I was an unwelcome guest but my pact was with Wanjiku

Auditor General Edward Ouko when he appeared before the Senate County Public and Investment Committee at County Hall, Nairobi on 24/04/19. [Boniface Okendo,Standard]

One of the reasons a journalist would prefer a physical interview with Edward Ouko, the former Auditor General, is his affable demeanour.

After almost a year of being away from the public glare, one can’t help wondering whether his signature smile tarries or whether the bitter experiences that marked the latter stages of his tenure have wiped it away.

In his eight-year “cold war” with the executive - a war that was characterised by deep mistrust that at one time saw Ouko claim that his life was under threat - he never stopped smiling, at least not publicly.

Perhaps it only masked his mortal fears and frustrations. Audits, any kind of scrutiny, can be annoying.

It is not just governments and companies that squirm at the sight of an accountant, even in a family unit one of the biggest reasons for divorce cases is about cash and spending.

And this is exactly how the Jubilee government reacted to Ouko’s first audit reports. From there on, it was a bumpy ride for Ouko.

It is a period that left him little time to tend to his personal matters, but now with time on his hands, he is freer to get his retirement plans back on track. 

When this writer called him on Thursday last week requesting an interview, the former top accountant was preparing for a business trip to Mombasa.

“Actually, I was just heading to the airport when you called,” he said but agreed to a video interview later in the evening.  

I rued the missed opportunity that a sit-down with the former employee at the African Development Bank (AfDB) would have afforded me in unravelling the mystery behind his charm.

But Ouko has barely changed; he still wears his broad smile and his clean-shaven head still shines as it did when he first took over office in 2011.

Probably the only thing that has changed is his dressing style.

When his image first flashed on my computer screen during our scheduled interview via Zoom, I could not help noting his casual checked shirt, a sharp departure from his characteristic business suits and ties that many Kenyans were accustomed to during his tenure.

He looked contended, having freed up his mind of the clutter of the numerous audits that had to be done every financial year as per the dictate of the Constitution.

Instead, his personal and family issues have taken up a much bigger space in his diary.

In August last year, Mr Ouko retired as the country’s first Auditor General under the 2010 Constitution, having served his eight-year, non-renewable term in office.

In the one year Ouko has been out of office, the top accountant also did an audit of himself. The verdict is not as colorful as he expected. He admits that he has to fix it.

 “I have realised that during the eight years, I really never devoted much time to myself and, I would say, my family too,” he says.

But you would be forgiven to think that this means he has totally kicked back and settled into retirement.

Far from it, he is still up for that occasional consultancy gig, drawing from his vast connections locally and internationally.  

“Right now, I have got some committees where I sit, and that is very important,” he says.

Our conversation is against the backdrop of the country’s 10th anniversary of the promulgation of the new Constitution, with his former office playing a critical role in catalysing the aspirations of Kenyans in the new social contract.

Kenyans adopted the new Constitution full of optimism on August 27, 2010.

It is this euphoria of optimism that lured Ouko from his prestigious post at Afdb where he had worked in various capacities for 24 years, rising to the vice-presidential level as the bank’s auditor.

His resume is quite rich. He has 30 years’ experience in matters of auditing, accounting and investigations during which he reckons auditors are perceived more as foes than allies even by their employers.

Former Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich dismissed Ouko’s report as unprofessionally done, noting that their own review had shown that no resources were lost.

“The National Treasury… would not like to see the annual audit exercise reduced to a ritual for tainting the integrity of public offices and a national executive committed to good governance,” said Rotich on the claim that Sh66.8 billion from the 2013/14 budget was spent irregularly.

This was one of the many run-ins that Ouko had with the executive, a relationship that he reckons has remained cold up to this day. 

“Up to now, I am still not seen as a friend,” he says of the government.

“I don’t think it is the President or something like that, I think it is…” then he chuckles loudly, “...what you people call the deep system…. I didn’t know this word until the other day.”

He goes on: “What do you call it by the way?”  

I tell him the deep state. “Yes, deep state,” he says.

I ask him if it is the same deep state that wanted him out of office in 2017.

He had been accused of corruption and abuse of office, including hiring largely from his ethnic community, with a parliamentary inquest recommending that a tribunal be set up even as he stepped aside.

“Oh, my God!” he quips, taking in a deep breath.

“You know this job… it has built me. So I am very grateful,” he says, adding that it has been the most fulfilling of his long-spanning career.

“You know I was working with the hurdle of what you call a deep state. Yeah, and it was not easy.”

Born of Dr William and Martha Ouko, Eddie, as he was popularly known, was a quiet introspective child who often kept the peace among his five siblings.

He attended the then Prince of Wales School, today Nairobi School, from where he proceeded to the University of Nairobi, graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce in Finance and Accounting degree.

Before he joined AfDB, he worked for Deloitte, Haskins and Sells in London.

Ouko says working with the public service gave him an opportunity to give back to society.

Through this job, he adds, he was also able to relive “the aspirations of Kenyans through the new Constitution.”

But this journey was never “the smooth and thrilling German highway.”

Instead, it was the typical “Kenyan Bundu (wild) way,” he says.   

His woes, he says, started with his first audit report of the last financial year (2012/13) under the coalition government just before Jubilee Party swept into power.

