnicity is substituted by race. As the Trump presidency made it abundantly clear to those who had drank the kool-aid about American democracy, white supremacy is alive and well. Racist politicians routinely mobilize racial difference for the lethal concoction of discrimination, inequality, and disenfranchisement for racialized minorities. As the latter grow, political revanchism escalates, as evident in Trump’s and post-Trump America.
In an online essay posted in late December 2007, written during Kenya’s descent into the abyss of post-election violence, titled “Holding a nation hostage to a bankrupt political class,” I commented on the destructiveness of the country’s politicization of ethnicity. So, I was not surprised by the distractive and disruptive power of ethnicism when I was vice chancellor at USIU-Africa.
As is the case at the national level, the politics of ethnicity at the university reared its ugly head over appointments, promotion, and representation. The higher the position the more fraught the internal contestations and grandstanding. One of the most contentious was for the appointment of an acting Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs. Two substantive appointments had turned down the offer.
A cabal from one ethnic group held secret meetings to push the candidacy of one of their own, who had applied but was rejected by the search committee that included members of the faculty, staff, student, and university councils, as well as some members of management and the deans’ committee. An influential member of the University Council pushed for his own favorite candidate who was not qualified for the position.
Fortunately, the appointment of the DVC and other members of management was my prerogative as vice chancellor based on recommendations from the search committees. I used the appointment of the vice chancellor as a template in which as candidates we went through various stages concluded by on campus meetings with several groups of the university community. This search was novel in Kenya but common in the United States where I relocated from.
Management and I instituted a transparent process of appointments and promotions for senior administrative and academic positions. As I noted in an earlier reflection, each academic department and school formed an appointment and promotion committee. For heads of key administrative departments, management interviewed the candidates as well.
In 2018-2019, we embarked on a staff redeployment exercise in which about three dozen people were transferred to other departments. Human resource experts recommend such periodic redeployments as an effective tool of talent retention and management. It helps re-energize employees by offering them an opportunity to learn new skills and even assume higher positions and saves employers the high costs of redundancies and recruitment of new employees.
In our case, through the Tuition Waiver Program many employees had earned bachelor’s or master’s degrees ill-suited for the positions they occupied. Management was also keen to break the ethnic enclaves that had emerged over the years in various administrative divisions and departments that were often dominated by members from one or a couple of ethnic groups.
This was initially met with some resistance, but many of the individuals involved increasingly expressed satisfaction with their redeployment. We manage to loosen the stranglehold of ethnic cabals, but they were by no means broken. The ethnic chauvinists looked for every opportunity to attack members of management. Revealingly, they focused their ire on the highly accomplished and effective women in management who were in their early 40s. In my case, this was overlaid by xenophobia, which underscores the fact that layers of bigotry cascade and overlap.
The Blinkered External Gaze
Despite popular mythology, universities have never been ivory towers splendidly isolated from their societies and the wider world. Their values, missions, and institutional cultures reflect their times and locations. The few colonial universities that were established in Africa sought to reproduce the colonial order, while the explosion of universities after independence reflected the expansive dreams of development. Similarly, in the United States it is now widely acknowledged that many of the country’s most prestigious universities were built with enslaved labor, or benefitted from the proceeds of slavery, and laid the intellectual and ideological foundations of American racism.
Prior to my time as vice chancellor, I had written extensively on the entangled, complex, and conflicted relationship between African universities and various external stakeholders. The honeymoon of the early post-independence years wilted as the drive for Africanization or indigenization of the public service was achieved, and as the unforgiving conditionalities of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed with fundamentalist zeal by the international financial institutions wrecked African economies and tore asunder the independence social contract.
At a conference of African vice chancellors in 1986, the World Bank baldly declared the continent didn’t need universities; some architects of the Washington Consensus had discovered social rates of return were higher for primary than higher education, voilà! Beleaguered African states facing mounting struggles for the “second independence” arising out of the collapse of the nationalist promises of development and democracy, often led by workers, the youth and university students, were only too happy to dismantle universities as viable spaces of critical knowledge production. So, began the slide towards underfunding at the same time as the number of universities expanded to meet rising demand.
By the time I joined USIU-Africa in January 2016, the hand of the state over the higher education sector had loosened considerably. The president of the republic was no longer chancellor of all the public universities. Regulatory authority rested on an increasingly professional agency, CUE. Private universities were allowed to operate, although doubts about their quality lingered in the public mind and among their alumni as I observed. Moreover, as we experienced at USIU-Africa, the Kenyan regulator was more authoritarian than our American regulator, although that began to change under Dr. Mwenda’s leadership.
Institutional leaders on my campus including members of top governance organs had drunk deep in the autocratic well of the one party state, now overlaid by often misguided corporatist injunctions for profitability and efficiency. Above all, the levels of public funding per student continued to decline, which left many public universities virtually bankrupt when the pipeline of privately sponsored students dried up from 2017.
As I noted in an earlier reflection, the private sector and the rapidly growing class of high net worth individuals did not pick up the slack. Some of Africa’s wealthiest people gladly make generous contributions to exceedingly wealthy universities in the global North rather than those in their own countries. This is not surprising given the fact that these elites send their children to the global North. It’s a vote of no confidence in the academic worth of their local universities, where many of them received their education before the ravages of SAPs.
There’s a long tradition, crystallized in Frantz Fanon’s trenchant critique, The Wretched of the Earth, of depicting African elites as a comparator bourgeoisie, as the least patriotic among their global counterparts. In a paper titled “African Universities and the Production of Elites” delivered at a conference on African elites organized by the University of Toronto in January 2021, I argued for a more nuanced understanding and differentiation of African elites.
However, the fact remains they are the source of the huge illicit outflows of capital from the continent, estimated at $60 billion in 2016 by the UN Economic Commission for Africa High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa.“This is twice the amount of money flowing in as aid annually. Often, money leaving developing countries illicitly ends up right back in banks in Europe and the U.S.”
Our interest as management in engaging the private sector went beyond financial resources. I’ve long believed principled and mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and business are essential for two other reasons. First, in so far as research and development (R&D) is essential not only for national economic development, an area in which Africa performs abysmally (accounting for a mere 1.0% of global R&D), it is imperative for the growth and competitiveness of African business. The multinational corporations they compete with conduct the bulk of their R&D in their home countries often in collaboration with their research universities. How many African businesses conduct R&D, let alone in partnership with their local universities?
Second, universities are valued by society for their capacity to produce high quality human capital. Historically, business has invested in buying talent, rather than building talent. On their part, universities pride themselves as oases of advanced knowledges production and critical contemplation unsullied by the vocational preoccupations of lesser tertiary institutions. This incongruity in expectations has sometimes resulted in mismatches between university graduates and the needs of the economy and labor market.
