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Opinion & Analysis

We must start utilising Ombudsman office

Acting Ombudsman Regina Mwatha. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Acting Ombudsman Regina Mwatha. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Sometimes, in all the noise, we overlook just how profoundly and how extensively our 2010 Constitution has changed lives for the better, ordinary people’s lives, through wrongs averted, new systems put in place, and new initiatives taken.

In this, if there is one office we have failed to understand completely for its power to help individuals, it is surely the Office of the Ombudsman.

This office, with its rather moderate budget and 40 full-time lawyers, exists to defend citizen’s rights in their dealings with public offices, complete with the capacity to rule and resolve.

Which makes for some phenomenal recourse.

Indeed, the office, also known as the Commission on Administrative Justice, claims to settle 87 per cent of the claims taken to it, nowadays in their hundreds of thousands.

Many of the complaints are about slow passports or national IDs, or poor treatment by the police. But its remit stretches to every public interface, be it at government or county level and that can be transformatory.

For public maladministration or injustice can really mess with people’s lives.

Indeed, perhaps the worst case I ever saw was a tiny piece of disinterest by the University of Nairobi that saw one medical student, many years ago now, lose a year of his life on an administrative foul.

A clever student, as all medical students tend to be, he had sailed through his first three years of study. Medical degrees then see students study three subjects, each for three months, before they sit their final exams and get a three-month break. For each three-month specialism, they work in the relevant hospital ward.

But as that student approached his full-year finals, he caught pneumonia, from a baby he treated in the paediatric ward. The Sunday before his exams started on the Monday, he was himself admitted to hospital. He didn’t sit his finals: he was on a drip.

Students who fail just one exam of the three in the finals get a chance to redo it in the final quarter. In his case, University of Nairobi said he could sit all three of the exams he had missed in the year-end resits. But at that point he moved into an administrative no-man’s land.

The resit rules allow only one resit a year, and require working in the ward again to up the grades. But he was doing three ‘resits’ of exams he had never failed. He passed the three exams, but two of the subjects failed him for not working full-time in those wards.

University of Nairobi never had to explain how this student had gained 48 hours (or even 72 hours) in each 24 on becoming an exceptional three-resits student.

The university simply had no facility for a medical student missing the whole set of exams, and pushed him into a different system, which then automatically failed him for not being in two or more places at once.

The result was he had to sit the entire year a second time – it took him 15 months to move on from that one-week of pneumonia, and a journey through a burning sense of injustice.

However, the Constitution now requires fair administrative action as well as an entitlement to written reasons for such actions.

And seeing that fairness applied is what the Ombudsman does, from five offices across the country and 12 in Huduma centres. Anyone can walk in. It costs nothing.

The office has the power to adjudicate and enforce. Indeed, it has found so many gaps and breaches that it has issued more than 50 advisories in its first five years, many of them advising public officers everywhere on fair administration versus maladministration.

It’s an amazing facility. It only rests on all of us to complain when public service falls short of all reason: and get better service.

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