Kenyans will go to the polls on 9 August to elect their representatives at the national and county levels. The upcoming elections are the third in Kenya under the 2010 constitution that introduced devolution. Instituted in 2013, devolution sought to bring government closer to the people by devolving political and economic resources to Kenya’s 47 county governments, to better address the local needs of Kenyans.
Just like the rest of Kenya, the residents of the three north-eastern counties of Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera where I was born and brought up, will once again go to the polls to elect their representatives: governors, members of county assembly, women representatives, members of the national assembly, and senators. Those who will be elected will be in charge of managing devolved resources at the county level for the next five years.
In the last decade, devolution could potentially have transformed the lives of the people of north-eastern Kenya but, unfortunately, this has not happened, despite the accrual of substantial funds and political power; the billions of Kenya shillings that have gone into the region have not brought improvements. On the contrary, some sectors such as healthcare and water service provision, have seen a decline or remained the same despite billions of Kenya shillings being pumped into these sectors in the last 10 years. Northeastern Kenya remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in Kenya, lagging behind the rest of Kenya in almost all development indicators, and the people are among the poorest in the country. The majority lack access to basic services and infrastructure such as water and healthcare, good roads and electricity.
The lack of progress in the last ten years is largely attributed to poor governance and the massive theft and misappropriation of public resources by elected leaders, the region’s elites and public officials. All indications are that massive graft, corruption, and misallocation of political and economic resources have stunt the region’s ability to take advantage of devolution and catch up with the rest of Kenya. Resources meant for the population are being misappropriated and the leadership has nothing to show for the ten years after devolution existence; blatant theft and embezzlement of public funds and misgovernance have been its defining characteristic in the last ten years.
This article is a review of devolution in north-eastern Kenya ten years after its inception. It focuses on the three north-eastern counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera and is a reflection of the writer’s assessment of devolution in north-eastern Kenya over the last ten years. The situation described above is similar elsewhere in the larger northern Kenya in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo, Tana River, Samburu, Turkana, and West Pokot, but this piece focuses exclusively on the three north-eastern counties.
The lack of progress in the last ten years is largely attributed to poor governance and the massive theft and misappropriation of public resources by elected leaders, the region’s elites and public officials
Disclaimer: By highlighting the failures of devolution and how it has not delivered for the people of north-eastern Kenya, the writer is by no means advocating for the previous Nairobi-based centralised governance system where resources were shared only by a few at the centre (1963-2013), a system that had neglected and marginalized the region for far too long, denying it investments, the cause of the current predicament the region faces today.
The current failure of devolution in northern Kenya is partly tied to the failure at the centre; the ills of the centre have been replicated at the periphery. Under the Jubilee government, the national government has since 2013 experienced astronomical levels of corruption and theft of public funds affecting public sector institutions than any other time in Kenya’s history. National state oversight institutions mandated to fight corruption at both levels of government have been unable or unwilling to effectively carry out their oversight duties. Also, of importance to note is that, the widespread allegations of corruption and misappropriation of public funds are not unique to the counties of north-eastern Kenya but are also reported across most of the country’s 47 counties and this has greatly demoralized Kenyans.
Blatant theft of public resources
In north-eastern, county officials and leadership, including governors, executives and other public officials are stealing from the people. Over the years, the office of the Auditor General has exposed massive misappropriation of resources and irregular procurement rules. General public perception in the region is that the leaders are not serving the people’s interests, but are only enriching themselves with the resources they have been entrusted with, with impunity and zero accountability. As a consequence, the electorates have given up and resigned themselves to their fate, leaving it to God to will punish the thieving elites in the hereafter.
Over the last decade, and during the tenure of the last two county administrations, the elected governors have turned the north-eastern counties into family “fiefdoms” and “small monarchies” similar to Middle East monarchies where those who benefit most are the immediate family members, close friends and cronies. Nepotism and favouritism have become widespread, and governors and their appointed county executives use relatives, including extended family members and close friends as proxies to siphon off public resources meant to benefit citizens. Across the three counties, the governors and other senior county public officials have put close family members and relatives on the county payroll as ghost workers who have no job descriptions, actual portfolios or offices. Individuals who have previously never worked in any major capacity and have little experience are given high paying public jobs only because they belong to the right families or know the right people.
Governors, county executives and elected local leaders also use proxies and companies owned by friends and close family members to obtain lucrative multimillion contracts. For the five years the governor and the county executives are in charge, they and their proxies remain inaccessible and out of reach of the ordinary mwananchi.
A small portion of the loot is laundered in the region. Much of the looted money is laundered in major cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, where the county leadership uses the ill-gotten wealth to invest in residential properties and shopping malls. County governors and their executives have bought houses, apartments and palatial homes worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars in Nairobi’s upscale residential areas such as Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Parklands, Karen, Spring Valley and others. One favourite estate among senior Somali county officials from northeastern is the South C neighbourhood, where a high number of county executives live and operate from, instead of their respective county headquarters. They either pay high monthly rents or have bought expensive apartments and houses. The Eastleigh neighbourhood the looted public money is “reinvested” in businesses in the form of shopping malls. Some use the looted public resources to marry second and third wives or to purchase vehicles worth many times their annual salaries as county officials, while others have used the plundered money to go to Mecca on pilgrimage and “contribute” to religious causes such as building mosques and Islamic madarasa schools. Governors, specifically, have moved some of their ill-gotten wealth abroad, especially to the Middle East and Turkey. Other favourite destinations include Dubai and Turkey where the governors have bought palatial holiday homes and apartments in cities such as Ankara, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere.
All north-eastern governors have offices in Nairobi where they spend a ood part of their time instead of operating from their county headquarters. Governors and county executive members also hold county executive meetings in Nairobi instead of the county headquarters. You will also find that many county officials such as executive members, chief officers and members of county assemblies are ever present in Nairobi, operating from the city instead of operating from their respective county headquarters.
