CS James Macharia: Man whose policies always ignite feud

Starting the fire and retreating appears to be the legacy that the CS has perfected since he assumed the reigns at the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development in 2015, a fairly heavy docket considering he has five PSs under him. [File, Standard]
James Wainaina Macharia, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, is a man under siege.

To some people, the former Cabinet Secretary for Health sounds experimental at the helm of, perhaps the country’s most powerful ministry.

To others - more so his critics, they just don’t understand why he still retains a high State office. 

Last week, lawyer Donald Kipkorir in an ‘open letter’ to President Uhuru Kenyatta asked the head of State to sack the CS, citing many instances where he has blundered.

 “Dismiss Hon Macharia with immediate effect and let him be investigated for possible corrupt motives in all the above commissions and omissions…” said Kipkorir.

“His modus operandi cannot be accidental.”

CS Macharia’s critics such as Kipkorir might be right. They reckon that if the CS, who previously headed the scandal-ridden Ministry of Health, is not clueless, then he is arrogant or simply idealistic. Could he be all these things combined?

When confronted with the many accusations levelled against him through a text message and phone call, the CS failed to respond to our questions.

The former banker doesn’t cut the image of a ‘bulldozer’ like his Ministry of Interior counterpart Fred Matiang’i but that has not stopped him from unsuccessfully pushing through half-cooked policy decisions such as the implementation of the Housing Development Levy and Kenya Airways-Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) deal that raised a public storm.

Others are the Bus Rapid Transit system and the GreenPark terminal at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and the ban on entry of vehicles into the CBD area.

If the splotch of eggs were to be left on people’s faces every time they embarrassingly failed or blundered, Macharia’s would be among the thickest.  

There are reports that the former banker struck a deal with Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) before he brazenly announced that workers would start being deducted 1.5 per cent of their basic salary towards the National Housing Development Fund.

But the accountant failed to account for other players in this matrix, including employers who were also going to contribute the same percentage towards President Uhuru Kenyatta’s affordable housing programme.

This is not an oversight that can sit well with a CS - who heads a portfolio with five Principal Secretaries and a host of advisors under his call and beckon.

But CS Macharia is the same person who branded striking workers of the KAA ‘criminals’ when they disrupted flights at the region’s aviation hub.

“It is unfortunate and those 30 or so members of KAWU will have to answer… that is malice and economic sabotage and will not be tolerated. It is criminal activity and that is why you found security agencies here and have managed to chase away everybody that was causing trouble,” he said.

Kenyans would have forgiven him if this was just one of those rare gaffes professionals make once in a while. But Macharia’s every deed and word seems to court controversy, jumping from blunder to the other. 

The man who is supposed to lay the ground for the attainment of the country’s grandest development blueprint, thinks obeying a court order are trifles that can be sacrificed for the bigger good - the goal of transforming Kenya into a newly industrialised middle-income country by providing a high quality of life to citizens by 2030.

Unfortunately, he just does not seem to bear the magic wand that would transform walkways into highways or quite villages into bustling cities - not without leaving behind a trail of chaos. Everything he touches brews trouble.

His strong critics believe he is neither good in realpolitik nor diplomacy. Otherwise, he would have known that a little assertiveness and a bit of negotiation is perhaps all that was needed to get employers to start remitting money to the Housing Levy Fund starting next month.

Instead, his long career as banker which saw him sit at many negotiation tables for long hours, as bankers are accustomed to doing - especially those in the C-suite, could have been his undoing.  

Unlike in the corporate sector where the pecking order is clearly spelt out and almost all team members are expected to always be in agreement with the boss, things can be quite different in Government.

The man in the dusty streets of Kibera slums sometimes gets to veto the decision of the big boss in a spacious, air-conditioned, well-decorated office. Analysts say it just depends on how well you play your cards in a game of politics.

Mr Macharia, realising that he had the Government machinery on his side, opted for the more combative method reminiscent of his days in the C-Suite of Standard Chartered Bank as well as NIC Bank.

He published a directive on Tuesday last week requiring all companies to remit the levy to the Kenya Revenue Authority - deductions from their employees together with the employers’ contribution for the housing kitty by May 9, and on every ninth day of the month after that.

The opposition came in fast and furious. The Kenya Federation of Employers (FKE), which had been a party to a suit rejecting the levy and had earlier this year, gotten court orders stopping the Government collecting the housing levy fees, termed the directive illegal.