At this point, his face contorts with fresh excitement, his voice rises as he repeatedly jabs at my image on the screen as he explains how the new Constitution created a new “Kenyan.”

“It is not a new system we are talking about, a Kenyan who was clear about their aspirations and a Kenyan who wanted to break away from the past, to remould himself, but when we promulgated the Constitution in 2010, you became a different YOU,” he says pointing at his screen.

“Your aspirations, expectations---you express it in the Constitution.”

For the first time, he noted, the government and every system were to work for you.

“Everything had to be done for you; everything had to be done to make you comfortable—to bring YOU health, to bring YOU education, to bring everything for you.”

As a new Auditor General, unlike those before him who worked for the unitary system, he says, he had to carry out his mandate along with the aspirations of “Wanjiku.”

“I was auditing under a completely different system,” he explains.

“In the other system, you had a unitary government: A government which controlled what you can eat right up to the village.” 

The new Constitution did away with a centralised government, dicing up Kenya into 47 administrative units as it sought to push more power and resources closer to the people. Armed with this idealism, Ouko embarked on his first audit for the fiscal year ending June 2013.

The verdict against President Mwai Kibaki’s last public spending was harsh.

More than a third of the Sh930 billion that had been spent could not be accounted for. That means that about Sh303 billion “can be regarded as not having been properly accounted for,” he said at the time.

But this was expected of the first audits. They had to be harsh.  “Because, for the first time in keeping with Chapter 4 of the Constitution on Bill of Rights, you had to answer the question: Is the shilling delivering to the people?”

Even as he released the national government’s scorecard, he warned about the county governments’, which were formed the following year.

The harsh verdict sent a chill down the spine of the Jubilee government that was just coming into power.

 “That (harsh verdict) is where my wars and everything came from,” says Ouko in retrospect.

The elections of 2013, he remembers, polarised the system completely.

“And therefore in the government at that time, which came with devolution, by the way, I was not a welcome guest.” He reckons this stems from the fact that the Jubilee administration controlled everything from the executive up to Parliament.  

“What you call the tyranny of numbers,” says Ouko

He remembers weathering a lot of hurdles. He had in the past dealt with international politics, but this was no longer what he was used to, it was realpolitik.

“The two environments were quite different. Because in the other environment (at AfDB), you can say there was civility, a bit of diplomacy and everything, but in Kenya, it is a mixture of rudeness, a mixture of ethnicity, a mixture of partisanship,” he explains.

When he released the audit report for the 2013/14 financial year in 2015, there was a storm.

Ouko would not have chosen the worst time to unleash his damning report, which showed that about a quarter of the country’s Sh1.6 trillion budget could not be adequately accounted for.

It was just a few days after the former US President Barack Obama had lectured Kenyans in a speech at Kasarani on the acidic effects of corruption.

Obama cited a study that showed corruption costs Kenyans 250,000 jobs every year -- because every shilling that’s paid as a bribe “could be put into the pocket of somebody who’s actually doing an honest day’s work.” 

As Ouko had predicted, county governments, came in with their own gangsterism. Acquiring wheelbarrows and opening Facebook pages for the new county governments cost millions.  

He would henceforth be, in his own words, “a thorn in development.”

He admits that there were well experienced and professional State officials in the executive.

But they differed on how they perceived things, resulting in a lot of mistrust.

“To me, I slept easy, I slept calmly because I was doing the right thing. My conscious was very clear. So the problem maybe was their conscience.”

He insists that while his audits never targeted anyone, the presidential system made it appear like his actions were targeting the President.

And indeed, there were a number of clashes with the Head of State, the highlight being the Sh250 billion Eurobond that was raised in 2015.  

In May 2016, Ouko told members of the National Assembly that forensic auditors would visit London and New York the following month to collect data from international banks that handled the controversial transaction.

President Uhuru Kenyatta flared up. “When you say that the Eurobond money was stolen and stashed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are you telling me that the Kenyan government and the United States have colluded?” posed a furious Kenyatta at an anti-corruption summit at State House.

“Who’s is stupid here? And he (Mr Ouko) says he wants to investigate the Federal Reserve Bank of New York,” he added while pointing a finger at Ouko. According to Ouko, the presidential system is not amenable to a seriously independent office of the Auditor General.

Auditing the president

“The reason why I say that is that the current constitution, as it is, and as it has been implemented, makes the President the major auditee, so to speak,” he says even as he proposes for a mixed parliamentary system in which the head of state and government are distinct.

“Because the President is the head of the executive, so you are literally auditing the President directly.”

He proposes the Auditor General sit in Parliament as an ex-officio MP allowing him to directly interrogate the executive on previous expenditure before fresh funds are released.

As the interview comes to close, one can’t help but reflect on a quote by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, who famously said: “Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”

And when he allegedly received death threats, Ouko says he smiled them off. But for his family, as he put it in a TV interview, the fear was real. In a public lecture last year, he said of how his wife had warned him about the job.

But in the middle of all these battle, the former chief auditor has one big regret.

Not being able to meet the President  to shed more light on the insides of his audit findings and that it was nothing personal.

“I really feel my biggest disappointment was the executive never saw me as as an ally."

He believes the executive should give the Auditor General a confidential audience where he or she could explain to the president the true position of the government’s financial health.

“If I only I had the support of the apex (President) of the executive, things would have been different,” regretted Ouko.