For Ongeri, less sin equals no sin
Poor Prof Sam Ongeri, it must be awkward to be asked to stand aside so investigations can be launched over the disappearance of money at his ministry.
For a few months since the scandal was unearthed, the Education minister put on a brave face on things, at one point waving off reports of a scam as euphoria that was coming from nowhere and heading nowhere.
At first, the lost sum from the Ministry of Education’s Free Primary Education kitty was Sh100 million. After preliminary investigations, Ongeri gleefully said the actual figure was ‘only’ Sh91 million.
So after Prime Minister Raila Odinga asked him to step aside on Friday, it was not hard to notice that Ongeri was ill-prepared to accept that it had come to that. Bristling with rage, he read a statement later that day that rang hollow, only betraying the fruit of experience of the Kanu days where graft, patronage and feigned ignorance was a way of life. In fact, he did not deny that money had been lost.
All he read in calls to step aside were political shadows fighting him. As if to say, if he had sinned, he was a less sinner than others.
Perhaps if Ongeri had chosen measured silence instead of the braggadocio, he might have minimised the public backlash that is weighing on him. Ongeri’s paranoia and pain is borne out of the feeling that he is the only one outed.
The unspoken word is that so many of those men and women in the Cabinet and top civil servants have their noses in the trough, why single him out?
Think of the Anglo Leasing scandal, the maize scandal, the fuel scandal, the hate cleric Al Faisal saga, the disappearance of IDP resettlement cash and the lopsided procurement systems and you sympathise with Ongeri.
Ongeri’s supposed transgressions may be insignificant when you think of the costs incurred because an Immigration officer looked the other way as the man on an international terror watch list strolled into the country. Immigration minister Otieno Kajwang’ should have walked the plank. And that is why many of Raila’s adversaries chide him (the PM) in secret that he should not be the first to cast the stone.
No doubt, the actions of a few top public servants are not beyond reproach. Ongeri could have kept his nose clean, yet he may be culpable by virtue of his position. Or what can he say about the school in his Nyaribari Masaba constituency that got half of all the cash allocations at the ministry?
What rankles is Ongeri’s (and his Permanent Secretary Prof Karega Mutahi’s) sense of entitlement and a false sense of victimhood.
On trial here is the invidious nature of corruption, the cupidity of our politicians and how when cornered, politicians cry foul. In truth, politicians and other public servants aspire high office less because they want to improve the lives of the people, than because it is a chance to a make a quick shilling. Also, Ongeri knows that he serves certain narrow political interests.
A Kanu member, Ongeri obviously knows the benefits of making oblique references to the attritional proxy war between his chairman, Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila. Yet his naivety risks dredging up the grotesque thieving ways of his party.
The question is whether taking responsibility for wrong doing in ones docket implies guilt. Or is it a measure taken to salve that associated guilt?
As long as there is no clear way of disciplining real or perceived skullduggery, the drive against corruption in the country is a lost game. Obviously, no one expects President Kibaki to do anything.
Unless pricked by conscience and unable to hold back the tide of public rage that is building up, Ongeri will remain a minister.
Rather than sack or repudiate his ministers, Kibaki never sees nor hears any evil. That is expected and the threat is that the fiasco could degenerate into a full strife ‘civil war’ in the Cabinet.
President Kibaki’s (and Raila’s) Cabinet is made up of sheep and goats and the usual suspects are taking that annoyingly familiar script. The fight against corruption should not be a political contest or a popularity stunt or an opportunity to undermine one another, is the common refrain now. The words between the lines is evident.
To the politicians caught with their fingers at the till, one more siren call for accountability quickly blurs into the familiar "our tribe is under attack" war cry.
One might want to ask; who suffers when public officials engage in sleaze? The nation, wrote The Times of London, that inherits the future will have a young well-educated population.
It is not that we care so much about Ongeri’s political life. It is because of the cost the bilking at the ministry will do to the state of education in the country.
So when money meant to educate our future leaders is stolen, the thieves don’t do it in the name of Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Kisii or Luo. As it is now, Ongeri could be holding back a burst dam using his fingers.
The writer is The Standard’s Foreign News Editor.
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