In much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment is higher than for those with lower levels of education. In East Africa, according to a story by Gilbert Nganga in University World News of June 2020, 2018, a study by the Inter-University Council of East Africa “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63% of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61% of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55% and 52% of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51% of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”
In 2016, the British Council produced a report, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development covering Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, which our management team found quite alarming as USIU-Africa was ranked lower than its competitors for the employability of its graduates. It prompted us to commission an internal study on the subject. The team consulted existing research and literature, gathered extensive data on the global, regional, and local contexts, carried out a survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and employers, and made several recommendations.
They found that employers expected technical, subject, and soft skills. Among the soft skills valued in the current job market, the following stood out: communication and interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, using own initiative and being self-motivated, working under pressure, organizational skills, teamwork, ability to learn, numeracy, valuing diversity and cultural differences, and negotiation skills. For the future, employers identified the skills that would become more critical included the following: literacies in various media, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, curiosity, persistence and grit, adaptability, service orientation, leadership, and social awareness.
Following the survey, the university enhanced its support systems for student employability preparedness. Existing programs for life and soft skills training were strengthened or new ones established. This included reforming general education, improving career training and job fairs, internships, and community service, and creating youth boot camps. The university also sought to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship in its academic curricula and extra-curricular activities by setting up an incubation and innovation center and introducing an assessment system for extra-curricular activities.
Also, we worked hard to enhance partnerships with the private sector, both international and local companies. We enjoyed modest success. Examples include the establishment of an apprenticeship and innovation program by a major local company, an AppFactory by Microsoft, the only one then in Kenya and 14th on the continent. We soon established a presence as an institution that was serious about employability that enabled us to attract the African Development Bank to select our university as one of four for a coding center of excellence and win a competitive bid by the World Bank to provide employability training for more than 30,000 young people in six counties.
As gratifying as these efforts were, it rankled that we failed to attract local companies to support research including those owned or run by members of our own board and council. Similarly, as I noted in a previous reflection, we were unable to crack the door to philanthropic giving from high net worth individuals locally.
Together with the Director of University Advancement and some members of his team we also put considerable efforts to forge partnerships with several embassies from the G20 countries and others that had sizable numbers of students at the university. We were able to secure funding from the US Embassy in Nairobi to establish a state of the art social media lab that produced highly regarded reports on the social media landscape in Kenya. Two of our most entrepreneurial faculty members got a multi-million dollar grant from USAID jointly with an American university for a project on youth employability and empowerment.
Management also put efforts in building external partnerships abroad. For example, the Director of University Advancement and I undertook a six week partnerships development and fundraising trip to the USA between April and May 2018. The trip presented an opportunity to promote the interests of the university to numerous constituencies including universities and research associations, foundations, our alumni, Kenyan and African diaspora communities, government agencies, private corporations, individuals, and potential friends. The visit covered 10 cities namely, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. Nearly 90 engagements took place.
We returned with four main takeaways that were summarized in a detailed report shared with the university’s academic and administrative leaders. First, we found a strong desire to engage with Africa in general, and African universities. Second, USIU-Africa enjoyed a strategic advantage because of its dual accreditation in Kenya and the USA. Third, we noted that all the universities we visited both big and small, research intensive and teaching oriented, were almost invariably better resourced than we were, and they seemed to have stronger cultures and systems of governance, management, and fundraising that provided us opportunities to reimagine our future. Finally, we were often urged by our interlocutors to actively engage American companies and organizations based in Kenya.
In the report we noted that to take full advantage of the partnership and fundraising opportunities we had cultivated it was imperative we needed to build our capacities, raise our visibility and value as a partner institution. First, we needed to strengthen the capacity of the Advancement division in terms of personnel, skills, and IT infrastructure.
Second, the establishment of an office of Global Affairs led by a senior academic with extensive private and public sector experience was essential to shepherd and oversee international academic partnerships. Third, in many of our conversations it became clear that we could position USIU-Africa as a research and policy hub in East Africa in collaboration with American institutions by establishing specialized institutes and centers that they could partner with and support.
Finally, it was necessary to review and strengthen our systems and processes to make them more effective for international engagements. Specifically, we needed to expand student accommodation to attract more foreign students. During the trip we repeatedly heard complaints about the slowness with which African institutions conduct business including responding to basic communication, negotiations and signing of MoUs, following up on agreements, and where necessary timely reporting on resource utilization.
We urged the divisions and the schools to work closely with University Advancement to pursue the various opportunities the trip had opened. Save for a few inter-institutional partnerships that were established, by the time the Covid-19 pandemic broke out there was little follow up.
Some would say there were “at least” some follow ups. In my book that was not good enough.
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Would Ochieng Still Accuse the Press 30 Years Later?
The Kenyan media landscape has changed drastically in the time since Philip Ochieng wrote I Accuse the Press but the core of his argument remains pertinent.
Veteran journalist Philip Ochieng Otani exploded onto Kenya’s journalism scene in 1966 as a reporter for the Daily Nation aged 28. The country was just beginning to shed off the baggage of violent colonial rule, ushering in a new decade of political and cultural independence. However, beneath the promise of a glowing future that saw more black Africans take over from the British, the country was also starting to write a prologue to its self-destruction. By 1965 nationalist Pio Gama Pinto was dead. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga angrily resigned from Kanu the following year to form his party, and three years later Economic and Planning Minister Tom Mboya was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in broad daylight. The Kenyan press, though now relatively free and able to finally “concern itself with finding out what goes on in the mind of the African”, as Mboya had earlier put it, later suffered the cascading political events that would have a lasting effect on its editorial policies.
Ochieng published I Accuse the Press: An Insider’s View of the Media and Politics in Africa in 1992, crystallising his wide-ranging thoughts around three central issues: the question of media ownership, self-censorship among editors and the know-how of journalists. He extended the idea of know-how to know-why, whereby the journalist is not just a conveyor belt of information but also has the necessary analytical sensitivity to break down the information for the reader’s benefit.
Born a precocious child in Awendo, Western Kenya, a story is told of how the then Alliance High School principal Carey Francis drove several kilometres to Ochieng’s village to convince him to return to school. Ochieng, as the legend goes, had entangled himself in bad company and was on the verge of dropping out of education, which he eventually did – not from Alliance, but from Roosevelt University in the US, where he had enrolled after benefitting from the Kennedy Airlift programme of 1959. These rather disparate intellectual foundations shine with dazzling brilliance through the pages of his book, illuminating the history of the Kenyan press that has had a profound impact on the current media landscape.
