Ideas & Debate

Does Covid-19 circus mean we have lost war on graft?


Health CS Mutahi Kagwe. FILE PHOTO | NMG

It was inevitable that our long standing “bad spending” hydra would infest and infect Kenya’s difficult Covid-19 moment. As a colleague mused on a WhatsApp group of public policy professionals of which I am a member, “these are no longer predictions we make and take credit for having great wisdom…it’s expectation…(and indeed) the low probability prediction (would be) if everything was done right”.

On Monday August 31, in a virtual conference on “County Governments’ Resilience in the Covid-19 Era” hosted by the Council of Governors, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the Ministry of Health to create a digital platform system that publicises Covid-19 procurement details including tender values, evaluation and bid awardees given current heat and light over all that is happening at the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (Kemsa). Using a real Gregorian calendar, we’ll have this platform by October 1.

One of the conference’s 15 resolutions is a promise to “strengthen accountability and actively fight corruption” in two ways. First, through the aforementioned open government portal to publicise tenders on both national and county government websites. Second, through improved coordination of oversight in Parliament (between National Assembly and Senate) and investigations across anti-corruption agencies). None of the resolutions from this “meet-up” have an active deadline.

Is our war on graft and waste headed anywhere? Let’s broadly review this #Covidmillionaires moment - as the emerging scandal around pricey or non-functional Kemsa procurement is now titled.

Beginning with the President’s previous orders and announcements. Two years ago, public agencies were directed to make their monthly procurement transactions open and transparent through reporting every 15th day of the following month. The directive, like many others, has been ignored in the main.

Further, the directive cleverly excluded “works or services in essential utilities, procurement arising from the declaration of a national emergency or national disaster, and procurement of a classified nature as prescribed by law and low value threshold procurement”. Does essential utilities equal services, hence Ministry of Health? Isn’t Covid-19 a national emergency? PR announcement this time around, or what?

A week ago, the President interestingly directed investigating agencies to complete Covid-19 investigations within 21 days, by September 16. These are agencies that are supposed to work independently, under nobody’s direction or control. In any event, these investigations should be done before we expect pubs to reopen and sports to restart at the next curfew review on September 25.

Question One. Is this yet another “mnataka nifanye nini?” (what do you want me to do?) PR moment?

Coordination is where the real nightmare begins. Sample the following. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission(EACC) began investigations around June, and was reported in the press in July announcing a “massive scandal that will shock the nation”. Then we watched #Covidmillionaires on TV. And Parliament swung into action.

In the Senate, an ad-hoc committee on Covid-19 - who began with interesting legal and institutional proposals for pandemic management in the long-term - demanded financial reports from the Controller of Budget (which we are reading about) and a forensic audit from the Auditor-General by September 4. Somehow, the committee on health joined in, and we now have a joint committee examining national and county expenditure. Some suggest the Senate should stick to its core county business.

In the National Assembly, the committee on health is busy interrogating Ministry of Health and Kemsa big wigs, while the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) separately wants its own forensic audit from the Auditor-General by October 25. Meanwhile, the Public Investments Committee insists on jurisdictional oversight over Kemsa; and PAC sticking to the parent Ministry (of which Kemsa is a big part).

Question Two: Is parliament’s “Covid-19 fog of inquiry” deliberately clouding our war on graft?

Let’s continue. We don’t know what the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) is up to in this case. We haven’t heard from the Internal Auditor-General or the Ministry of Health’s Internal Audit unit. Oh, and where’s the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority and the Inspector of State Corporations? Does the once-dreaded Efficiency Monitoring Unit still exist?

Multi-agency, you say? Ok, let’s wait for the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Asset Recovery Agency to join the party at some stage. And I thought our National Intelligence Service was supposed to “review all cartels, especially those in the public system of budgeting, procurement, regulation and illegal rigging of markets….(for the) DCI then DPP to confront” as the President directed in his 2020 New Year address to Kenyans.

Question Three: Is Covid-19 the untiring camel of graft that’s breaking Kenya’s multi-agency back?

Finally, like all high crime and murder, our attention has quickly shifted to the tedious and the tangential. Here’s the point. Technically, if Kenya was really committed to running a truly “results for people”-inspired public finance management (PFM) system (policy-planning-budgeting-implementation (including procurement)-reporting-accountability) that worked in normal and emergency times, our apparently politically-correct #Covidmillionaires wouldn’t be so massively box-office.

Without working PFM, and between directives, dates, diversion and drama, this movie seems over. The next one’s probably already cast, and in production. As they say, “Coming soon to a screen near you(?)”