The current failure of devolution in northern Kenya is partly tied to the failure at the centre; the ills of the centre have been replicated at the periphery. Under the Jubilee government, the national government has since 2013 experienced astronomical levels of corruption and theft of public funds affecting public sector institutions than any other time in Kenya’s history.
Why is this the case? How are elites able to steal with impunity? The stealing that happens in the counties mostly happens through the flouting of public procurement rules, inflating the price of projects and at times even budgeting for non-existent projects. Kenya has been plagued by corruption since independence, but corruption and blatant theft of public resources has become commonplace since 2013 when the Jubilee Party led by Uhuru Kenyatta came to power. Under the Jubilee government, corruption cases involving the blatant theft of billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money have become the norm since 2013. Pervasive institutional corruption at the centre has spread to the periphery through devolution and, therefore, political and economic devolution to Kenya’s 47 counties has only enabled the creation of another cadre of corrupt elites with the ability, through elections, to capture institutions and resources. What used to happen at the centre has been replicated at the county levels through devolution; county leaders plunder everything from nationally devolved county funds to donor contributions. They take for themselves and their proxies the most lucrative contracts. Development projects in the region have become contractor- and vendor-driven with the governors, deputy governors, county executives and elected members of county assemblies being the biggest beneficiaries.
The looting of public resources has largely been successful and continues unbated due to weak government oversight institutions such as the anti-corruption agency, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The lack of effective anti-corruption mechanisms and political will at the national level to fight graft plays a major role in fuelling graft and theft at all levels of government. Inessen ce, there is little to no risk of being held accountable and this explains why the leaders are unafraid. Not a single culprit who has stolen from the people in the last ten years is behind bars because of what he or she has done, despite large-scale corruption and mismanagement.
Poor service delivery
The mismanagement, graft and elite capture of county resources has resulted in poor service delivery to the people of north-eastern counties. A major challenge is that the leadership is unable to prioritize development that would transform and improve service delivery. Despite the billions in investment – cumulatively, the three counties received close to Shs100 billion in devolved funds over the last ten years – there is nothing much to show for it. Also, the leadership is simply unwilling to prioritize and invest in areas of public need where the impact would be greatest. Instead, funds are spent as they come in poorly thought-out contractor-driven “development” projects. As a consequence, crucial sectors such as livestock and water, healthcare, and education provision, where the needs of the population lie, have been ignored and, in some instances, the quality of services has deteriorated compared to the period before devolution.
In the counties, the easiest way to steal public funds is through infrastructure projects that are of no benefit to people, such as repairing a rural road that does not actually require refurbishment. Millions in resources have been poured into the construction of structures that now lie idle. For instance, it is quite common to build a structure in a certain village and label it “a health centre” or “a market” even as it remains unoccupied and abandoned. No health workers, equipment and drugs are deployed to the structure to make it an operational health facility. Office blocks are also be built which then remain unoccupied.
To symbolize misplaced priorities, the leadership has invested millions in ultra-modern office blocks, and residences for the leadership, instead of fighting poverty and investing in critical infrastructure such as water, healthcare and fodder for livestock at this time of severe drought.
The leadership is simply not investing in priority areas. The livestock sector, the main source of livelihood and the economic mainstay of the region remains highly underinvested. The recent response to the drought emergency is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the county leadership in responding to emergencies and assisting people at a time of need. Last year alone, millions of head of livestock died after water pans and grasslands dried up following a severe drought season. The drought is even now ongoing. Had the county and national governments intervened and provided needed water and fodder for the livestock, the deaths of millions of head of livestock, which are people’s livelihoods, could have been prevented. The pastoralists had no one to turn to as the response from both counties and the national government was lacklustre; the pastoralists had to fend for themselves, buying water for their livestock from private water vendors at an exorbitant cost. On average, one water truck cost between KSh10,000 and Sh50,000 depending on the distance from water sources, which in many cases are at the county headquarters. I witnessed residents of Wajir County who live far from the county headquarters having to wait for “their turn” to receive water supplied by trucks contracted by the county government. In one village less than 50 kilometres from Wajir town, residents had to wait more than 14 days for their turn to receive water. And when the one truck arrived at the village of 300-plus residents, it could only provide water for the people but not their livestock. In many of the less accessible villages in Wajir, help from the county government never arrived.
To symbolize misplaced priorities, the leadership has invested millions in ultra-modern office blocks, and residences for the leadership, instead of fighting poverty and investing in critical infrastructure such as water, healthcare and fodder for livestock at this time of severe drought.
North-eastern is most water-stressed region in Kenya, the number one hurdle that the people of the north-eastern face. Obtaining drinking water for both people and their livestock is a major challenge. Unfortunately, the region’s leadership has not been willing to find a sustainable solution to the perennial water shortage, the most common response to “alleviate” the water problem in the last decade being the construction of expensive water pans and boreholes. The big ugly holes dotting the landscape serve as temporary rain water reservoirs, but do nothing to solve the perennial water problem in the region. The leadership prefers them because they are easy to implement as they do not involve much technical skill and are normally constructed at inflated cost. Water pans are not a sustainable long-term solution as they dry up almost immediately at the onset of the dry season.
Ten years after devolution, and after receiving billions of shillings annually including in allocations for the water sector, residents of Mandera County headquarters do not have access to running water in their homesteads. The Mandera leadership has been unable to tap the waters of River Daawa, which flows through the county headquarters for most of the year. The county residents rely largely on commercial water vendors.
The World Bank-funded Water and Sanitation Project meant to connect households to piped water, provide community water points, and improve sanitation services in Wajir Town, the Wajir County headquarters, is failing largely because of lack of county leadership, and elite competition for contracts related to the project.
