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A bold Uhuru would have reshaped public service

By Mark Oloo | November 21st 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta past Deputy President William Ruto during the Mashujaa Day 2021 at Wanguru stadium,Kirinyaga county. [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

A common excuse top public servants make for their fatal mistakes is: “I was never briefed.” The trend has been junior officers get sacrificed when sins of omission and commission come to bear on their bosses. We’ve seen this in many grand rip-offs, where top guns who should take responsibility wash their hands off, proclaim innocence and ‘catwalk’ into being State witnesses.   

But for Prisons boss Wycliffe Ogallo on Wednesday, his fall was instant. President Uhuru Kenyatta kissed him goodbye. In the wake of the Kamiti Prison break where three terror convicts escaped, the man in charge had to go.  

The prison’s purge got Kenyans talking. Uhuru had acted like a bolt of lightning. His action was the opposite of October 2016 when he seemed helpless and poured out his frustrations at a State House summit. “What do you want me to do,” Uhuru asked Kenyans, exasperated by his futile attempts to tame graft.

A more forceful, ruthless and hands-on approach by the President would have been a game-changer in the last nine years of Jubilee.

The swiftness in the Kamiti saga is what we should have been in past scams, including the heist at NYS, the National Cereals and Produce Board, Kenya Power, Kenya Railways and NHIF. In these and many others, nothing really earth-shaking – other than court processes – was seen. Sadly, time has no rewind button and Jubilee risks being remembered more in ignominy. 

There are principles and ethos public officials must espouse. It goes beyond who appointed them and how well-connected. A powerful driver for high public sector performance is the appreciation by managers of public institutions that the buck stops with them. Let’s not reinvent the wheel.  

Personal responsibility is key in public service. It’s what we lack. In some democracies, an Energy minister would resign over a power blackout. In the UK, Health secretary Matt Hancock quit after breaching Covid rules by kissing a colleague. To date, Kenyans have a high regard for John Michuki whose efficiency in the Transport docket was unmatched. At the moment, matatu industry is in the grip of cartels. You would think we are a failed State.

A degree of ruthlessness is required to guard public interest. Let Uhuru go for practical actions based on circumstances. Philosophers call it ruthless pragmatism. In his book ‘The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly’, author Jean Francois Bayart captures it. What ails us is the thinking that doing right isn’t right unless there are direct benefits. After Ogallo, let more heads roll.

The writer is an editor at The Standard and a 2021 RISJ University of Oxford fellow. Twitter: @markoloo 

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