Curious case of Bomet's Barchok and perils of 'revenge' in politics

Dr Hillary Barchok. He is scheming to sack county employees who did not support his re-election bid. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard] 

A worrying trend is cropping up – that of some governors operating beyond their powers and seem to get away with it.  

This perhaps stems from the larger muddle around how the executive, assembly and the other cogs in the county wheel should coexist in service delivery.   

The disastrous truth is that we now have some governors who have become larger than life. They have reduced county employees to mere spectators or receptacles for all manner of orders.

Devolution did not envisage instances where county bosses would dictate to employees what to think, say or do with their constitutional rights.

Ideally, counties and the central government should be the first places to uphold Kenyans’ inalienable rights, including that of making political choices. It should worry us when offcuts of autocracy posing as modern-day change agents seek to reinvent the will.

And now, a dark cloud hangs over Bomet County where Governor Hillary Barchok is scheming to sack county employees who did not support his re-election bid. The county chief has, on the face of it, taken it personal. His firing spree will target staff already profiled. In a month, they will all be receiving termination letters.

You would think Barchok, a PhD holder, has no appreciation of Article 38 of the Constitution that gives Kenyans –Bomet County workers included – the right to make political choices. He could be taking a wrecking ball to some of the finest norms of devolved power. That’s not how great leaders operate.

To him, it is payback! He will subdue his targets for a ‘crime’ he calls sabotage. In his own words, “you will discover who Barchok is… things will not be the same again.” The big man bug has bitten the former lecturer.

“These are not stories; they (some county employees) were talking openly of how they were going to issue me with a (quit) notice on the ballot in August. Those are the kind of workers whose employment will be terminated... And we will recruit others who have shown trust in my leadership,” Barchok told workers at a charged post-election meeting in Bomet.

On the chopping board are chief officers, directors and section heads believed to have supported CCM leader Isaac Ruto, the man Prof Barchok recently visited and gleefully tweeted: “Wishing Isaac Ruto godspeed as he recovers at home.” If he cares for Ruto, why target his supporters?

The literal implication of the governor’s sack threats is that he is averse to the contrary opinion. Prof Barchok should be told point-blank that he should serve the interests of Bomet residents unconditionally no matter how they voted on August 9. It’s called leadership.

Great leaders, like Mwai Kibaki, handled critics with a level head. They don’t allow emotions to decide their actions. In any case, they see criticism as an avenue for improvement and self-reflection, not the lazy route to vengeance. If I were Barchok, I would be a powerful positive trendsetter in whom rivals find irresistible incentives to adopt focused behaviour. I would use positive actions to win trust. It’s that simple.  

That’s not to say lethargy should go unpunished. If there are workers who underperformed or who were engaged in malpractices in the health sector as the governor says, let them be subjected to disciplinary procedures through which their fate can be sealed after being given a chance to be heard.     

Devolutions is destined for bigger things. It shouldn’t be stifled by pride and populism. In Isiolo, Governor Abdi Guyo and County Secretary Ahmed Galgalo have clashed over a controversial sack order. Galgalo has stayed put, saying he will go nowhere until his term ends in November unless the governor gives solid grounds for sacking him.

We’ve seen hospital bills waived in Nyandarua and impounded motorbikes released in Nairobi where mkokotenis have been granted a through-pass into town, same as Nakuru where matatus have been allowed back into the CBD.

Populism is no panacea for county problems. Let governors train their guns on the corrupt and incompetent, not innocent workers whose ‘sin’ is to vote for whomever they want. They should not create scapegoats to fire employees. Unlawful firings and ill-advised decrees will only open a floodgate of suits.

Section 30(2) of the County Governments Act stipulates the functions of the governor. Hubris, vengeance and arrogance of power aren’t one of them. Leaders should be reminded that the law is not asleep. It will protect the meek.

Devolution has transformed some counties but is a faraway reality in others. While growth indicators like infrastructure, trade, production and investments are shaping up in some areas, quality of life in others is pitiable.

Yes, counties can push Kenya’s rebirth but let governors do what’s important. Thomas Jefferson once warned that even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power can, in time, pervert it into tyranny. The fear is more real than imagined.

We need a rule book for county managers. It will assist governors, including Barchok, to understand that they don’t have to punish critics to prove their worth.