Half of the homesteads in Garissa Town do not have access to running water. Those that do have access to water benefited from a water project that was undertaken in the town during President Mwai Kibaki’s 2003-2007 administration. This means that from 2013 to 2022 the Garissa County leadership has not done much to expand water provision. This is despite River Tana flowing right through Garissa Town to drain into the Indian Ocean.
The health sector is an area that has seen a deterioration in services during devolution. Hospitals and health centres have been incapacitated from lack of staff, lack of adequate medical equipment and essential supplies such as drugs and laboratory reagents.
The three main referral hospitals in the region are run down. Public health facilities have collapsed to the extent that they do not offer basic services such as CT Scans; citizens are forced to seek such services in private facilities at exorbitant prices. When medical equipment such as MRI machines and CT Scans break down, the authorities take months to have them fixed. As an example, when the MRI machine at Garissa’s main referral hospital broke down, it took the administration months to have it repaired. On a visit to Wajir Referral Hospital in Wajir town, I found that the hospital did not have staplers to pin papers together, staff in the maternity ward were using bandages to tie papers together, a situation that persisted throughout the period of one week that I visited a sick relative in the hospital’s maternity wing. Upon enquiry, I was informed by the staff that this had been the situation for weeks. They also told me that it was common for them to run out of other basic essentials such as cotton wool.
A call to the people of north-eastern counties
This is a wakeup call and a public appeal to the people of north-eastern Kenya to elect people of integrity in the upcoming election on 9 August. It is only the electorate who can stand up to and liberate their counties and resources from the thieving “leaders” who have captured and appropriated the county resources. The electorates should give priority to electing leaders of integrity who have a good track record. It is time to reverse the misgovernance and misappropriation of public resources of the last ten years.
Statutory government oversight institutions such as the EACC, DCI and the DPP have spectacularly failed to rescue the counties from the thieving elites. Despite the wanton theft and loss of billions, the corrupt are walking free and are not held accountability. On the contrary, they flaunt their ill-acquired wealth in front of the poor citizenry they have stolen from.
No single public official has been apprehended and convicted for stealing and misappropriating public resources in the last ten years. However, we should not lose hope. Hopefully, the next national government that will be elected in Nairobi in August will prioritize the fight against corruption and theft of public resources, and reform and empower anti-corruption agencies.
In the meantime, the citizens of north-eastern should not give up and resign themselves to their fate, but rather, use the power of the ballot to vote in good leaders who will serve them.
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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.
Kenya’s Internally Displaced: An Enduring Colonial Legacy
Whoever between Raila Odinga and William Ruto takes the presidency of this country after 9/8 must find the moral courage to finally break with a colonial legacy that has relegated thousands of our co-citizens to a life of unending misery and despair.
The long-awaited rains are finally here and yesterday’s dry, cracked black cotton soil that we here call kagenyo has turned into a gluey, slippery mess that sticks three inches thick to the soles of your shoes. I am struggling to keep my sneakers on as I make my way up the path to Wanjĩra’s* homestead.
Wanjĩra greets me at her gate and stands there, not showing any signs of inviting me in. Her handshake is firm and her manner brisk, a big woman in a body fed mainly on stodge. Clearly, Wanjĩra is waiting for me to get to the point of my visit so, in the manner of country people, and to break the ice, I begin by observing that, thank God, the rains are finally here. Wanjĩra turns her head, points her chin at the field behind her wooden cottage and says that she’s wondering whether she should bother to start over again. She had planted the early-maturing Pioneer variety of maize seed in anticipation of the long rains but nothing had come of that and the shoots had died in the ground, beaten down by the unyielding sun. Will the rains be sufficient this time round? There follows an awkward silence; where does one begin when one is intruding on the already difficult lives of those displaced by politically instigated violence?
I had learnt only recently that there were internally displaced people living not five kilometres down the road from me, further inland, and I determined to find out their circumstances, concerned that there could be desperate cases—like those I had found at Shalom—living within my community. That is how I ended up at Wanjĩra’s gate, led there by her orphaned niece, a twenty-something young woman with an infant strapped to her back.
Wanjĩra was born and raised in Londiani, Kericho County. Like many Kikuyus of his generation, Mũreithi, Wanjĩra’s father, had been uprooted from his home in Mũrang’a and moved to a colonial village under the colonial government’s villagisation programme that, by the end of 1955, had “relocated some one million Kikuyu into 804 fortified, policed and concentrated villages from their scattered homesteads that were in turn demolished”. From here, having been fingerprinted and with a mbugi around his neck, “no longer a shepherd but one of the flock”, Mũreithi was removed from the kiugũ, the cattle pen, as Wanjĩra sardonically described the village, shoved onto the back of a lorry and transported to Londiani on the other side of the country, never again to return to Mũrang’a. Mũreithi’s final destination was a settler’s farm where he earned a monthly wage of two shillings and fifty cents as a farm labourer. He married and brought up Wanjĩra and her siblings on that pittance but was never able to find the wherewithal to buy land of his own when independence came. A son had done well enough to purchase a quarter-acre in Karamton, Nyandarua County, and this is where Mũreithi was buried when he died.
Born in 1958 and now with a family of her own, Wanjĩra worked in the Londiani Forest planting trees in exchange for permission to grow crops in the clearings, while also slowly building up a herd of 38 cattle that she would graze in the forest. But the violence that broke out following the 2007 general election would prove to be the final straw for Wanjĩra and her family; she and her husband gathered up their eight children and fled Londiani. When the couple married, Wanjĩra’s father-in-law had made room on his one-acre piece of land for the couple to establish a home and raise a family. But beginning in early 1992, the family’s hold on life became increasingly tenuous as the clashes that broke out in late 1991 in Tinderet in Nandi District spread like wild fire to Londiani and other parts of the Rift Valley. The family hunkered down and survived the onslaught but found their lives once again threatened by the politically motivated ethnic violence that followed in the wake of the December 1997 elections. They survived that spate of violence too and carried on with their lives.