Media ownership and its dangers
Along Tom Mboya Street, just across the Khoja Mosque roundabout, is a building that used to house the Daily Nation offices. It is now called Old Nation House and only the name remains as a reminder that a media house once stood on the busy street. The building now houses shops, the sidewalk colonised by hawkers, make-shift confectionary stalls, booksellers, fruit sellers, clothes vendors, chemist shops and MPesa outlets. On the surface, the city is booming. A new world order brought about by advancements in digital technology and a liberalised media means that most of these traders don’t really care about media gatekeepers. Should they? Nation Media Group, which owns Daily Nation among other media products, and which is itself owned by Aga Khan IV, later moved to the relatively quiet Kimathi Street. Over the years, it has undergone radical transformations, unlike when Ochieng worked there, especially in the heady 1970s and 1980s, which form the backdrop of his long and intellectually stimulating musings.
Ochieng’s take on media ownership falls into three broad categories: foreign-owned, indigenous-owned and state-owned. These categories often overlap, in that a foreign-owned publication, such as Daily Nation, also has its indigenous Kenyan journalists, and editorial matters (or decisions) are left strictly to those tasked with running the paper – who in this regard include the top editors, led by the editor-in-chief. Indigenous-owned media, on the other hand, is in the hands of Kenyans but can also be susceptible to outside influence, like in the case of Hilary Ng’weno’s string of publications, which urgently needed a bailout after he plunged into financial headwinds. The indigenously-owned media outlet that is most familiar to Kenyans today is S.K. Macharia’s Royal Media Services.
Interestingly, Ochieng makes a compelling argument about the relationship between media ownership and press freedom. For example, he says, in special circumstances, state ownership “has tended to safeguard freedom – not only of the Press but the whole society – from material wants much more genuinely than has private ownership”. He goes on to cite Tanzania, where the state-owned papers in the 1970s played a vanguard role in protecting the gains of independence, while at the same championing Ujamaa – a socialist ideology aimed at self-reliance. While that statement would today sound unpopular, conservative, and be even deemed right-wing, there is a grain of truth to it. Private media ownership on the other hand, as the author vividly illustrates, does not necessarily mean there is press freedom.
Ochieng makes a compelling argument about the relationship between media ownership and press freedom.
A case in point is how the mainstream media handled the 2013 and 2017 general elections. Hiding behind a peace narrative, or what some observers have called “peacocracy”, the media tiptoed around the underlying issues that ignited the flames of electoral violence. The media on this occasion failed in its role, which Ochieng says is to provide “a full analysis of the whole system”. By becoming that which it was supposed to critique, the media lost the trust of a large swathe of the Kenyan audience. And this is why the argument for state-ownership of a newspaper or broadcaster (KBC, for instance) becomes relevant because, at the very least, the audience knows what to expect.
However, the argument about state ownership should not be endorsed wholesale. The case of the Kanu-owned Kenya Times, and its infamous “Kanu Briefs” – which Ochieng has been placed at the centre of, for orchestrating a sustained smear campaign against politicians and intellectuals who were against the ruling party – is a chilling reminder that the state must never have unchecked control of a country’s political and cultural consciousness. In recent years, politicians have been linked to various media houses, and this in itself is not a bad thing; however, vigilance must be maintained at all times to guard the media against direct political interference.
Then came the internet. Then social media. Then Facebook.
When a 20-year-old computer science and psychology student at Harvard University wrote code for a website project that would later become the interactive platform named Facebook, few could imagine the technological dividends the millennials and Generation Z would reap, accustomed as they were to filtered news and omnipresent gatekeeping (particularly the millennials). There was a fundamental shift in media ownership because if you had a social media account, you could now publish, broadcast and counteract news from mainstream sources such as newspapers and television. One could also start a blog, an online newspaper or magazine, or a YouTube channel, qualifying Ochieng’s statement that “freedom of expression is primarily a technological question”. This means that the question of media ownership and the idea of a free press in the 21st century can no longer be merely about buying shares in a media company and telling news managers and editors what to publish and what to censor.
While there are indeed genuine concerns with the citizen journalism promoted on social media platforms, especially with the rise of misinformation and disinformation that threatens the social fabric of society, the gains made so far cannot be downplayed. But how these platforms can counter narratives of self-censorship by proxy, as Ochieng puts it in his book, matters more.
The question of self-censorship
Ochieng makes a lucid argument that self-censorship affects media independence because readers do not get the value of what they pay for. More importantly, self-censorship is informed by the commercial interests of corporate mass media because “whoever owns the majority of the shares” of a particular media company will definitely affect its overall editorial policy. I want to demonstrate a recent example of what perfectly encapsulates self-censorship on the part of the Kenyan press.
During the 2017 general election, a 41-year-old man wearing a pair of brown trousers, a matching brown coat, a black and white shirt, and clutching a bag of githeri in his left hand, burst onto the media scene and became an instant sensation. Martin Kamotho, for that was his name, became the subject of wild adoration. It was, however, the manner in which the mainstream press glorified Kamotho that later became the subject of intense debate. The country was already in the grip of political tension – as usually happens during a general election – and Kenyans were beginning to question whether the polls would indeed be credible following the murder of Chris Msando, a key IEBC official. Claims that critical IT infrastructure used to transmit the results had been hacked were also of general concern. There was an overall perception that the media as an institution had learned its lessons in the 2013 general election and that it could not trust the state when it comes to setting the agenda in election reporting.
Ochieng makes a lucid argument that self-censorship affects media independence because readers do not get the value of what they pay for.
However, the case of Kamotho, later christened “Githeri Man”, exposed the crass hypocrisy of the mainstream media and its cunning ability to censor itself because it knew it could not muster the courage to answer the tough questions Kenyans were asking. Ochieng is, therefore, right that there are “the kinds of chains with which owners, managers and editors tie their own media in order to make them conform to the total ethos of the ruling class [that] cannot be seen by the majority of the people”. However, Kenyans saw through the game that was being played, and the backlash was immediate. Mainstream media was quickly baptised “Githeri Media” – purveyors of fake news, disinformation and misinformation, state apologists, propagandists who, as the fourth estate, had failed in their role to keep the government accountable.
The media’s fixation with “Githeri Man” was not just about pleasing the political class or protecting its (the media’s) commercial interests. It was also about the glaring absence of know-why among journalists – the ability to ask why a certain narrative is being vigorously promoted and not another, and what effects such an editorial policy has on the health of Kenyan journalism.
Shift towards know-why journalism
Ochieng writes that “as long as [media] training stresses little more than technique and avoids the whole problem of self-consciousness” then “training can only serve as an instrument for perpetuating the present international economic and intellectual order”. Journalism as an enterprise then becomes what I called earlier a mere conveyor belt of information, which serves no purpose in making us more aware of the immediate problems of the 21st century such as climate change, the dangers of identity politics, pandemics, repressive immigration laws, the rise of far-right ideology and the tyranny of social media companies, among others.
