Anxiety grips ICT sector as purge on Uhuru men intensifies

John Ngumi. He resigned as chairman of the Safaricom board last week. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Last week's resignation of John Ngumi as chairman of the Safaricom board is the latest in the purge of former President Uhuru Kenyatta's men from key positions in the lucrative ICT sector.

Ngumi replaced the telco's long-serving chairman Michael Joseph five months ago, with his appointment to the role just weeks before the last General Election giving one of Uhuru's staunchest corporate allies a vantage point at the leading telecommunications firm.

Just weeks before his appointment, the retired President had reappointed Ngumi as the chairman of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation, ICDC for a three-year term and named him chairman of a committee on reforms in the energy sector.

However, as President William Ruto settles into office, several high-profile appointees of the former president like Ngumi are slowly leaving their positions, some resigning and others opting not to renew their terms.

Last month, Gilbert Kibe resigned as the chairman of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) just seven months after being appointed to the influential role. Kibe's abrupt resignation was seen by some as a calculated move to avoid a humiliating sack.

He previously served as director general of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) at a time the State agency was engaged in a property dispute with Weston Hotel, a property associated with President Ruto.

In the property dispute, KCAA was claiming compensation, arguing the land the hotel is built on is public.

Ruto has named Mary Wambui as Kibe's replacement. Wambui made headlines in December 2021 when police raided the Weston Hotel in a failed bid to arrest her for skipping court in a Sh2.2 billion tax evasion case.

The Postmaster General and CEO of the Postal Corporation of Kenya (PCK) Dan Kagwe is also set to leave office in the coming months.

While his second and final term was due to lapse in March this year, PCK has already kicked off the process of finding his replacement, with another of President Ruto's loyalists expected to take his place.

In his inaugural speech after winning the 2022 presidential election, Ruto was keen to placate civil servants, politicians and business leaders who did not anticipate his win that his administration would be all-inclusive with no room for victimisation or revenge.

"There is no room for vengeance, there is no room for looking back, we are looking into the future," said the President during his acceptance speech on August 15.

"I am aware that our country is at a stage where we need all hands on deck to move it forward," he added.

However, in the election campaigns, the President and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua made it clear that one of their priority, if elected, would be to root out "state capture" - a shadowy network of cartels and cronies said to lead corruption and impunity at government agencies to enrich themselves.

When asked why he had not yet established a commission of inquiry into state capture in the first 30 days as he had promised in his campaign, Ruto last week admitted that the process was more complicated than first anticipated.

"The events of August 15 were horrible and even the military had been roped into that menace of denying the will of the people," the President told journalists during a televised question-and-answer session in Nairobi's State House.

"That story of state capture will be done another day. We'll establish the commission one day but where we are now as a country, I have to balance," he said. "I have to go slow on certain things to allow the country to get out of the mess we are in."

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the value of ICT output stood at Sh566 billion in 2021, a 6.9 per cent increase from Sh530 billion in 2020.

The sector is a leading driver of foreign direct investment to Kenya and is also one of the growing sources of tax revenues to the Exchequer.

Ruto is keen to make ICT transformation one of his legacy projects and has already directed that all public services and records be digitised by June this year.

"You will be surprised to learn that just 15 per cent of all government services are digitised. That is why there are a lot of leakages everywhere," said the President last week.

"I have been forced to change the system of collecting revenue because we are collecting just 60 per cent, money that is the government's right to collect, but we are only managing 60 per cent because of leakages," he said.

Already, the President has successfully pushed for the reduction of charges on mobile loans from the main platforms and supervised the launch of the government's Hustler Fund mobile lending platform.

Industry stakeholders are now anxiously waiting to see which other interventions the new administration will buttress in the ICT sector.

Top on the to-do list extolled by both Ruto and Gachagua is breaking up the region's largest telecommunication service provider Safaricom, which the two termed monopolistic and predatory to low-income earners.

"Effective immediately after forming government, the administration will seek the break-up of Safaricom Ltd into two distinct and separate business entities with a mobile telecommunications institution under the direct jurisdiction of the Communications Authority and the financial institution firmly under the jurisdiction of the Central Bank of Kenya," explains the Kenya Kwanza manifesto.

The ruling coalition had pledged to construct 100,000 kilometres of fibre optic cable, boosting the country's current capacity tenfold, as well as establishing an Africa Regional Hub for software development for export.

It also promised to reduce the cost of calls and mobile data. The government plans to raise Sh40 billion through the Universal Service Fund (USF) to finance its ICT infrastructure plan.

Last year, former ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru unveiled the government's plan to spend Sh585 billion in the ICT sector over the next 10 years.

The Kenya National Digital Master Plan 2022-32 shows Sh17.3 billion of the ambitious budget is required this year alone for the digitisation of government records and building IT infrastructure.

According to the plan, Sh5 billion will be spent on the digitisation of five billion government records by 2023 as well as Sh800 million on a digital skill gaps survey across 10 sectors.

The bulk of the expenditure (Sh405 billion) will, however, go towards the building of infrastructure such as fibre broadband rollout, new data centres and community networks.

As part of the infrastructure development, Sh1 billion will be spent by 2023 to create a redundancy gateway for The East African Marine Submarine Cable (TEAMS) and another Sh500 million to upgrade its capacity to 100 gigabits per second (Gbps).

The plan also promises to install 25,000 internet hotspots in rural areas and other public places with Sh17 billion budgeted for 4500km of fibre for the Nairobi metropolitan area by 2024.

All these mean lucrative tenders up for grabs for both multinational and local ICT firms.

President Uhuru Kenyatta made road and rail infrastructure his rallying call, deploying hundreds of billions of shillings in the past 10 years to put up several mega projects.

His successor is keen to do the same with the ICT sector.

Purging his predecessor's appointees and replacing them with his loyalists gives the president a firm hand in driving his agenda.

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