But a decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death. Living under constant threat of violence took its toll on Wanjĩra’s parents-in-law and both died within months of each other. Hardly were they buried on their one acre but Wanjĩra and her Kikuyu neighbours were surrounded by hostile youths blowing cow horns and wielding bows and arrows. The herd she had so painstakingly built over time was driven away before her very eyes and her home was razed to the ground. Wanjĩra and her family fled without a backward glance, her husband with three arrow wounds in his side.
A decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death.
Unlike the many displaced who ended up at the Nakuru Show Ground where disease was rife and the hardship beyond endurance, Wanjĩra and her husband took their family to Gatundu North. Someone had told them that they could live and grow their food inside Kieni Forest in exchange for providing labour to plant trees. From 2008 to 2013, the family joined those who had moved into the forest following the 1992 clashes, living under plastic sheeting in a river valley inside the forest, co-existing with marauding elephants as best they could until the government sent in the General Service Unit to evict them. Following a stand-off, the 805 families squatting in the forest were eventually paid 400,000 shillings each by the government in lieu of land, and it is this payment that enabled Wanjĩra and her husband, together with four other families that had also taken refuge in Kieni Forest, to buy land in Ndaragwa in Nyandarua County.
Like much of the land in this part of Nyandarua County that borders Laikipia East, the land on which Wanjĩra and her family finally settled had been occupied by a British settler in colonial times. The 3,400-acre ranch was eventually sold in 1964 to a group of Kenyans who ran it commercially for almost two decades, growing wheat and keeping livestock, before they subdivided the land among themselves. Over time, some of the owners have further subdivided their farms, bequeathing the parcels to their offspring or selling them to those like Wanjĩra’s family looking for land on which to (re)settle.
Just a kilometre or so down the road from Wanjĩra’s homestead, one such landowner sold some 30 acres of his land to the government to be subdivided amongst victims of the 2007/2008 post-election violence, each family receiving two and a quarter acres. Waithiageni does not know exactly how old she is. Ndiathomire, she tells me, I did not go to school. But she thinks she was about eight years old when her father moved the family from Mũrang’a to what was then Kisumu District. Waithiageni’s father had left his family behind and moved to Nakuru to work on a settler’s farm. Come independence, he applied to be resettled on the Koru Settlement Scheme and moved his family there.
Waithiageni now lives by herself in a corrugated iron shack by the side of a dusty track, having been chased off her father’s 20 acres at Koru and losing her only son in the 2007/2008 post-election chaos. To survive, the now elderly Waithiageni depends on casual work, when it can be found, and on the kindness of her neighbour Nyagũthiĩ, a mother of two grown-up daughters who escaped the violence at Londiani in late 2007.
A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves. The closest source of water is a trek downhill to the Pesi River, the nearest school miles away and the health centre further beyond. No matatu comes this way and a boda boda ride to the trading centre along the Nyeri-Nyahururu road will set you back 300 shillings, a day’s wage in these parts. The 25,000 shillings they had each received to build a home and the 10,000 shillings start-up capital did not stretch far enough and eight of the twelve families left within the year to find a more hopeful livelihood elsewhere.
Kenya is a state party to the Great Lakes Pact, one of the few international agreements that address displacement in a comprehensive and holistic manner. Kenya domesticated the Pact’s Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons through an act of parliament on 31 December 2012. It establishes a legal framework for the protection of IDPs through the incorporation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into domestic law.
A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves.
Specifically, Section 9 of the IDP Act foresees that “The Government shall create the conditions for and provide internally displaced persons with a durable and sustainable solution in safety and dignity. . .” and that, among others, the following conditions for durable solutions shall apply: long-term safety and security; enjoyment of an adequate standard of living without discrimination; access to employment and livelihoods; and access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property.
In November 2013, Nelson Ributhi Gaichuhie, then Chairperson of the Departmental Committee on Administration and National Security, made a statement in parliament to the effect that the government had fully complied with Section 9 (3) of the IDP Act, saying that those affected had been provided with relief food and decent housing. However, to put it in Kenyan parlance, things on the ground are different. Eight years after they were dumped by the government in their new “home”, Wathiageni and her neighbours still live in what can only be described as hovels lacking even the most basic of amenities. Eight long years on, the government has yet to undertake the necessary surveying to allow for subdivision of the land into individual parcels and so, unable to work their land, and without title, they live huddled together on a bare patch by the roadside, walking miles each day in search of casual labour on other people’s farms.
As for Wanjĩra’s family, the 400,000 shillings that it finally received in compensation was just about enough money to buy two acres of land and put up a small wooden structure to house the family of ten. After years of ill health compounded by the hellish living conditions in Kieni Forest, Wanjĩra’s husband died in 2016 and was buried on his land. Her first-born son followed soon after. Her seven surviving children are now grown and two have established their homes on the family’s land. Wanjĩra says that, having lost everything in Londiani, rebuilding what the family lost without resources seems like an insurmountable challenge. On a neighbouring farm is a neatly tended field with onions planted in zai pits. Wanjĩra tells me the land is leased by a farmer with the means to bring water up from the Pesi River about a kilometre away. Wanjĩra hasn’t those means; she must wait for the rains.