Kenyans saw through the game that was being played, and the backlash was immediate.
Know-why journalism, however, cannot fully bloom without sufficiently addressing the issue of know-how. The latter, which at the most basic level is about technique, is also about understanding the shifts in media operations, and how to adjust to those changes. Know-how then means having the ability to tell stories across varying multimedia platforms that include podcasts, videos, and texts. And because consumer tastes have also evolved over the years, know-why journalism can only succeed when know-how as a skill has been extensively sharpened.
Ochieng danced to the land of no return on 27 April 2021, aged 83 years. During an interview with the Saturday Nation, when asked if he “would make the same accusations” in I Accuse the Press, he said he was still likely to do just that, but be “more enlightened and thoughtful about it.” However, by standing up to the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and its connivance with the state and Western business interests, Ochieng had set the stage for a new chapter of self-criticism for journalists and media practitioners. Ochieng stood with the audience in demanding that the media play its watchdog role more effectively by delving deeper in its analysis of issues.
Is It the IEBC Chairperson or the Commission Who Declares a President-Elect?’
On the limited point of whether Chebukati had the power to make the declaration that he did on 15th August, 2022, we are of the view that he did and that in doing so he has fulfilled the obligations required of his office in accordance with the principles of the Constitution and the relevant election laws.
After a tallying process which ran from 9 August to 15 August 2022, Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairperson Wafula Chebukati declared that Hon. William Ruto had met the constitutional threshold for election as president and is therefore the President-elect. Moments before this announcement, four IEBC Commissioners—Juliana Cherera, Francis Wanderi, Irene Masit and Justus Nyangaya—issued a statement to the press disavowing the results and alleging that, due to the ‘opaque nature’ of the way the final ‘phase’ had been handled, they could not ‘take ownership’ of the results. A day later, the four Commissioners provided their reasons for disavowing the Chairperson’s declaration, key among them being that the Chairperson excluded them from the decision to declare Hon. Ruto as president-elect. Hon. Ruto’s chief competitor, Hon. Raila Odinga, has also rejected the results on similar grounds.
We have been here before of course. In 2017, there was a fallout between Chebukati and three of his Commissioners on the basis that the Commissioners did not agree with Chebukati’s leadership. As we have argued previously, the IEBC is in need of structural reform.
The events of 15th and 16th August, 2022 have stirred debate about the roles envisaged for the IEBC Chairperson and its Commissioners by the Constitution and Kenya’s election laws. Does the Chairperson’s declaration square with the law? Was he required to have a majority of the Commissioners in agreement with his declaration? Is the declaration of a winner a mere ceremonial function of the Chairperson?
The constitutional and statutory framework
Before answering these questions, it is important to look at the relevant Constitutional and statutory framework.
The IEBC is established by Article 88 of the Constitution which in sub-article (5) states that “[t]he Commission shall exercise its powers and perform its functions in accordance with this Constitution and national legislation”. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Act (IEBC Act) was then enacted in 2011 to operationalise the entity and is the “national legislation” envisaged in the Constitution.
In relation to presidential elections, the Constitution, in Article 138(3)(c), provides that “after counting the votes in the polling stations, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission shall tally and verify the count and declare the result”.
Article 138(10) of the Constitution then provides that “[w]ithin seven days after the presidential election, the chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission shall –
- declare the result of the election; and
- deliver a written notification of the result to the Chief Justice and the incumbent President.
Section 39 of the Elections Act provides, in part:
“(1C) For purposes of a presidential election, the Commission shall –
- electronically transmit and physically deliver the tabulated results of an election for the President from a polling station to the constituency tallying centre and the national tallying centre;
- tally and verify the results received at the constituency tallying centre and the national tallying centre; and
- publish the polling result forms on an online public portal maintained by the Commission.
(1E) Where there is a discrepancy between the electronically transmitted and the physically delivered results, the Commission shall verify the results and the result which is an accurate record of the results tallied, verified, and declared at the respective polling station shall prevail.
(1H) The chairperson of the Commission shall declare the results of the election of the President in accordance with Article 138(10) of the Constitution.”
Regulation 83(2) of the Election (General) Regulations, 2012 provides that “[t]he Chairperson of the Commission shall tally and verify the results received at the national tallying centre.” Further, Regulation 87(3) reads, in part:
“Upon receipt of Form 34A from the constituency returning officers under sub-regulation (1), the Chairperson of the Commission shall –
- verify the results against Forms 34A and 34B received from the constituency returning officer at the national tallying centre;
- tally and complete Form 34C;
- announce the results for each of the presidential candidates for each County;
- sign and date the forms and make available a copy to any candidate or the national chief agent present;
- publicly declare the results of the election of the president in accordance with Articles 138(4) and 138(10) of the Constitution;
- issue a certificate to the person elected president in Form 34D set out in the Schedule; and
- deliver a written notification of the results to the Chief Justice and the incumbent president within seven days of the declaration…”
Unpacking the legal position
So, what does this all mean?
Immediately polls close, the Elections Act and its subsidiary legislation require presiding officers at each polling station to openly count ballots and declare the result. The result from each polling station within a constituency is then aggregated at constituency level and a result of this aggregation is declared by respective constituency returning officers. This process is then replicated at the national tallying centre where the Chairperson of the IEBC serves as the returning officer for the presidential elections declares the winner.
Both the IEBC Commissioners and Hon. Odinga have, in their public statements on Chebukati’s declaration of Hon. Ruto, sought to rely on a Court of Appeal decision, IEBC v Maina Kiai & 5 others , suggesting in effect that the role of national returning officer does not exist and that the Chairperson is not vested with the power to declare a result without consensus or a majority decision of the Commissioners. However, this is not an accurate account of the issue before the court and its eventual holding. The issue before the court in Maina Kiai related, principally, to the ability of the Chairperson to alter results during the verification process. In question, were certain provisions of the Elections Act and the Elections (General) Regulations which provided that results declared at polling station level were ‘provisional’ and ‘subject to confirmation’, vesting in the Chairperson the ability to alter results at the national tallying centre. The Court of Appeal confirmed the constitutional and statutory position that the result declared at the polling station by presiding officers is final and cannot be altered by anyone other than an election court.
