Ex-Tourism CS Balala, 16 others charged over Sh10 billion project

Former Tourism Permanent Secretary Leah Gwiyo and former Tourism CS Najib Balala before Malindi Chief Magistrates court on Friday, December 21, 2023. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

Former Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala has been charged with graft in connection with the tender for construction of the Sh10.4 billion Ronald Ngala Utalii College (RNUC) in Kilifi County.

After a dramatic arrest in the wee hours of Friday, Balala was airlifted to Malindi, where he was charged alongside his former Principal Secretary, Leah Gwiyo.

Mr Balala and 16 other suspects allegedly inflated the cost of the project from Sh1.95 billion to Sh10.4 billion and paid a consultancy firm Sh4 billion for services that were not delivered.

In the charge sheet, the prosecution claims that Balala and Ms Gwiyo used their offices to improperly engage four private consultants against a Cabinet decision.

It is alleged that the two engaged Baseline Architects Ltd, Ujenzi Consultants, Armitech Consulting Engineering, and Westconsult Consulting Engineering, against the advice of the Cabinet.

The service, according to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), led to irregular payment of over Sh3.4 billion, to the said firms in respect to request for proposal number CIDLT/003/2011-2012 for consultancy services.

It is stated that the firms were to offer the design, documentation, supervision, and contract management of the proposed RNUC.

Balala and Gwiyo pleaded not guilty to one out of the ten accounts in the charge sheet prepared over the loss of funds in the Sh8.5 billion, billed as the Jubilee flagship project.

RNUC, whose construction started in 2010, has been under multiple probes by state agencies and committees of the National Assembly and Senate.

Its imposing architectural structures sit on a 50-acre parcel of land overlooking the magnificent Vipingo Beach, Kilifi County.

Parliamentary reports indicate that the construction and completion of the project were delayed by lack of funding and the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted the first phase of construction.

In a dramatic turn of events, Balala and two other suspects were yesterday nabbed by EACC in connection with the project.

The other suspect arrested yesterday is Joseph Odero, the Managing Partner of West Consult Engineers. The three denied the charges before Malindi Chief Magistrate Joseph Mwaniki.

Balala and his co-accused were represented by lawyers Mohamed Balala, Maurice Kilonzo and Lucky Mnyazi, while the DDP was Joseph Mwangi.

“On December 13, 2010, within Mombasa County, the Minister and PS respectively in the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife jointly used their offices to improperly confer a benefit to baseline Architects Limited Ujenzi consultants, Armitech consulting engineering and West consult consulting Engineers by resolving to engage private consultants against a cabinet decision which led to the irregular payment of Sh3.368,494,779.63 paid to the said firms,” stated the charge sheet.

The court heard that the payment was reportedly done in respect of a request for proposal number CDTLT/003/2011-2012 for consultancy services for the design documentation supervision and contract management of the proposed Ronald Ngala Utalii College (RNUC).

Balala was released on a Sh5 million bond or Sh1 million cash bail after pleading not guilty to one count of 10 counts of alleged corruption. Gwiyo and 82-year-old Joseph Odero were released on a Sh3 million bond with a surety of a similar amount or Sh800,000 cash bail.

“The court is alive that the provision of bail or bond was not meant to keep an accused person in custody until the terms are determined in a lengthy process or until his innocence is proven. It is the finding of the accused persons I s flight risk and that there are no aggravating factors to call for harsh bail of bond irrespective of the amount in question,” ruled Mwaniki.

The court also issued a summons for those suspects still at large and set the case for mention on December 28.

They are Mr Allan Wafula Chenane, former Chief Executive Officer of Tourism Fund, and Ms Flora Ngina Ngonze, the former ICT Manager of Tourism Fund.

The EACC has also directed 11 other suspects, not arrested yesterday to report to its headquarters or regional offices for processing.

They include Mr Joseph Rotich Cherutoi, the former CEO of Tourism Fund, Mr Morris Njue, the Director of Baseline Architects Limited and Mr Dominic Motanya, the Managing Director of Baseline Architects.

Others are Mr Rebman Malala, the Director of Ujenzi Consultant, Mr James Mwangi Wairagu, the Director of Amitech Consulting Engineers, Mr Eden Odhiambo, the former Director of Strategy and Resources of Tourism Fund, Ms Ruth Sande, the former Standard Development Manager of Tourism Fund, Mr Joseph Karanja Ndungu, the former Procurement Manager of Tourism Fund, Mr George Muya Njoroge, the former Senior Levey Inspector of Tourism Fund, and Ms Norah Muku.

The prosecution asked the magistrate to issue a summons against the other suspects who were not in court yesterday. EACC also alleges that the suspects bypassed the Ministry of Public Works and hired Baseline Consortium, a private firm, to design and supervise the construction of the college at an exorbitant fee.

The watchdog agency says it has completed its investigations and submitted its report to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), who has agreed with its recommendations to prosecute the suspects. The anti-graft agency has vowed to pursue the recovery of the public funds lost in the scam.

The Ronald Ngala Utalii College, which was to be a branch of the Kenya Utalii College, was approved by the Cabinet in 2007 but has not been completed to date.