The second of the Great Lakes Pact’s ten protocols that is particularly relevant to the internally displaced is the Protocol on the Property Rights of Returning Persons that requires member states to provide legal protection for the property of the displaced and establish legal principles on the basis of which they are able to recover their property. But while the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government appears to have thrown in the towel even before it has started. The following statement from Gaichuhie to parliament makes clear that the government has no plans to ensure that those who lost land and property recover them or are adequately compensated:
“Some of them have title deeds. Very few of them have not been able to go back to where they were living. But I can tell you that most of the IDPs were business people in major towns. That is why the Government has decided that rather than wait to buy land and give it to somebody who had a big supermarket in town, it would give such individuals Kshs400,000 to start businesses. So, not all the IDPs had land. Some of them were businessmen. Some had land for which they did not have title deeds”
The IDP Act became operational in 2013 but the constitution of the National Consultative Co-ordination Committee (NCCC), the body tasked with implementing the Act, was only gazetted in October 2014 and the Chair of the committee appointed in November 2014. Patrick Githinji, who had been appointed to the committee as one of the two IDP representatives foreseen in Section 12 (3)(i) of the Act, and with whom I spoke at length on the 3rd of August 2022, explains that the committee commenced its work in April 2015, and its first task was to vet the internally displaced still living in 65 camps across the country with a view to compensating them and shutting down the camps. This task was accomplished by mid-2016 and—with the exception of Muhu Camp in Nyandarua County and Donga Farm in Subukia in Nakuru County, because the land bought by the government for the resettlement of these IDPs is in dispute—all the camps were closed and 11,000 households were paid 200,000 shillings each, the government having argued that it could no longer afford the 400,000 shillings it had paid to Wanjĩra’s family and others in 2014.
While the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government seems to have thrown in the towel even before it has started.
The next task of the committee was to ensure the compensation of the so-called Integrated IDPs (that is, those living dispersed among communities, whether with relatives or friends or in rented accommodation in urban or peri-urban areas) who numbered 193,000 households according to government records. They were offered a paltry 10,000 shillings in compensation which they turned down. Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households. Of these, 30,000 households were never paid, the government having recalled the funds from the disbursing banks. As it turns out, Wanjĩra and Waithiageni are the lucky ones.
According to an undated confidential report of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya available online, the NCCC is no longer operational. This is confirmed by Githinji who says that although the term of the first NCCC was to end in December 2017, by September of that year the NCCC secretariat had been shut down and seconded staff recalled to their respective ministries.
Together with other members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya, Githinji eventually petitioned the Senate in October 2020, alleging that there were attempts to repeal the IDP Act. In their petition, the group also claimed that land bought by the government to resettle IDPs had been illegally allocated to non-IDPs or grabbed by individuals, and that many IDPs continue to languish in makeshift tents. They also accused the government of refusing to release the funds due to Integrated IDPs because of identification errors introduced into the records by the government’s own officials, and lamented that there was no government authority at whose door they could lay these claims.
Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households.
Upon receipt of the petition, the Senate invited the group to appear before the Senate Committee on Lands, Environment and Natural Resources chaired by Sen. Mwangi Githiomi in November 2020, where, following a two-hour meeting, they were advised to table a fresh petition using the Senate’s guidelines. This they did and it was agreed that the group would again meet with the Senate Committee after the Christmas recess, in February 2021. They have no news since.
By the time the IDP Act was enacted in December 2012, another 112,000 people had joined the ranks of the internally displaced, followed by a further 55,000 in 2013, over 220,000 in 2014 and over 216,000 by mid-2015 (even as the NCCC was finally sitting down to its task), most of them victims of inter-communal violence. Meanwhile, as recently as October 2021, members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya were appealing to President Uhuru Kenyatta to finalise the resettlement and compensation process for those IDPs that were forced to flee their homes in 2007/2008 before the end of his term. Both President Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto had made numerous promises on the campaign trail in the run-up to the March 2013 general election—while facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague—that all the displaced would be resettled within the first 100 days of their administration if they were elected.
In the face of government inaction, some of the Integrated IDPs who were denied compensation in 2017 have converged on Kianjogu, in Laikipia County, occupying land that was purchased by the government for IDP resettlement but never subdivided. They arrived in March/April of this year from Nyeri, Nairobi, Uasin Gishu and other counties across the country and are living in Kianjogu much as they did when they were first forced to flee their homes, massed together in unsanitary conditions and refusing to yield to threats from the government.
It would appear that the IDP Act was cynically enacted for the sole purpose of creating a vehicle—the NCCC—to facilitate the closure of the tens of camps strewn across the country and disband their residents; out of sight out of mind. If that is the case, then the government has circumvented its duty not only to address the plight of generations of IDPs, but to also provide assistance and protection to the newly displaced, and to put in place structures and measures to prevent further internal displacement. The outgoing government of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto has instead chosen to perpetuate the generational suffering of Kenyans who were first forcibly evicted or were caused to leave their homes by the brutal and inhumane rule of the British colonial government.
Over the century since the Maasai were forcibly removed from their lands in the central Rift Valley in 1904/1905 to make way for white settlers, successive regimes have overseen the destitution of hundreds of thousands of Kenyan families. In the post-independence era, many have been forced to leave their homes by politically instigated violence where community is set against community, or by drought, famine, man-made disasters such as the Solai Dam tragedy and development-induced displacement. These hundreds of thousands of our co-citizens exist in the shadow of our lives and many lie in unmarked graves awaiting increasingly illusive justice.
The new government must, therefore, and with great urgency, operationalize the IDP Act and revive and properly reconstitute the NCCC so that it can continue with the arduous task of ensuring that durable and sustainable solutions are found for all the internally displaced. In finally beginning to properly address the plight of the internally displaced, the incoming government will not be without resources: in particular, a policy paper drawn up by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre dissects the IDP Act and makes concrete recommendations that, if applied, will equip the nation with an internal displacement response system that is fully operational.
It is unacceptable that over the almost sixty years of Kenya’s independence, successive leaders have built on the colonial legacy of dispossession and destitution of Kenyans. Whoever takes the helm after the 9 August general election must find the moral courage to put an end to the suffering of these Kenyans who, as much as anyone else in this country, have a right to expect a life lived in safety and in dignity.