The Court was abundantly clear that Article 138(3)(c) deals with counting, tallying, verification, and declaration by the presiding officer at the polling station level and returning officers at each subsequent level, and not just the Chairperson at the Commission level. In other words, in discharging its mandate under Article 138(3)(c), the IEBC, which is a body corporate, acts through its representatives who are the presiding officers and returning officers. In undertaking the verification exercise at subsequent levels after the polling station, the respective officers are simply required to confirm whether the tally at each level conforms to the declaration which was made by the presiding officer at the polling station and to declare this result. Consequently, the constituency returning officer and the national returning officer (who is the IEBC Chairperson) cannot alter the results in any way when making these declarations. This is the mischief that the Maina Kiai case addressed, and in doing so, it invalidated certain sections of the Elections Act and the Elections (General) Regulations which suggested that results at the polling station level were provisional and subject to alteration or confirmation by the Chairperson. By doing this, the Court of Appeal aligned these laws with the Constitutional position.
Notably, Regulation 83(2) and 87(3) of the Election (General) Regulations which we quoted above, and which empower the Chairperson to tally, verify, and declare the results received at the national tallying centre, were not the subject of the Maina Kiai decision, and as such were not invalidated. However, the Court of Appeal clarified that in tallying and verifying results, the Chairperson is bound by the results declared at each polling station which are final. Indeed, in the Maina Kiai case, the Court of Appeal recognised the special role of the Chairman and stated:
“It cannot be denied that the Chairperson of the appellant has a significant constitutional role under Sub-Article (10) of Article 138 as the authority with the ultimate mandate of making the declaration that brings to finality the presidential election process. Of course, before he makes that declaration his role is to accurately tally all the results exactly as received from the 290 returning officers country-wide, without adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing any number contained in the two forms from the constituency tallying centre. If any verification or confirmation is anticipated, it has to relate only to confirmation and verification that the candidate to be declared elected president has met the threshold set under Article 138(4), by receiving more than half of all the votes cast in that election; and at least twenty- five per cent of the votes cast in each of more than half of the counties.”
So, if anything, the Maina Kiai decision reinforced the role of the Chairperson as the national returning officer of the presidential election, contrary to the statement issued by the four Commissioners on 16th August which alleged that such a role does not exist. Further, the Supreme Court of Kenya in the Joho v Shahbal case made it clear that a declaration takes place at each stage of tallying, implying that the verification and declaration process is not the preserve of the Commissioners. It is done by the respective presiding and returning officers at each stage. The High Court, at an earlier stage of the same case, had confirmed that declarations are made through formal instruments, which in the electoral context, are the certificates issued by the respective returning officers. To render even more clarity, in its majority decision in Petition 1 of 2017 Raila Odinga v IEBC & 2 others , the Supreme Court stated that ‘[t]he duty to verify in Article 138 is squarely placed upon the IEBC (the 1st respondent herein). This duty runs all the way from the polling station to the constituency level and finally, to the National Tallying Centre. There is no disjuncture in the performance of the duty to verify. It is exercised by the various agents or officers of the 1st respondent, that is to say, the presiding officer at a polling station, the returning officer at the constituency level and the Chair at the National Tallying Centre’.
With both the Constitutional and statutory framework and this recent jurisprudence in mind, it is apparent that when it comes to the declaration of results, the Chairperson is not merely performing a ceremonial role on behalf of the Commission but has a singular responsibility to discharge a constitutional duty to declare a president-elect after verifying the results. Once the presiding officers and constituency returning officers discharge their mandate, they hand the baton to the Chairperson for him to also do so. He therefore does not discharge his mandate in isolation or in an arbitrary manner; his role is hinged upon other IEBC officers at various levels dispensing with their mandate. Like the rest, he may not deviate from the declaration made at the polling station. In that way, he acts as a representative or an agent of the entire IEBC in discharging his mandate. This position is aligned with the Elections (General) Regulations and the Supreme Court’s decision in Raila v IEBC which provide that the Chairperson, as the IEBC’s agent, can verify the results and make a declaration. For these reasons, Chebukati’s declaration, we argue, is in accordance with the law.
In public debates following Chebukati’s declaration of a president-elect, there has been an argument in some quarters that the Second Schedule to the IEBC Act and in particular paragraph 7 which reads “[u]nless a unanimous decision is reached, a decision on any matter before the Commission shall be by a majority of the members present and voting”, suggests that the dissension of the majority of the Commissioners on grounds of ‘opaqueness’ meant that Chebukati did not have the authority to make the declaration. Azimio La Umoja Coalition Party presidential candidate Hon. Odinga forms part of the individuals advancing this argument when rejecting the legality of Chebukati’s declaration of Hon. Ruto as president-elect. The Second Schedule is made pursuant to Section 8 of the IEBC Act which provides that “[t]he conduct and regulation of the business and affairs of the Commission shall be provided for in the Second Schedule but subject thereto, the Commission may regulate its own procedure.” The Second Schedule is akin to the provisions of the Articles of Association of a company which deals with how board meetings are conducted. It deals with matters such as how meetings are called, how quorum is formed and other such administrative matters. Note that paragraph 7 is specifically limited to matters ‘before the Commission’. As set out in the preceding paragraph, the declaration of a president-elect is a matter for the Chairperson and not a matter ‘before the Commission’.
In any case, those arguing the contrary have two further obstacles to overcome. Firstly, how do they reconcile their position with the clear constitutional injunctions imposed on the Chairperson by Article 138(10) requiring the Chairperson to declare the results of the Presidential election within 7 days after the Presidential election. What did they expect Chebukati to do? Continue negotiating with the dissenting Commissioners and allow the 7 days to expire? If so, does this mean Chebukati should place the views of his Commissioners above the Constitutional requirement in Article 138(10) even though, at each stage, representative officers of the IEBC verified, declared, and made the results public? The reason for Article 138(10), in our view, is obvious. In matters relating to the transfer of Presidential power, certainty of process and timing is critical. One cannot leave matters in abeyance and risk a constitutional crisis with an incumbent holding on or causing the delay in the assumption of office by his successor. This would be a recipe for a constitutional crisis with a myriad of implications for Kenyans, especially in relation to their safety and security.
Ultimately, Chebukati’s decision is not final: there is the Supreme Court to which those disgruntled by his declaration can appeal. Although not final, finality in the process of tallying and subsequent declaration is critical. To take such a dramatic step of disavowing the results at a moment when the country was on edge, we would have thought that the four Commissioners would present some compelling evidence pointing to miscalculation on the part of Chebukati in the tabulation of the statutory forms 34A, 34B and 34C. Kenyans have not yet been presented with any such compelling evidence.
Turning to the absence of compelling evidence, one would expect a detailed explanation from the four Commissioners. In their statement following their initial announcement, they disclosed four reasons for their dissent. The first was in relation to the aggregation of the tally surpassing 100% by a margin of 0.01%. A simple calculation reveals that the error may be attributable to the Chairperson rounding the figures upward for purposes of the declaration.
