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Chaos looms as the Chamber of Commerce prepares for elections

By | March 9th 2010 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By John Njiraini

It is most probably the only building that does not house any Government offices but enjoys full Administration Police (AP) protection.

Forget the fact that Ufanisi House is an old, dilapidated and neglected building; when entering it, one is met by heavily armed APs who uncompromisingly want to know the purpose of your visit.

Though in normal Government offices this would pass as the regular security checks, at Ufanisi House the presence of APs tells a totally different tale.

This is because the building houses the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), a body better known for leadership wrangles than its core mandate of protecting and developing the interest of the business community.

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Ufanisi house in Nairobi. The building houses the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and enjoys full Administration Police protection. Photo: File/Standard

Besides, this is a building that has become notorious for sometimes violent confrontations among groups that lay claim as the bona fide officials.

In fact, only last week, officials from the Kitui branch protested loudly as they demanded the national office set the date for elections that are due next month.

In a country where the private sector has been flourishing in recent years and foreign investors are flocking in, the Chamber has been missing in action, although it is supposed to be on the forefront on this arena.

Badly damaged

"Our reputation has been badly damaged by the constant leadership wrangles," admitted Chief Executive, Titus Ruhiu, in an interview with The Financial Journal.

Ruhiu, a long serving boss, is feeling the strain of leading the secretariat of a radar-less body, and is now considering calling it quits.

But the hope for a new constitution is making him postpone his move.

"I have been trying to bring all the stakeholders on the discussion table so that we can draft a new constitution. All the problems that face the chamber are caused by a bad constitution," he stated.

But the move is proving to be an uphill task. This is because the warring factions, one led by David Githere, and another by city businessman, Kiprono Kittony, do not see eye to eye.

Though, over the past three years, the Githere group has been in charge of operations of the chamber, albeit amidst disruptions occasioned by court cases, the Kittony faction has not given them any peace.

"There are about six court cases still pending, although some have been overtaken by events," said Ruhiu.

He added that the Chamber only resumed normal operations in August last year, after lifting of a court order that was filed by the Kittony faction.

In the past eight months, the chamber has paid employees their salaries, after working without pay for the better part of last year. It has also been able to renew the membership of many businesses and brought on board other businesses.

According to Ruhiu, the membership has increased from 4,000 in December last year, to 10,000 by end of February. Every member pays an annual fee of Sh10,000.

And although in 2005, the then Trade Minister, Mukhisa Kituyi, withdrew the mandate of issuing the certificate of origin from KNCCI, and transferred it to the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), the chamber is still issuing about 70 per cent of the certificates to exporters, because some countries do not recognize Kebs.

Issues certificates

Of the few countries that recognise the Kebs certificate, only Pakistan, where a lot of Kenyan tea is exported, has embraced it fully.

By issuing the certificate, and charging a fee of 0.025 per cent of the invoice value, KNCCI is able to run its day-to-day operations. The income is supplemented by rent from Ufanisi House, which it owns and has survived grabbing attempts.

KNCCI is anchored in several memorandum of understandings with various chambers, including India, Canadian and Chinese, to help promote trade and investment between Kenya and these countries.

For Ruhiu, the efforts to give the Chamber a new constitution before the elections are held have kept him busy.

Sometime last year, together with the then Trade PS, Cyrus Njiru, he initiated a process to have the constitution changed, with a key proposal of creating regional chambers that will have affiliation to the national chamber.

The move was believed to be the only solution to wrangles, besides creating bodies that would serve the business community effectively at the regional level.

Another proposal was to clearly define the qualifications for the various board positions, something that would inject professionalism in the running of the chamber.

Constitutional review

Though Ruhiu was able to secure Sh4 million in funding from donors for the constitution review process, the transfer of Njiru from Trade to Transport threw the process off track, and the current Trade PS, Abdulrazaq Adan Ali, has shown little enthusiasm in mid-wifing the process, despite numerous letters by KNCCI addressed to him.

"We need an independent person to create harmony among all interested parties and move the process ahead," said Ruhiu.

While the memories of a hugely divisive and bitterly contested election in April 2007 are still fresh in the minds of many, the Chamber is gearing for another round of confrontation, as it prepares for elections next month, a process that is most likely to take place under the current constitution.

According to the current constitution, elected officials are mandated to hold office for two terms of three years each.

However, loopholes in the transition clauses, and the fact that all registered members have a right to vote, have been abused by some to cling to power.

The Githere faction, for instance, which took over in 2001 as a caretaker committee, has remained in office beyond the stipulated timeframe.

"The current constitution has been abused as people seeking positions recruit touts and pay for their membership fee so that they can vote for them," explained Ruhiu.

He added that if elections are called under the current constitution, wrangles will be unavoidable.

Besides gathering information, the Chamber used to link local businesses with their international counterparts, and would organise exhibitions where local businesses would showcase their products, both locally and internationally.

But as leadership wrangles seem far from over, the local business community can only curse the lost opportunities.

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chaos elections National Chamber of Commerce and Industry KNCCI APs Kebs
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