Smartmatic: The Election Company and their Role in the Upcoming Elections
As Kenyans vote they deserve full adherence to the Constitution by the IEBC. A clear picture from the IEBC and Smartmatic on the ownership, corporate structure, funding, and governance structure of Smartmatic were necessary for these constitutional thresholds to be met.
So far in this series we have commented on several aspects of the upcoming general elections in Kenya. One of our articles, which was published on 8 July, focused on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) election preparedness. In it, we discussed the IEBC’s supplier of the Kenya Integrated Elections Management System (KIEMS) kits, Smartmatic International Holding B.V (Smartmatic). For the reader’s benefit, KIEMS refers to the integrated elections management system which the IEBC is required by law to deploy in all elections. It comprises biometric voter registration, electronic voter identification and results transmission – a combination of both hardware and software. Following our article, Samira Saba, Smartmatic’s Director of Communications, reached out to us seeking to set the record straight in relation to claims around the credibility of Smartmatic’s systems. In our article, we cited the Philippine Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Centre’s conclusion that Smartmatic’s system was ‘compromised’. Smartmatic elaborated on this claim, stating that the finding by the Philippine authority related to a now former Smartmatic employee sharing non-sensitive day-to-day operational material with individuals outside the company who then proceeded to unsuccessfully try and extort Smartmatic. In addition to offering this explanation, Samira informed us that with election day approaching, the likelihood of misinformation is only likely to increase and as such, she was ‘at [our] disposal to clarify any doubts [we] may have about’ Smartmatic.
In the interest of transparency and considering recent news reports around Smartmatic, we took up Smartmatic’s invitation to clarify their role in Kenya’s elections. In this article, we interrupt our regular Road to 9/8 series to set out and analyse Smartmatic’s responses.
But let us first set the constitutional context. Article 81 of our Constitution requires our elections to be “transparent” and “administered in an impartial, neutral, efficient, accurate and accountable manner”. Article 86 of the Constitution requires the IEBC to ensure that “whatever voting method is used, the system is simple, accurate, verifiable, secure, accountable and transparent”.
Has the IEBC and its relationship with Smartmatic met these constitutional tests?
Scope of inquiry
Our queries to Smartmatic focused on the following areas. First, we asked Smartmatic to shed some light around its ownership structure and its contract with the IEBC. Second, we inquired about Smartmatic’s proposed activities in the elections, specifically focusing on whether they would be handling any voter data, the reliability of the results transmission module of the KIEMS kits, their system’s critical dependencies and fallbacks, and whether they had confirmed the condition of any legacy KIEMS kits from 2017 which the IEBC intends to reuse. This is particularly relevant as, according to the publicly available tender document, the scope of Smartmatic’s mandate extends to providing the software which will run on all the KIEMS kits in the IEBC’s possession, not just those Smartmatic supplies. Finally, we asked Smartmatic about the recent arrest of Venezuelan nationals affiliated with them, and their relationship with an entity mentioned in a press release by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), Seamless Limited. You can find here the specific questions we posed to Smartmatic and their responses.
Who is Smartmatic?
In May 2021, the IEBC published an international tender seeking a service provider to supply, deliver, install, test, commission, support and maintain KIEMS kits for the 2022 elections. Following the tendering process where five entities put in their bids, the IEBC awarded Smartmatic the contract. This decision was challenged at the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board by an interested tenderer, Risk Africa Innovatis, which alleged that the tender documents did not specify preference margins for local suppliers as required in public procurement law and also did not require international tenderers to acquire at least 40% of their supplies from local suppliers as required in the Public Procurement and Disposal Act. While the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board nullified the award and directed the IEBC to tender afresh, this was subsequently overturned by the High Court and Court of Appeal on the basis that Risk Africa Innovatis technically did not have standing as it did not put in a bid. With the legal challenge out of the way, the IEBC proceeded to sign a contract with Smartmatic. We understand from the IEBC, that the value of this contract is approximately KES 3.2 billion. For comparative purposes, the IEBC’s contract with Safran Identity and Security SAS (now IDEMIA) in 2017, costed USD 39.9 million (KES 4.3 billion at the exchange rate prevalent in 2017) and entailed the supply of 45,000 KIEMS kits. While the IEBC may seem to have cut costs, it is worth highlighting that it is only acquiring 14,100 KIEMS kits from Smartmatic, less than a third of the amount it acquired in 2017. We understand from the IEBC that 41,000 kits which it acquired in 2017 are still functional. Whilst such contracts may differentiate between the price of hardware, software and support and maintenance, a back of the envelope approach to pricing based on the number of KIEMS kits supplied would suggest that Smartmatic is materially more expensive than IDEMIA.
When Smartmatic approached us, they introduced themselves as the ‘undisputed leader in the elections industry’, having ‘deployed election technologies in 31 countries.’ Founded in Florida in 2000, Smartmatic has gone on to notably provide technology for elections in Belgium and Norway, among other countries. They further cited accolades such as recognitions by the United Nations, European Union, and the Carter Centre. However, with the existence of news reports relating to Smartmatic’s ownership structure and bearing in mind the consequential role they are playing in Kenya’s democracy, we asked Smartmatic to provide us a with further detail on its organisational structure and ultimate beneficial ownership. We also asked if they would be willing to share its contract with the IEBC in the public interest.
We understand from the IEBC that 41,000 kits which it acquired in 2017 are still functional.
