Why Kebs hot seat remains a nightmare for appointees

Kenya Bureau of Standards Managing Director Charles Ongwae in the dock at a Miliman court on 25/6/2018. [George Njunge, Standard]

The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) - a critical agency in the country - seems to have become a transitory house for CEOs.

Its revolving doors have been fast to open super opportunities for top bosses as well as enhance their early exit - leaving a trail of fractured corporate careers.

The personnel at the standards body are charged with setting standards for every product consumed in the country.

They also inspect products to ensure businesses and individuals adhere to these standards. In real terms, they hold the lives of Kenyans in their hands as they certify products meant for human and animal consumption. It is, therefore, possible that the country could perish if they fail in their duty.

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The job, however, appears to be too hot for anyone to handle.

The agency has for years struggled to retain a chief executive and every one of them is hounded out the office before their term ends. Over the last 10 years, none of the occupants of the agency’s corner office has been able to hold the job for the entire three-year term that is renewable.

This trend is being seen in the men and women who have been appointed in an interim capacity following the exit of Charles Ongwae last year, with Kebs now on its third acting managing director in one year.

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Mr Ongwae joined Kebs in 2014 from Barclays Bank Uganda where he was the managing .director. The position is currently held by Bernard Njiraini, appointed in June in an acting capacity.

He replaced Bernard Nguyo who had also been in an acting capacity. Before Nguyo, Moses Ikiara, also the chief executive at Kenya Investments Authority (KenInvest), had been appointed in acting capacity too but found having two CEO jobs too taxing for him. The turnover among the acting CEOs goes to show how unattractive the top job has become.

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Although the frequent changes may be avoiding a scenario where the acting manager is kept in the seat for far too long, it could be that the seat is too hot to handle for many.

There is also the possibility of loaded interests that have been pushing for the appointment of certain candidates. Mr Ikiara noted that holding two MD jobs was too much for him, saying that juggling the two was “becoming too hard for me to handle”.

The current acting MD Bernard Njiraini too has another day job, where he is the boss of the Numerical Machining Complex (NMC).

The high turnover is despite critical issues that Kebs is going through at the moment, including a probe by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations following the alleged importation of poisonous sugar and fertiliser as well as the fight it has been having with small-scale traders whose goods are stuck at the Mombasa port.

It also has to deal with numerous instances of substandard goods that are imported or locally manufactured as well as the use of poisonous preservatives in food. Its current management, however, says it is well equipped to handle imports as well as undertake policing of local manufacturers to ensure they meet set standards and ensure only quality goods come into the market.

In addition to its mechanisms that include market surveillance and Pre-Export Verification of Conformity (PVoC), there is a multi-agency task force created to fight illicit trade in the country.

“The State Government put in a lot of emphasis to ensure substandard and counterfeit goods are not coming into the country,” said Njiraini in a recent interview.

Kebs has now started looking for a new managing director to replace Ongwae, who together with nine other senior officials, were indicted on the importation of sub-standard sugar suspected to have been contaminated with mercury and copper.

Among the requirements that the requirement for candidates is having to pass the integrity clauses in the Constitution. Kebs had early in February this year advertised for the position.

It had to re-advertise it in July, an indication that the earlier call may not have attracted enough personnel or even the right applicants. Kebs has experienced more than a decade of MDs being kicked out of office, with the late Kioko Mang’eli starting off what has been a tumultuous decade for MDs hounded out of office.

He was sacked in 2009. Mang’eli had been at the helm of the agency longer than many of his predecessors and even those who came after him. He left the standards body on allegations of illegal hiring and corruption, as well as a faking of a payslip to justify his high pay.

Mr Mang’eli was replaced by Joel Kioko in an acting capacity before Joseph Koskey was appointed as a substantive MD.

Koskey, however, did not last long and was sacked in 2011, a  year after his appointment.

He was succeeded by Eva Oduor in January 2012 who would in August 2013 be fired over the award of a Sh1.3 billion tender for the construction of Kebs’ offices and laboratories in Mombasa.

The tender was later cancelled but a report by the Auditor General would later note that the contract had been awarded irregularly and its termination was also done illegally.

She was replaced by Charles Gichahi in an interim capacity, and in January 2014, Ongwae took over the management of the agency in a substantive capacity.

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Kenya Bureau of Standards