Their second reason was that the Chairperson, in his declaration, did not indicate the total number of registered voters, the total number of votes cast or the number of rejected votes. The declaration of results form available on the IEBC’s website indicates that this is not true as the declaration form does contain all this information.
In their third reason, the Commissioners relied on the Maina Kiai decision to allege that the “Commission has to process the results before they are declared and announced by the Chairperson”. As we have set out above, the Court of Appeal in Maina Kiai indicated that the IEBC, as a body corporate, acts through its officers, specifically the presiding and returning officers who fulfil the IEBC’s obligation under Article 138(3)(c) of the Constitution on the institution’s behalf. Given the results were, at each stage, tallied, verified, and declared by presiding and returning officers including the Chairperson, it is not immediately clear what further ‘processing’ the Commissioners wanted to subject the results to, especially when the Court of Appeal explicitly held that once declared at constituency level, a result is final. The law certainly does not disclose a role for these Commissioners to ‘process’ these results any further. It only envisions a role for the Chair to verify the results and make a declaration. The reliance on Maina Kiai is also misleading in the sense that it implies the Chairperson acted in isolation and in an arbitrary manner, yet he was clearly bound to the results declared by other officers at the polling station level which were publicly available.
Their final reason was that the Chairperson made his declaration before several constituencies had their results declared. The Elections Act provides that the Chairperson may only do so if “in the opinion of the Commission the results that have not been received will not make a difference with regards to the winner”. However, the challenge with this reason is that the Chairperson did not indicate that his declaration was made on the basis that the results were not complete and that the remainder would not make a difference. Perhaps at the Supreme Court, this ground will be elaborated on further.
In light of the above, on the limited point of whether Chebukati had the power to make the declaration that he did on 15th August, 2022, we are of the view that he did and that in doing so he has fulfilled the obligations required of his office in accordance with the principles of the Constitution and the relevant election laws.
Arror & Kimwarer Dams Saga: Fighting Corruption or Realpolitik?
The cases at the Milimani Anticorruption Court provide few concrete answers amid claims that the investigations into the Arror and Kimwarer Dams projects are politically motivated to weaken Deputy President William Ruto who is running for the presidency.
A joint investigation by IrpiMedia and The Elephant
Soon after Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto secured a controversial second term in November 2017, investigations begun into the procurement and financing arrangements surrounding the Arror and Kimwarer dams in the Rift Valley county of Elgeyo Marakwet.
The dams had been commissioned years earlier, and billions had been paid out but there was nothing on the ground to show for either dam. The Kimwarer project has since been cancelled, the Arror one scaled down, and eight defendants today face charges of conspiring to defraud the government of nearly Sh60 billion. However, there have been claims that the investigations and prosecutions are politically motivated and aimed at weakening Deputy President William Ruto who is running to becoming Kenya’s fifth president. Just this week, during the presidential debate, Ruto essentially said the dams were casualties of the 2018 fallout with his boss. This has been many times denied by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The two cases dealing with the dams at the Anti-Corruption Court in Milimani, Nairobi, focus on alleged irregularities in the tendering and contracting of the dams as well as alleged illegal payments made to two Italian companies. The crux of the ODPP’s case is that officials of Kerio Valley Development Authority and the national government colluded to grant CMC di Ravenna and its joint venture partner, Itinera S.P.A, a contract for the construction of the two dams for which they had not won the tender and that differed fundamentally from the terms advertised in December 2014, which called for proposals for the “funding, design, build and transfer” of the dams. The eight Kenyan officials in case No. 20 of 2019 and the 18 Italian companies and individuals in case No. 21 of 2019, are accused of executing a sleight of hand, initially pretending that the contractors would mobilize money from the Italian government to build the dams and then switching it to a commercial loan with the government as the borrower. Furthermore, instead of the borrowed money being deposited into the Consolidated Fund as the constitution prescribes, on the contrary, it was sent directly to the contractor. In the ODPP’s view, this is where the fraud arose.
The initial contracting model selected was Engineering, Procurement, Construction and Financing where the contractor also arranges financing for the project through tie-ups with financing institutions. They can be useful when contractors have better access to low-cost financing, including state-provided export-import financing. However, the Parliamentary Service Commission has noted that these contracts are vulnerable to abuse and in 2019 parliament suspended 20 dam projects, including Arror and Kimwarer, saying “Kenyans [were] not getting value for money in this model”.
According to the ODPP, the tendering process for the two dams was riddled with irregularities. In an affidavit sworn in February 2020 on behalf of the DPP, Police Constable Thomas Tanui states that, unlike the Arror dam, the Kimwarer project had not been approved by the Cabinet, as required by the 2013 Public Private Partnership Act (PPA). Further, in the course of the process, the tender documents for CMC di Ravenna were illegally altered at least twice to switch CMC’s joint venture partners from South Africa’s AECOM to a company only known as MWH, and then again to Itinera S.P.A. And while it was Italy-based CMC di Ravenna that made the bid, the tender was awarded to South Africa-based CMC di Ravenna, a different legal entity with whom KVDA signed Memoranda of Understanding regarding the two dams in December 2015 and February 2016 that were meant to end with the signing of concessional contracts within 8 months.
However, the MOUs expired without the concessional contracts being signed and instead, on 5 April 2017, the KVDA signed commercial contracts for the construction of both dams with the Italian CMC di Ravenna and its joint venture partner Itinera S.P.A. for a total combined amount of US$501.8 million, including 10 per cent contingencies that had not been negotiated for under the concessional agreements.
In his affidavit, PC Tanui avers that the dam projects were conceived as concessionary projects under the PPA but were surreptitiously converted into a commercial instead of a concessional contract. However, what the ODPP means by “concessional contract” and how that differs from a commercial contract is not clear. There’s no mention of a “concessional contract” in the PPA which defines a concession as “a contractual licence . . . entitling a person who is granted the licence to make use of the specified infrastructure or undertake a project and to charge user fees, receive availability payments or both”. While the law allows government agencies to “enter into a project agreement with any qualified private party for the financing, construction, operation, equipping or maintenance” of infrastructure, none of the 15 types of public private partnership arrangements it lists in its second schedule seem to fit what KVDA had initially advertised.
However, perhaps what the ODPP refers to as a “concessional contract” is a reference to the way the project was to be funded. According to press reports and Richard Malebe’s petition, the initial charges alleged that the national government and KVDA officials as well as the Italian companies conspired to “entered into a commercial loan facility agreement disguising it as a government-to-government loan guaranteed by the Italian Government . . . ‘while knowing the tender document contained in the request for proposals for the development of the dams project was a concessional agreement where the intended concessionaire was to be the borrower and financier and not the Government of Kenya’”. In essence, by substituting the commercial contract for the concessional one, rather than an arrangement where Government only paid once the dams were delivered, with the contractor and financiers assuming all the risk, it was the public that was left holding the baby when things went wrong. If anything, the Kenyan public paid to insure the banks against government default, which insurance the ODPP says was illegally single-sourced.
