(Rtd) Colonel Cyrus Oguna is the Government Spokesman. He fields questions about how hot the seat is, why half-truths are necessary and ways a strict military man deals with casual civil servants.
Why do governments find it easy to lie and deny obvious truths?
Government pronouncements are made to preserve public interest. Before an announcement on any issue is made, its potential impact must be considered. If by stating things as they are may jeopardize public safety and national security, a way must be found of passing the same message, perhaps only providing half-truths to buy time for an opportune time during which the whole truth can be released. The idea of buying time creates an opportunity for the nation to build resilience to deal with the big announcement that may not be so pleasant. This is not really lying, but rather putting the interest of the country first. After all, this is why governments exist.
What happens when a situation arises where you have to tell a well-meaning lie in perfectly good faith?
In government, there will be many different situations that require responses. However, before a response is offered, I have to conduct a mental analysis to determine the impact of that response. The cardinal point of consideration is always public good. Every response must as a matter of principle give hope, reassure and build the confidence of the public. In such situations, I will not lie in the true meaning of the word, but only give certain items of information that the public can easily process without causing panic or too much anxiety. It is the responsibility of the government to instill confidence in its people, and make the people acknowledge that even if things may not look so good today, there is good chance they will be better tomorrow. This cannot happen for a government that is notorious with lies.
A lawyer can plead insanity to save a client caught lying. A similar line of defense cannot be entered on behalf of a government that has been caught lying. What would you say?
A government does not lie and shouldn’t lie to its own. However, there are certain items of information that may be deliberately kept away from the public to allow government to undertake certain operations.
Past attempts by the government at public relations during crises have been shambolic. You seem to be doing just fine. What are you doing differently?
There is nothing I am doing differently. It is the work environment that has changed to my advantage. The whole-of-government approach to conducting government business has really helped in making data more available. It is therefore easier for me to get support and data from any ministry. This type of model was non-existent during the days of my predecessors. The ease with which I get data and the support may give the impression I am more organised, while the truth is that the government is increasingly getting more organised unlike before.
Yours is a high voltage job, are there moments when you scratch your head and wish you were not on the hot seat?
It is indeed a challenging position, particularly due to fluidity of issues. However, like any situation, it takes getting used to. Every day is a learning situation and I really never tire to consult and to seek advice from people within and without government. This has made me to scratch my head less. But I cannot remember ever having wished that ‘if only it was someone else’. I believe it is a job which must be done, and at this moment, I am the one doing it.
You once served in the military as KDF Spokesperson and you did a fantastic job. How is it like working with civilians?
Every work environment has its own uniqueness. There are those experiences that only the military can offer, and there is also what can only be found in the civilian world. Being in the civilian world now, I have noticed that everyone wants to learn. My new colleagues want to learn from me and I also want to learn from them. This has made my work within the civil service an exciting one.
There are talks that you were hurriedly pushed out of KDF for being ‘too smart’ during your stint as spokesman. What would you say?
If at all there is any talk like that, I would term it as lazy talk. The military is a profession with clear policies on promotion and retirement. One is made aware of the policies immediately he/she joins. Retirement is something that we are all cultured to prepare for from the very first year. There are very smart officer colleagues who retired as captains, others as majors, Lt Cols and even colonels way ahead of me, yet we were the same cohorts. To have retired at the time I did, which was the right time, I can only be thankful to the military for having allowed me to serve up to this level.
They say once a soldier, always a soldier. Are there times when your military self gets in the way of your new civilian self?
Yes, many times, particularly on project planning, and time keeping. Many a time, I find it difficult to understand how things ‘just happen’. Quite a few times, I have been advised to very quickly ‘unlearn’ certain work ethics and accept to learn ones. However, while the military is methodical on how it executes certain activities, the civilian world is a bit casual and last minute, but in the end, amazingly, both achieve the desired results.
Kenyans were used to seeing you in military fatigue, but now you are a suit man. How has the transition been?
The military did not take away my being Kenyan. The people I interacted with as a military officer are the same ones I am interacting with now that I am a civilian. Certainly there are those who still do not want to believe that I am no longer an active duty military officer. I find this interesting, but it also points to the kind of bond we had established together. I certainly look forward to maintaining the same close and warm relationship even now as civilian.
Why are military hospitals situated outside barracks?
I am yet to see one located outside a barracks. However, in countries with military cantonment, a military hospital may not be within a barracks, but would most likely be within the cantonment.
What is it about military medicine that civilians and even the police are denied access?
There is no special medicine for the military. All government health facilities, of which military hospitals are part of, get their supplies of drugs from contracted pharmaceutical firms. Same firms supply drugs to government central drugs store.
The military is known to thrive on orders. How is it dealing with colleagues in the public service who are not cut from that same military cloth?
Military have orders, and civilians have rules, regulations and procedures. No organisation can function properly without any of these. However, I must admit that there is a bit of a difference in terms of adherence and enforcement, but like I already stated, we are learning from one another. Learning has been aided by the understanding that our goal is one, which can only be achieved if we do not work at cross-purposes and support one another.
I know this sounds silly. But is it true that Swedish diver, Volker Bassen, saw strange beings watching TV under the sea during the Likoni rescue mission. He surely must have told the government?
Underwater visibility at the Likoni ferry was too poor for anyone to see anything. One had to be a ghost to see people watching TV. What Volker shared with the government after coming from under the water was that it was pitch dark, and that he could not even see himself until after he came up above the surface.
You had retired. What do military officers do in retirement considering you can’t establish a private army as a business venture…
KDF prepares its officers to retire early when they are still strong to engage in other activities. The military being a total institution prepares its officers to be many things. There are those who have joined the UN. Others are in lecturing in public universities. There is still a large number that establishes security consulting firms, and still, there are those who just wish to rest and be with their families.