NGUGI: Recall of old people has nothing to do with economy but loyalty, patronage

Sunday November 3 2019

Francis Muthaura

KRA Board chairman Francis Muthaura speaks during the launch of the KRA Tax Payers Month and Customer Service Week on October 1, 2018. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION 

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President Uhuru Kenyatta’s appointment of Mary Wambui, a 70-year-old retiree, to head the National Employment Authority (NEA) has sparked outrage among young Kenyans.

Their argument is that the appointment of a person her age to head such a crucial agency contradicts the Jubilee government’s much-vaunted intention to create jobs for the youth. A younger person, they say, would be more in tune with the challenges facing the youth.

For me, the problem is not the age of Wambui or the other septuagenarians and octogenarians who have been appointed to key government positions.

After all, there are men and women around the world who have accomplished great things in their 70s or 80s.

Nelson Mandela, while in his 70s, stewarded South Africa across racial, tribal and political minefields and left a country with a strong foundation for social and economic development.

We also know of scientists who have won Nobel Prizes while in their 70s. The problem is that these people being fished from retirement—even in the prime of their working life—showed no brilliance or exemplary commitment to duty, did not establish a work ethic in their departments that went beyond the call of duty and possessed no exceptional leadership skills.


They were just mediocre bureaucrats who maintained the dysfunctional status quo. Or they were ‘‘tenderprenuers’’ whose talent was to know which side of their bread was buttered.

If, for example, 73-year-old Francis Muthaura, chairman of the Kenya Revenue Authority, had transformed the civil service to be as efficient as that of South Korea, everyone would be lauding his being recalled from retirement.

The sad fact, however, is that, until serious crackdown on corruption began a while ago, lethargy and corruption characterised the Kenya Civil Service.

The spectacular rise of the Tiger economies of East Asia was due to strategic thinking. Strategic thinking answers two key questions: (1) What do we need to do to get to a certain level of development in so many years? (2) What kind of persons do we need to put in charge of the processes that will get us there?
Accordingly, the Asian Tigers set themselves the goal of catching up with Europe within a single generation. Then they determined which sectors they needed to focus on and then appointed their most brilliant, committed, creative and innovative citizens to be in charge of those sectors.

Economists refer to the 60s, 70s, 80s and part of the 90s in Africa as the lost decades.

For the dictatorships that took power at Independence and their successor regimes, development was not really on the agenda. The only agenda was longevity of the regimes. The questions were: (1) What do I need to do to stay in power? (2) Who do I put in charge of the processes that will help me retain power?

Thus projects were undertaken that had nothing to do with facilitation of economic growth but everything to do with consolidation of power. Jobs in government departments were dished out to cronies and supporters, no matter their intellectual or moral decrepitude.

The only requirement was total loyalty to the president. In Kenya, for instance, a person could bankrupt a monopoly parastatal and still be appointed to head another.

Presidential trips to Europe had no function except to reward loyalists who took the opportunity to shop. By the 1990s, some of the richest people in the world were African presidents, their families and cronies, while the poorest countries in the world remained those in Africa.

At the turn of this century, governments in Africa began to make development the raison d’être of governance. This was due to several factors.

First, there was an enlightened citizenry who had begun to demand better services. Second, growing democracy was demanding governments for the people, not for the leaders.

Third, there was pressure from the international community and organisations, hitherto silenced by colonial guilt, for accountable government. Lastly, those in power began to understand that state failure was detrimental to their interests and those of their children.

—Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.