A Treasury press statement dated 28 February 2019, signed by one of the accused, former Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich claims that the financing agreement for the two dams was “government-to-government” with the Italian government—represented by the 100 per cent owned Servizi Assicurativi Del Commercio Estero (SACE)—providing “insurance cover and financial support” amounting to close to 88 per cent of the total loan amount, with a consortium of four banks led by Intesa Sanpaolo said to provide the rest. The statement details “the Conditions Precedent”, which were payments apparently required before funds could be released to the government and the contractor. These include €7.83 million (Sh951 million) in fees and commissions and €94.2 million (Sh11.4 billion) in credit insurance to cover lenders for both dams. In addition, another US$75.2 million (Sh9 billion), or 15 per cent of the total contract sum for both dams was paid out to the contractor.
The Kenyan public paid to insure the banks against government default, which insurance the ODPP says was illegally single-sourced.
The Treasury claims these fees and advances were provided for and paid from the loan from SACE and the banks, not Exchequer funds. This aligns with a November 2019 note by SACE to the Italian foreign ministry which states that the agreement required the “payment of the sums due by the Contracting Authority to the CMC-Itinera joint venture through direct disbursement by the lenders on a current account of the contractor opened outside the State of Kenya” —a violation of the Kenyan constitution which requires all sums borrowed by the government to be deposited in the Consolidated Fund. However, according to both CMC-Itinera and a confidential analysis by the ODPP seen by The Elephant, the advance payment was for a total of €66.6 million (Sh8.09 billion), a discrepancy of nearly Sh1 billion. (It should be noted that the National Treasury appears to have entered into a facility contract with lenders in Euros, and payments appear to have been made in the same currency, even though the commercial contracts were in US dollars, which exposed taxpayers to losses through changes in the exchange rates. In this article, we have used the current exchange rates to reflect the amounts in Kenya Shillings.)
Further, according to business journalist Jaindi Kisero, SACE does not appear in the external debt register which raises doubts as to whether they were indeed the main lender. Also, the November 2019 note by SACE to the Italian foreign ministry says the insurance guarantee was “in favor of the Lenders for the entire amount financed”, which seems to say that all the money came from the banks. The ODPP analysis says that while the agreements make it clear that SACE was one of the financiers, the agency did not act as a party to them. It argues that the insurance premium was fraudulent because if the funds came from SACE, as the agreements suggest, it would have been a government-to-government loan which would require no insurance. It concludes that “payments made by GoK were made with the intention to siphon money from the country in the disguise of advance payment, insurance premium and commitment fees”.
Deputy President Ruto has claimed that only Sh7 billion was in question and that the government had a bank guarantee that protected every penny. The Treasury statement seems to back him up, at least as far as the guarantee is concerned, claiming the advance payment was backed by “a bank/insurance guarantee” which would be called “if the contractor is unable to deliver the service to the Government or runs bankrupt”. And in February 2022 Regional Development Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang told Parliament that Heritage Insurance and Standard Chartered Bank had respectively issued insurance guarantees for the advances paid to the CMC Ravenna-Itinera joint venture for Arror (Sh4.1 billion) and Kimwarer (Sh3.6 billion). He said the government had already recalled the Arror guarantee and was planning to do the same regarding Kimwarer, whose guarantee expires in June 2023. However, it is again unclear from his statement what currency the guarantees are in: dollars, euros or shillings. If in shillings, then it seems that up to Sh1.3 billion may not be covered.
The ODPP analysis says that while the agreements make it clear that SACE was one of the financiers, the agency did not act as a party to them.
It is unclear exactly how much Kenya stands to lose given the discrepancies in the currencies used. In total, according to the ODPP, €168.5 million (Sh20.5 billion) was paid between 4 May 2017 and 7 November 2018 to cover the insurance premium, various fees as well as the advance payments. The statement from the Treasury, as noted above, puts this figure at €102 million and US$75.2 million for a total of Sh23.5 billion at current rates. In addition, the external debt register lists Kenyans as being on the hook for the entire loan amount of €578.4 million (Sh70.3 billion) which stands to be repaid until November 2035. Yet it does not seem that any further disbursements have been made by the banks to the companies beyond the insurance premium, fees and commissions and the advance payment. Why the full loan amount would be reflected as drawn down in the debt register is a mystery. It is also noteworthy that Kenya has refused or failed to make any repayments on the moneys already disbursed.
The cases at the Milimani Anticorruption Court provide few concrete answers. There are currently two cases, consolidated from the initial four—two cases for each dam dealing separately with charges of financial and procedural irregularities. Each of the four initial cases had numerous defendants including directors of companies based in Italy who refused to come to Kenya to take plea, occasioning long delays. Eventually, all the cases were consolidated into two, with Case 20 of 2019 having 8 accused persons based in Kenya, and Case 21 of 2019 dealing with the alleged crimes of 18 Italian individuals and companies. This arrangement has allowed the Kenyan cases to proceed with the first witness out of 57 taking the stand in November last year.
One strange thing about the cases filed by the ODPP is that while they allege a conspiracy to defraud the government through the commercial agreements, there is little indication of the other side of that coin: how did the individuals involved benefit from the scheme? No one is charged with paying or receiving a bribe and there has been little evidence produced so far to warrant the many press allegations of corruption and kickbacks. According to a report in the East African Standard, Sh450 million was “wired by the Treasury to Italian firm CMC di Ravenna . . . was sent to an account in London then Dubai and later to Nairobi”. One of the report’s writers, Roselyne Obala, would later add that the same Sh450 million was part of a larger payment of over Sh600 million and that it was paid to an account in Barclays Bank in Nairobi. However, none of this is in the charges preferred at the Anti-Corruption Court. Further, it is unclear whether “over KSh600 million” refers to the much larger advance payments which, in any case, was (illegally) transferred directly by the banks in London to the companies. Further, the absence of prosecutions within Italy, which has a law criminalizing Italian companies paying bribes to public officials abroad in return for contracts, suggests that there is no evidence that a bribe was paid in this case.