Kenyans felt slighted by the Sh10,000 fine or a two-year jail term against those who misuse funds from the multi-billion kitty terming it a slap on the wrist.

The State Department of Housing and Urban Development expects to collect a juicy Sh57 billion annually from the levy.

The Ministry’s explanation that the case had been withdrawn two weeks earlier, following a deal between the Ministry and Cotu, only added fuel to simmering embers. FKE, who insist had been in the dark about the consent, said the public notice was illegal.

The CS and his team will have to retreat and strategise how to implement the Housing Levy.

And starting the fire and retreating appears to be the legacy that the CS has perfected since he assumed the reigns at the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development in 2015 whose total development budget in the current financial year is Sh97 billion, nearly a third of the total national Government’s development budget.

The five State departments have so far shared Sh68 billion amongst themselves.

There are numerous times when Mr Macharia has had to shelve a major plan owing to public outcry.

This is the latest in a series of events that betray the clumsiness with which the CS has been running his docket.

Some of these proposals have been said to have disruptive capabilities and work beautifully in other cities globally.

But their implementation locally was criticised as having not gone through a clear thought process.

Perhaps because most of his policy decisions are after-thoughts: In the age of smart transport, Macharia designs a road without space for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane.

And when the few times he has dissected these roads for BRT, he has managed to create an engineering eyesore. 

Then in February this year, knowing too well the country’s shambolic transport system, he announced for the introduction of car-free days on Wednesdays and Fridays, kicking off an outcry among thousands of Nairobi commuters.

His Ministry was forced to again withdraw the plan to ban motorised traffic in parts of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) on certain days of the week.

Small traders

In the pilot phase that was scheduled to begin February 1, motorists would be barred from Harambee and Moi Avenues and City Hall Way.

In their place would be small traders, who would get to exhibit and sell their wares on these streets.

Its implementation was however hurried and presented possible logistical nightmares of epic proportions for the authorities, businesses and individual Kenyans.

It was however put on hold a few days before the February 1 pilot phase. The plans were hatched by the Transport Ministry together with City Hall, the latter having miserably failed in getting matatus out of the CBD a few months earlier that resulted in traffic snarl-ups that lasted deep into the night.

One of the factors that led to the failure of Macharia’s (and to an extent Governor Mike Sonko’s) car-free days in Nairobi is the absence of reliable public transportation industry.

The Bus Rapid Transit system would have played part in addressing this.

And the Ministry had been gearing for the implementation of such as system but appears to have stalled, only leaving segments of Nairobi roads with what one columnist termed as ‘lipstick’ in reference to the red lanes that were designated for the BRT buses.

The Ministry, of course under the leadership Macharia, had said it was importing some 67 high capacity buses from South Africa.

This was despite local vehicle assembly capabilities, with the local industry claiming that it supplied Dar es Salaam with its fleet of BRT buses.

The bid to import also makes nonsense of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda – with manufacturing as among the core areas of focus.

Either way, the public never got to see the buses while the ministry has been mum about the amount it spent on their acquisition.

Another instance pointing to a situation where Mr Macharia’s Ministry is seemingly running on an autopilot basis was a threat by Public Service Vehicle operators to withdraw their services as the Ministry sought strict enforcement of rules governing the industry.

In November last year, the Transport Ministry said it would act tough with matatu operators that were flouting the so-called Michuki Rules.

The operators fought back making to an extent lame arguments that they needed time to be compliant with the regulations that have been in place for more than a decade now.

One would have expected that CS Macharia, with the law and even the public long harassed by matatu crews on his side, would reign on the rogue elements in the critical sector.

Instead, it was his cabinet colleague Fred Matiang’i that was more prominent in his stern cautions to the PSV players that they must stick to the rules that were not new but the Government had slackened in ensuring compliance.

While the security apparatus has a critical role to play in getting the industry to comply, the transport sector squarely falls under the Ministry that derives its name from the industry – Transport.

Mr Macharia had also lobbied for KAA to take over the JKIA at the Cabinet level and even getting the nod from the Executive.

This saw one of the key disruptions pitting KAA workers and the management that led to halting of flights for about seven hours.

He is, however, bowing to public pressure and recently told Parliament that following the concerns of a broke airline taking over a profitable JKIA, Government was now considering other alternatives that would achieve the same result of a stable and vibrant local aviation sector.

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James Wainaina MachariaTransport Ministry