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Key lessons from Ngilu’s ‘censure with consequences’

OPINION
By Kamotho Waiganjo | November 10th 2013

By Kamotho Waiganjo

This weeks’ censure of Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu by the National Assembly, setting the stage for her possible sacking by the House, best exemplifies the shift of power from the Executive to Parliament. In the previous Constitution, the effect of Parliamentary censure of the Executive ultimately depended on the goodwill of the President, who could ignore parliamentary resolutions. That season of Executive contempt for Parliament is clearly dead.

Under our new constitutional framework, not only is the power to hire Cabinet Secretaries shared between the President and the National Assembly, the latter now has power to fire ministers, without the concurrence of the President. It would appear that Ngilu will be the first victim of that expanded power unless the mood of the House changes between now and when a formal resolution for her sacking is brought before the House.

Ngilu’s misfortunes bring to the fore several concerns.

In the first instance is the vexing question whether there is a calculated campaign to cut to size senior members of government who happen to be women. It would be easy to dismiss this concern and argue that the people who commit the alleged misdeeds do so as public officers, not as women, and should, therefore, be treated as such.

Granted, no one should be excused for wrongdoing because of their gender. The question though is whether application of the rules for conduct are gender blind. Allow me to ask a rhetorical question: does anyone seriously believe that Nancy Baraza would have been evicted from office if she were a man? What of Gladys Shollei? Would they instead have been given a soft landing and retained their dignity?

For the avoidance of doubt, let me be clear, I do not ask that public officers be excused from censure because they are women; that would be unconstitutional. I just ask that the same standards, the same indignation and the same punishment be meted to men who commit similar misdeeds.

Unless we are seen to be fair, the perception, for some people the reality, that women are being targeted will keep capable and competent women from applying to join the public service.

The other issue is the conduct of Parliament. In the last few months, there has almost been a deliberate campaign to harass Cabinet Secretaries by parliamentarians. Whether it is the daily summons of Cabinet Secretaries to answer routine questions by unprepared Committees, or the incessant reminders that they can be sacked by MPs, to the recent resolution that disallowed Cabinet Secretaries from flying business class for local flights, Parliament seems to be on the warpath against Cabinet Secretaries.

Some of these actions may just be enthusiasm by MPs testing their new powers but some of it reeks of powerplay, a warning to secretaries that in the new pecking order, MPs are superior. If this is correct, it will no doubt prejudice the legitimacy of the actions that MPs take against the ministers.

But casting aside these questions, the “censure with consequences” action by the House may lead to a revolution in the character of the public service. Traditionally, actions of public servants rarely had personal consequences.

In Cabinet, many secretaries have refused to take responsibility for actions that were carried out under their watch. The Goldenbergs, the Anglo Leasings and similar scandals were carried out under the watch of secretaries.

Parliamentary reports regularly identified some secretaries as being direct beneficiaries of the nefarious schemes. But in a world where impunity was king, no one was brought to account. The effect is a general mistrust of government and an alienated citizenry who themselves look for opportunities to loot from government. The censure on Ngilu, if handled without the poison of politics and gender intolerance allows us an opportunity to retrace our steps to accountability. If that journey starts with the top, the lower echelons of the public service will no doubt follow.

If that happens, Charity’s censure with consequences will be a small sacrifice to pay for the greater good of Kenya.

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