How to address tribalism and political patronage in public service

Head of Public Service and Chief of Staff Felix Koskei. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

This week's High Court ruling declared Kenya Revenue Authority's (KRA) recruitment of 1,406 revenue service assistants unconstitutional as it favoured two ethnic communities.

Later in the week, the Head of Public Service, Felix Koskei, claimed that nepotism and corruption are rampant in county recruitment, leading to the hiring unqualified individuals. These statements come after the National Dialogue Committee (Nadco) was established to hold talks, receive public views, and prepare a report to promote national unity and inclusivity in public appointments, among other things.

The report, which the National Assembly has now adopted, has no concrete recommendations on national unity and equity issues in public service hiring. Most of the hoopla is on creating the office of the Official Leader of the Opposition, Prime Cabinet Secretary and institutionalisation of the National Government Constituency Development Fund (NCDF) and other funds for senators and women representatives.

Kenya has a history of ethnic divisions and exclusion in government positions. Hiring based on ethnicity, tribe, party, or family ties has been a challenge since colonial times. Kenya has taken steps to ensure that its public service is inclusive and representative of the diverse communities in the country.

The Constitution has laid the foundation for this, with Article 232 stating that the public service should be representative of all communities in Kenya. Article 10 also obligates public institutions to promote inclusiveness, non-discrimination and protection of vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Devolution has also helped to distribute resources and employment opportunities to the 47 county governments, ensuring some level of equality. Due to historical biases, the Constitution requires regional balance in the hiring of police officers to avoid officers coming from one region.

However, despite these efforts, reports indicate that tribalism, nepotism and other vices are still prevalent in the country, including in the public service. Statutory institutions such as the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) have the power to monitor and investigate ethnicity, discrimination, and inclusivity issues. Reports by NCIC consistently show ethnic disparities in hiring across most facets of the public service.

To address this, the Constitution calls for extraordinary measures, including affirmative action, to provide marginalised groups with exceptional employment opportunities. Article 27 4(d) prohibits discrimination on any grounds, while Article 27(6) obligates the State to take measures, including affirmative action programmes and policies designed to redress any difficulties individuals or groups suffer because of past discrimination.

The Kenya Public Service must comprise employees from diverse ethnic communities and groups, including over 42 ethnic groups, various races, marginalised and minority groups and communities. Promoting national unity must involve recognising and respecting Kenya's cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity and concerted efforts to include all communities in governance and decision-making.

However, political patronage, nepotism, and tribalism still influence appointments, undermining the principles of inclusivity and meritocracy. To promote inclusivity and diversity in public appointments, enforcement mechanisms and institutions like the NCIC and Public Service Commission (PSC) must be strengthened to bite beyond issuing periodical reports that continue to show a deterioration of the situation.

Furthermore, political leaders and parties must embrace inclusivity as a core principle and promote it during elections and government appointments. There is also a need for public awareness campaigns to educate citizens on the importance of inclusivity, diversity, and national unity in governance.

Finally, regional and ethnic balance must be included in government performance contracting as an accountability and enforcement measure. This means that a CEO or Head of Human Resources should not be able to get a contract renewal or promotion if the state of regional balance is worse than they left it in the reporting period.

 Demas Kiprono is AG Executive Director – ICJ Kenya