In response, Smartmatic did not provide us with its ownership structure, only stating that Smartmatic Corporation is currently incorporated in Delaware, USA. Two of its founders, Antonio Mugica and Roger Piñate run the company. By its own account, 83% of the shares in Smartmatic Corporation (which is the entity incorporated in the USA) are owned by SGO Corporation Limited, a holding company incorporated in the United Kingdom. SGO in turn is owned by the Mugica and Piñate families. The remaining shares in Smartmatic Corporation are held by employees and angel investors. According to the response we received, Smartmatic International Holding B.V.—the company which received the tender from the IEBC— ‘is part of this structure’. Smartmatic also declined to share its contract with the IEBC on the basis that confidentiality requirements prevented them from doing so.
A publicly available search on SGO Corporation reveals that it had, as directors, Lord Malloch Brown, but he resigned on 4th December, 2020, Sir Nigel Knowles but he resigned on 18th May, 2021 and David Giampaolo but he resigned on 9th August, 2017. As far as we can tell SGO Corporation Limited only has two directors, Antonio Mugica and Roger Piñate. From what we can tell, when Sir Nigel Knowles, Lord Malloch Brown and David Giampolo resigned, they were not replaced by other independent directors.
Elections are credible when the processes around them are transparent and capable of easy diligence. The KIEMS kits and the software relating to them are at the very heart of the election process. So Smartmatic are central to our elections. Being absolutely clear as to who Smartmatic is, what their corporate and governance structure is, their precise shareholding and their funding structure should be a matter of public record. The IEBC should have required this and should have shared this information with the public. We consider that even if the IEBC did not, Smartmatic should have volunteered this information in response to our request. Again, through this article, we request them to do so. We consider that it does not behove Smartmatic, whose business model is designed to be at the nerve centre of democratic transitions, to be less than fully transparent about such matters. Being less than fully transparent creates a cloud of mistrust and uncertainty especially when one considers the history of Kenya’s elections particularly since 2002 and the palpable tensions that surround elections. This is all the more the case because Smartmatic, on their website, proclaim that “transparency is at the core of what we do”. Yet the company that ultimately owns Smartmatic only has the founders as directors and does not have any independent directors. One can expect robust corporate governance when independent directors are present and the likelihood of less robust corporate governance when they are absent.
What is Smartmatic’s role in the 2022 Kenyan elections?
In the run up to the forthcoming elections, there have been numerous news reports around the procurement of KIEMS kits and their reliability. For example, it was reported that once Smartmatic was awarded the contract by the IEBC, they had a challenge kicking off as the IEBC’s previous service provider, IDEMIA, allegedly held on to voter data due to a pending KES 800 million payment from the IEBC. A few months after, once the voter register was updated, the IEBC allegedly reported a failure rate of nearly 60% during a dry run of the results transmission system. Bearing the recent developments in mind and considering the importance of these kits, we sought to have Smartmatic clarify whether they would be handling voter data in accordance with the Data Protection Act, 2019 (DPA); whether, in addition to supplying new KIEMS kits, they had confirmed the condition of the remaining 41,000 KIEMS kits which the IEBC had procured in 2017; whether they would be willing to comment on the failure rate recorded during the dry run of the results transmission system; what critical dependencies their systems rely on; and what fallbacks they have in place.
Smartmatic, in a broad response to our queries, directed us to a press statement issued by the IEBC on 26 July, stating that the IEBC is the only entity at liberty to speak authoritatively about the election process. We are unclear as to why Smartmatic believe they are not at liberty to speak about matters in the public domain. They also refrained from commenting on the technical points regarding the reliability of the KIEMS kits, the failure rate, and their use of fallbacks. We consider that this is another missed opportunity by Smartmatic. In relation to their handling of voter data, Smartmatic stated that it ‘does not own or copy any personal data about voters in Kenya.’ They further went ahead to indicate that they are not in charge of processing results as the results are manually counted in each polling centre and tally reports are physically transported to tallying centres. By its account, Smartmatic does not play a role in any of these functions. Their KIEMS kits will only be used to transmit statutory tallying forms that are manually completed by the IEBC’s officers, not to tally any results. These tallying forms will be published by the IEBC on a public site and an official tally will be done manually in the tally centres.
It was reported that once Smartmatic was awarded the contract by the IEBC, they had a challenge kicking off as the IEBC’s previous service provider, IDEMIA, allegedly held on to voter data due to a pending KES 800 million payment from the IEBC.
Smartmatic’s account of the election process is broadly accurate, but major questions remain unanswered. In accordance with the Elections Act and its subsidiary legislation, the voting process begins when a voter is biometrically registered through a KIEMS kit prior to the elections. On election day, a voter is identified using the KIEMS kit’s electronic voter identification system. After being identified, they vote and are marked, through the KIEMS kit, as having voted. Tallying commences immediately voting ends and the presiding officer is required to complete the statutory Form 34A with the final result of the vote. While the tallying process is entirely manual, the eventual tally must be keyed into the KIEMS kit’s results transmission system and a scan or photo of the Form 34A uploaded. The same process is replicated cumulatively at the constituency and national levels with the Forms 34B and 34C respectively. All ballot papers and physical copies of the forms are delivered to the national tallying centre for verification before a declaration is made.
While Smartmatic’s claim that it neither owns nor copies any voter data may be technically accurate, it does not substantively respond to our query relating to compliance with the Data Protection Act, 2019. In the tender for the supply of KIEMS kits, the IEBC specified that the successful bidder would be required to undertake voter data migration from the previous system to the new one. Further, KIEMS contains three modules: biometric voter registration, electronic voter identification and results transmission. Two of these modules directly involve the handling of voter data such as national identification numbers. Based on our understanding of the tender, the supplier of KIEMS kits is also required to provide the software which the kits will operate on and on election day, is also required to provide technical support in relation to both hardware and software. With this in mind, it seems unavoidable that Smartmatic will handle voter data. Its compliance with the DPA therefore remains an open question. In fact, the impasse with IDEMIA over voter data seems to confirm it. We must then think about its compliance with the obligation to register with the Data Commissioner, the provisions on cross border transfers of personal data, and, where it temporarily stores data, the requirement to maintain a server or a copy in Kenya. We point out that the IEBC has also contracted other service providers for among other things, maintenance services for its data centre, the supply, delivery and installation of network monitoring tools, the supply of the KIEMS network, and the supply of security information and event management, so Smartmatic is not solely responsible for the data life cycle.