There have been allegations raised that the prosecution of the dam cases was politicised, targeting allies of Deputy President William Ruto. In October last year, Rotich instituted a petition at the Milimani High Courts questioning why the DPP left out key personalities involved in the tendering process such as the former Attorney General Githu Muigai, solicitor general Njee Muturi and former Environment CS Judi Wakhungu. Rotich has also argued that he was not responsible for procurement of the tenders and was not the accounting officer at Treasury. “It is absurd that the respondents chose to charge me while the Attorney General is not charged in this respect. This is an indication of selective prosecution that cannot stand the test of objectivity and fair administration of action,” he argued in the petition. Others have pointed to the dropping of charges against members of the KVDA Tender Committee as well as some of Rotich’s co-accused, former Treasury PS Kamau Thugge and Dr Susan Koech, a former PS in the Environment Ministry, as proof of malicious prosecution.
It is also noteworthy that Kenya has refused or failed to make any repayments on the moneys already disbursed.
Regarding the latter accusation, it is notable that many of the former accused have actually become witnesses so it may just be a case of the DPP using the small fry to net the “big fish”. However, when it comes to why the former AG, the solicitor-general, and the various ministers who oversaw KVDA between 2014 and 2019 are not in the dock, the answers are not so convincing.
A bigger source of discontent is the lack of similar prosecutions over similar projects. For example, the contract over the Itare Dam in Nakuru, also in the Rift Valley, features the same set of characters—SACE, CMC di Ravenna, Intesa San Paolo, BNP Paribas—and was the first dam awarded to the Italians in 2014. After advance payments of Sh4.3 billion were paid out, the project appears to have collapsed. As Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika noted in February 2019, “It . . . seems as if there is no equal treatment of all the projects across the country.”
In 2013, CMC had signed a consultancy contract with Stansha Limited, owned by Stanley Muthama, the MP for Lamu West, in which Stansha pledged to help CMC in its bid for tenders for the construction of Itare Dam, which is under the Rift Valley Water Services Board, and Ruiru II Dam under the Athi Water Service Board, for a fee of 3 per cent of the contract value. For Itare, it came to Sh330 million. According to the ODPP analysis, on 25 November 2015, a Stanley Muthama identified as “Staff CMC Kenya office” participated in a high-level “clarification meeting” with KVDA officials regarding the tender for the Arror dam, one of the decisive meetings for the award of the contract. Among those at the meeting were Paolo Porcelli and Gianni Ponta, two CMC officials the ODPP has charged, among others, for having “conspired to unlawfully have the services of CMC di Ravenna-ITINERA JV procured by KVDA for the development of Arror and Kimwarer multipurpose dams”. There is however no Stanley Muthama being prosecuted by the ODPP in the Kenyan case and no suggestion of any wrongdoing with regard to the contracts.
There, however, seems to be a pattern emerging where CMC di Ravenna—which has been in economic turmoil for four years; in 2018 it owed creditors €1.5 billion euros—receives advance payments for projects it does not thereafter complete. In Nepal, a US$550 million contract for the construction of a hydroelectric plant was terminated in 2019 and the company ordered by an Italian court to return €15 million to a bank in Nepal that had financed the project. CMC had not warned the Nepalese bank of its financial problems and had not even begun the work.
In Kenya, though, the two Italian firms have also claimed the cases were politicised and lacked grounds. In December 2020, they filed a suit at the International Court of Arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce claiming they were victims of power politics between President Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto. They alleged that the cancellation of the tender was a ploy to weaken Deputy President Ruto’s 2022 presidential aspirations and are demanding US$115 million (KSh13.7 billion) in compensation for the cancellation of the contracts.
A bigger source of discontent is the lack of similar prosecutions over similar projects.
“It seems hardly coincidental that the highest ranking official to be investigated and charged in the criminal proceeding is Kenya’s Treasury CS Mr Henry Rotich, an ally of Mr Ruto,” stated the court document as reported in Business Daily. They claim that allegations of impropriety did not surface until two years after the contracts were signed and that KVDA had admitted that the projects had been politicised with an intention of terminating them.
In notes sent to the Italian Foreign Ministry, the joint venture complains of “delays in the payment of fees [by Kenya] to the Agent Bank with the risk of blocking future disbursements”. The companies blame the failure of the project to get off the ground on the failure by KVDA to deliver the necessary land, a claim repeated by Deputy President Ruto during the presidential debate in July. They also claim that import permit exemptions had not yet been issued.
President Kenyatta has also reportedly tasked AG Paul Kihara and Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua to negotiate with the joint venture to seek an amicable settlement although it is curious that Kenya would seek to pay off the very companies it accuses of conspiring to defraud it. The country has, however, trodden this route before. In 2014, President Kenyatta ordered payment of Sh1.4 billion to briefcase companies for termination of contracts to supply telecommunication equipment and bandwidth spectrum, part of the Anglo Leasing scam where billions were paid to fictitious companies for security-related contracts.
Further, in May last year, SACE wrote to the AG, the Treasury and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that Kenya could get a partial refund of its insurance premium but only if it committed to paying off the banks on whose behalf the country had taken out the policy. And the letter included a not-so-subtle hint that Kenya’s relationship with Italy was on the line.
They alleged that the cancellation of the tender was a ploy to weaken Deputy President Ruto’s 2022 presidential aspirations.
In brief, it seems clear that there were serious irregularities during the tendering and contracting for the two dams. KVDA tendered the projects under the PPA for a concessional arrangement but awarded a commercial contract under the Public Procurement and Disposal Act to a legally different entity from that which had won the tender without beginning the process afresh. Further, the arrangements to transfer money directly from commercial banks to the contractor seem clearly illegal and the shift from a concessional arrangement to a commercial one probably means Kenyans ended up paying more—including for unnecessary insurance. However, no money appears to have been paid out directly from the Exchequer, although the fees, commissions and advance payments have accrued a debt of up to Sh23.5 billion (at current exchange rates), less than a third of which may be covered by bank/insurance guarantees. Assuming the debt register is mistaken when it lists the entire loan amount, and that the guarantees by Standard Chartered Bank and Heritage Insurance are eventually honoured, Kenyans would still be, when we eventually get round to paying it, out of pocket by around Sh13.5 billion, the sum of the insurance premium (part of which we may get back), the various fees and commissions, and the exchange rate costs. As noted, no one has been accused of actually pocketing bribes. It also does not seem like either Kenya or the banks are pursuing a refund of the money paid to the joint venture in the Italian courts.
The biggest obstacle to a clearer understanding of what is happening with regard to the Arror and Kimwarer dams is the political whirlwind around it. Adding to the confusion is the language employed—terms like scam and kickbacks—suggesting that the officials involved pocketed bribes, whereas they are not actually accused of any of that. Further, journalists have tended to report the story much like the proverbial blind men of Hindustan—each accurately describing a part of the elephant’s anatomy, but not able to grasp the entire animal., It is to be expected that, even after the general election, the controversy surrounding the Arror and Kimwarer dams will continue to generate more political heat while shedding very little light.
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