By Edwin Okoth
The morning of Thursday, September 21, was not easy for top government officials gathered at Kenya School of Government in Kabete for hours of dress down on a deep vice rattling the principal offices in the Kenya Kwanza administration: corruption.
President William Ruto’s right-hand man in the civil service, Felix Koskei, was in a foul mood. In a meeting that brought together 35 Principal Secretaries, more than 200 chief executive officers of state corporations and their board chairs, heads of internal audit functions, and heads of major regulatory watchdogs, like the Auditor General and the Controller of budget, the Head of Public Service popularly known as HoPs was an angry man and he did not hide it.
His one-hour address painted a picture of rampant corruption in the regime where senior state officials have been plotting to steal, share the loot, and devise ways to stay longer in the offices where they can steal more while leaving critical public services in limbo and driving Kenya’s economy into turmoil.
The state officers were also involved in wasting funds and diverting them into white elephant projects and the expended critical ones.
“You can call it any name. Corruption has created a lot of economic sabotage, bringing down the economy; the government is reeling in debt. We are driving meaningless investment, stalled projects, dysfunctional infrastructure, and getting people in high positions who are illiterate because they forged their certificates and corrupted their ways,” a fuming Koskei told hundreds of senior government officials.
He said it is so widespread in the vice that it is essentially difficult to pinpoint corruption in the government because it had ‘permeated everywhere.’
The meeting, which was also meant to start an ambitious ‘zero audit fault ‘ regime for the financial year ending June 2024, kicked off a reward scheme to encourage civil servants to maintain clean records and eradicate corruption.
The top officials also received a tongue-lashing for being extravagant when the government was constrained on resources.
It emerged from the meeting that some government parastatal heads had formed the habit of procuring expensive flight tickets for trips within and outside the country and sending an elaborate advance team by road to destinations like Kisumu and Mombasa.
According to Treasury Principal Secretary Chris Kiptoo, who was among the key speakers at the event, the officials used laid-down procedures to procure travelling tickets but still ended up with a costly option.
“Why don’t you just use the Standard Gauge Railway when you are in a group travelling to Mombasa instead of flying at Sh45,000 one way, sending an advance team with three vehicles and wasting taxpayers’ money ?” posed Kiptoo.
The top civil servants were also reprimanded for creating a poor working relationship due to the conflicting interests, especially between the board members and CEOs.
The clash, it emerged, was caused by procurement interest, with Koskei asking board chairpersons why they were making more calls to heads of procurement than the chief executives.
“I receive many reports from CEOs saying now my chairman wants Sh100,00 every weekend, or I have been forced to create a tour but I don’t have money, then you ask yourself where are these pending bills coming from, it is through corruption,” Mr Koskei said giving examples after another of corruption in the public service including a recent one where some chief executive tried to entice him with a project that he was meant to give his friends who ‘keep disturbing him.’
“Let us stop this thing, and the president has pronounced himself to the extent that he has given three options,” he added.
After a seemingly faulty start where those accused of corruption got into government, and cases were dropped a few months after the Kenya Kwanza regime took the mantle of governance, the meeting hinted at an elaborate effort to try and uproot the vice now deeply rooted in civil service.
The government had reportedly issued instructions to all institutions involved in the fight against corruption from the inspector general of state corporation, the Ethics and Anti-corruption commission, the regulatory watchdog institutions, and parliament to muscle up for the impending duel with corruption.
However, the EACC, while launching its strategic plan five days after the huge public servant gathering at Kabete decried poor resourcing to fight corruption.
EACC chief executive Twalib Mbarak said while there was quite some vibe around the fight against corruption , the resources to do it remained scarce.
“We have seen the president’s office take the need to combat corruption and address the audit queries, which we appreciate because decisive action has been the missing link in the war against corruption. One way of addressing this issue of corruption is to strengthen institutions. We are approved for 1,500 approved staff, but we only have 790, and in the last four years, our budget has not been increased to recruit more,” the EACC boss said.
His Chairman, Bishop David Oginde, was candid about hyped talk about fighting corruption without necessarily joining the war.
Bishop Oginde, who has only been in office for four months, said he had ‘come face to face with corruption, which had been given many names in government.
“I have made some troubling observations in the last four months because I wonder why we sing about corruption as a country but don’t seem to want to do anything about it. Some of them speak very loudly on why we should fight corruption; sometimes they are people we have their file on, and I wonder, should we start with you?” Bishop Oginde said to the amusement of those in attendance.
He said corrupt senior state officials use impunity to remain in office after being caught in graft and remain corrupt due to greed even after amassing wealth they cannot utilize in their lives.
So deep is the vice in government that even the Prime cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi, the chief guest at the event, admitted to having been confronted by corruption while sitting in his new office.
“I confidently speak to this because I have been a victim while setting up the office of the Prime cabinet Secretary,” Mr Mudavadi said.
His offices at the Kenya Railways headquarters are still being renovated, and it remains unclear whether he was referring to the tender linked to the renovation-related procurements.
Some parastatal chiefs, it merged, had refused to go on leave for fear of leaving any chance that may expose their corrupt practices. After the meeting, a circular had to be issued instructing those who had accumulated the leave days to proceed on leave immediately.
Some would go for more than a year if they were to redeem their forfeited leave days, a move Koskei said was suspicious, and that went against succession planning.
“Can we attempt to be professionals? Why should someone, for example, have 200 leave days not taken? Why, where is the problem? There are people here who, if you are told to leave now, you will be out for two years. Why are you sticking in that office? These are corruption indicators; what are you sticking around there for?” he asked.
The circular issued a day after the meeting also removed the possibility of converting leave days to money, a move Koskei said was ‘funding corruption and inefficiency.
Why are these people coming to your office? Chairpersons, please understand that your hands should be off at the board level, but your nose alert; don’t burn your hands.
According to Auditor General Nancy Gathungu, procurement-driven corruption is the most deeply rooted.
In the Financial year ending 30th June 2022, Sh5.8 billion was flagged by her office as unsupported expenditures. Ministries and Departments could not account for Sh 3.2 billion while Sh2.58 of donor-funded projects remained unaccounted.
Corruption is also to blame for the ballooning pending bills that hit Sh 504 billion while stalled projects that had sunk Sh77 billion and stagnated with up to Sh 150 billion.