We’re pawns, officer claims after 3-hour vetting ordeal

State says it wants to determine whether officers are corrupt or not. [Courtesy]
Enraged. Betrayed. Humiliated.

That would sum up the feelings of one high ranking procurement officer in a key parastatal after his ordeal at the hands of vetting officials carrying out a presidential directive.

A few days after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Madaraka Day speech where he warned that vetting of a particular cadre of civil servants was in the offing, the Office of the Head of Public Service (OHPS) issued a circular instructing the heads of procurement and accounting units in ministries, agencies, departments and State corporations to step down immediately.

And so after submitting their personal information to the OHPS, which included declaring their assets and liabilities, the officers went home and waited to be summoned for fresh vetting that would determine whether they would get their old jobs back, or whether information dredged up from their past would come back to haunt them.

So when the dreaded call came two months later, an unidentified State operative directed the procurement officer – who sought anonymity to speak freely, so let us use the abbreviation PO – to show up at Harambee House on Monday, July 30 “at 9am sharp with your phone and ID card only.” “It was all over in less than a minute… he gave no room for any questions,” said PO.

On Monday, PO showed up at the gates of Harambee House as requested.

Security checks

“There were a dozen or two of us waiting at the gate. We went through the usual security checks… removed keys and phones and coins and metallic objects in our pockets. Little was said between us as we waited for the unknown.”

Little time was spent on the queue as the officers were swiftly ushered into the building. “You could sense that they wanted us to spend as little time as possible there. Perhaps because the job ahead was crucial or perhaps not to create suspicion from passers-by.”

They were directed into a meeting room that could hold about 20 people.

“After being held here for about 10 minutes, someone walked in and without introducing himself, asked us to surrender our phones.” Shortly thereafter, they were asked to walk to the parking lot where there were 7-seater custom-built Toyota Land Cruisers. “The ones used to ferry tourists. I boarded one of those,” said PO. Inside the car, they were handed blindfolds.

“As we drove off, one couldn’t miss the heavy feeling of fear and panic. There was silence and only the purring of the engine,” PO recollected.

“Here we were, senior Government officials, being led blindly to a place we had the least clue about. Were we being taken to a torture chamber?”

Outside the vehicle, life went on. “You could feel the hustle and bustle of the city.” In PO’s mind, myriad thoughts swirled. The trip evoked memories of what he had read about the ominous renditions to Guantanamo Bay – the notorious American detention centre used to hold suspected terrorists.

“What if something happened? I thought about my family; my wife, my kids, everything. What would happen to them? “Gosh, I didn’t even tell the kids where I was going. They just know that I have been staying at home, which is unusual,” PO said with a rueful smile

There was a silver lining, though, to the looming dark clouds. “At least they have given me time to spend with family,” PO consoled himself as the vehicle navigated busy city traffic. “But thoughts of the suspense about my career and life… imagining all that distinguishes the good feeling, but yes, it is good to spend time with family considering how much I put in daily for nearly 20 years for the Government.”

The biggest mistake it seems, PO said, was to work for the Government. Which employer does this to its employees? The drive was not long and they were driven into a compound (perhaps two to five acres) where a huge bungalow stood. With the blindfolds off, each of the officials was ushered into separate rooms. “Like sheep to the slaughter,” PO wryly said. In the house was a huge spacious kitchen “where somebody was cooking… I could smell the aroma of cooking food; mandazi, beef or something like that. It was delicious but then I knew I couldn’t get a bite.” Perhaps it was a tactic to play with their senses. They would never know.

“I waited for nearly half an hour before somebody walked in. There was no introduction. Of course he knew my name – just the usual niceties of ‘sasa, sema’.”

Impersonal interrogation

The man had a folder with him, which for the next three hours – interrupted only by the incessant telephone calls he kept receiving – was the focus of the interrogation. “He asked me where I worked and what I did where I worked. As if he didn’t already know.”

During a lull as his interrogator talked on phone, PO got an inkling of what was happening in an adjoining room.

“I think I heard someone break down. It was too much unless you are very strong mentally.” Back to PO’s session. “They had done a good background check on me. The folder contained all my financial dealings, including bank and M-Pesa transactions from my number. Give it to them; they were accurate. They even picked mundane things like airtime purchased.”

Although they had been asked by the OHPS to make six-month declarations on their personal information, including those of their spouses and next of kin, the interrogator possessed information that went further back. In fact, PO had forgotten some transactions brought forth during the session.

PO spoke of an impersonal interrogation characterised by impatience when he seemed to take long to answer certain questions. There were threats couched in reminders that he could easily end up in the hands of the CID “like the Kenya Power bosses whose homes were stormed in night raids as police arrested them last month”.

“He did all he could to squeeze out every detail from me,” PO said, adding that he was told he would be taken through a polygraph test. For some reason, that didn’t happen. After what seemed like an interminable grilling, the officials were taken back to the car. This time they were not asked to wear the blindfolds. It was on the drive back to the city that they realised they had been taken to Loresho, an upmarket estate on the outskirts of Nairobi.

“We were driven back to Harambee House. For those outside, life went on. They looked unperturbed oblivious of what was going on inside the luxurious tourist van driving by.

“We couldn’t wait to be reunited with our phones. We were running for the exit… you could sense a feeling of defiance,” PO said, adding that he desperately needed to call his wife to tell her about the harrowing ordeal.

So what does PO think about the whole ordeal? And will the subterfuge achieve much in the fight to eradicate corruption?

“Does it mean that the NIS, the police and the CID have no clue what goes on across the country?” If they did, we wouldn’t be put through this… honestly. “They are paid billions, which they don’t account for by the way, to collect intel across the country. Don’t they share such information?” PO wondered. He continued: “It should be easy to flag it when a Government official buys off their neighbours and goes on to put up a huge complex in the name of a home. If they want, they can catch the thieves.

“It is a shame we are victimising everyone because of a few characters.”

PO was not finished. “By the way, those big tenders are never given to small men. They are given to the families and friends of the big people. This is all PR. If you want to finish corruption, start up there in the Executive and in Parliament.”

PO felt they were being used as a pawns in a dangerous political game.

“A lot of us believe so. I pity my country. “And by the way, if this goes on, I don’t want to work for Government. Many of my colleagues feel the same way.” He saw a situation where staff would go to the office and pretend to work, just to get by. “There will be no one to make those hard decisions. It just doesn’t work anymore.

“As we were handed back our phones, there were no send-off words… no warnings of if you talk, we will come for you… nothing. We were just told to go and wait for further communication. “As we had come, we walked individually into the early afternoon city rush. No one had a clue where we had come from or where we were headed.”

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