On the reliability of the results transmission system, Smartmatic also did not respond. In the tender calling for bids for the supply of KIEMS kits, the IEBC specified that the successful entity (now Smartmatic) would be required to provide software support for all KIEMS kits, and as established, the KIEMS includes a results transmission module. Smartmatic did not respond to our request for comment on the failure rate recorded during the IEBC’s dry run. Further, they also did not confirm whether they verified the condition of the legacy systems owned by the IEBC. This leaves a host of open questions: since we presume the Smartmatic’s software will run on both the KIEMS kits they have supplied to the IEBC and on the legacy systems, how do we allocate responsibility for their proper functioning as between Smartmatic and the IEBC? How will we know whether the failure of an KIEMS kit to operate is attributable to IEBC or Smartmatic or whether the kit that failed was supplied by Smartmatic or was a legacy unit? Is Smartmatic’s limited responses consistent with their public proclamation that “transparency is at the core of what we do”.
Who are they working with?
In late July, three Venezuelan nationals entering Kenya were arrested while in possession of election materials. The DCI confirmed the arrest of Joel Gustavo Rodriguez, Carmago Castellanos Jose Gregorio and Salvador Javier Suarez. According to the DCI, the trio attempted to enter Kenya while in possession of stickers used to label election elections equipment. It was apparently not immediately clear to the authorities that these individuals were employees of Smartmatic or agents of the IEBC. In the DCI’s press release, it was alleged that the individuals came to Kenya at the invitation of Abdullahi Abdi Mohamed, an individual associated with Seamless Limited. Little is known about Abdullahi Abdi Mohamed and his LinkedIn profile has been deleted. The IEBC responded to these events by issuing a press release confirming that the individuals were employees of Smartmatic and that the materials in their possession were non-strategic in nature. The IEBC went further to indicate that Smartmatic had a local partner in Kenya as required by the tender but did not specify who the partner was. We asked Smartmatic to confirm whether the three individuals were their employees. We also asked them to confirm whether they had procured the services of Seamless Limited, and if so, to shed some light on Seamless Limited’s specific role in the elections and its capacity to carry out this role.
Smartmatic confirmed that all three Venezuelan nationals were employees of Smartmatic, employed through one of its subsidiaries in Panama. All three have permanently resided in Panama for approximately 10 years and have worked on elections in several countries. In relation to the stickers in their possession, Smartmatic informed us that they were merely logistical in nature and not electoral material. They further indicated that the stickers ‘were printed according to the guidelines in the gazette notice published on July 1, 2022’ by the IEBC. Regarding its affiliation with Seamless Limited, Smartmatic declined to comment on the basis of having signed a non-disclosure agreement. Their exact quote was “As per NDA signed, we don’t comment on partners.”
The response provided by Smartmatic in relation to the stickers, while technically accurate, raises many questions. For one, it is not clear why Smartmatic’s employees were carrying the stickers in their personal luggage. Further, it is also not clear on what basis Smartmatic was printing and supplying the IEBC with such stickers, yet it was not within the scope of the tender for the supply of KIEMS kits, and the IEBC is required to tender offers from the public for all supplies. For illustrative purposes, the IEBC has tendered for the supply of non-strategic election materials such as reflective jackets. The gazette notice which Smartmatic referenced only contains the official list of polling stations. It does not contain any guidelines for Smartmatic to adhere to.
In relation to Seamless Limited, the tender published by the IEBC required Smartmatic to provide proof of technical support staff with a local registered office in Kenya. In a press statement, the IEBC indicated that Smartmatic complied with this requirement and procured a local partner in Kenya. The IEBC did not name the local partner. News reporting alludes to this local partner being Seamless Limited. However, Smartmatic declined to confirm or deny this. We reached out to Seamless Limited for comment but are yet to receive a response as at the date of this publication. As far as we can tell, its website is generic in nature and does not refer to its role in the elections. The phone number quoted does not connect. Its offices are based, it appears, in a co-working space.
Again, both the IEBC and Smartmatic are failing to be as transparent as we consider they should be in the context of a democratic election process. We do not consider that relying on a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is a good ground for refusing to even confirm the identity of the local partner that Smartmatic has chosen to work with, more so considering that Seamless did not consider itself bound by this NDA and confirmed its relationship with Smartmatic in a statement to the press. Smartmatic could have chosen to simply deny any connection with the entity known as Seamless Limited. They have not done so. So, we have no option but to assume that Seamless Limited is Smartmatic’s local partner, especially since news reports suggest that Abdullahi Mohamed has confirmed the existence of a relationship between Seamless Limited and Smartmatic. If so, then who is Seamless? What qualifies them to also be at the heart of our democratic process? What is their precise role in the forthcoming elections? How do we hold them accountable for this role? We have no answers to any of these questions.
As Kenyans vote they deserve full adherence to the Constitution by the IEBC. A clear picture from the IEBC and Smartmatic on the ownership, corporate structure, funding, and governance structure of Smartmatic were necessary for these constitutional thresholds to be met. It should have been easy and simple to do. It has not been done. The role of Seamless Limited remains more than opaque, with Smartmatic referring to an NDA and the IEBC referring to a local partner but not naming that local partner. Kenyans can draw their own conclusions about this obfuscation. IEBC and Smartmatic should both be able to confirm who the “local partner” is and what their precise role is. Many questions, not too many answers and only days to the election. It all seems so sadly familiar.
This article was published in collaboration with Africa Uncensored.
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