Ukur Yatani: 26 minutes to trouble for former Treasury Cabinet Secretary


Former Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Ukur Yatani. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

Ukur Yatani, the embattled former Cabinet Secretary for Treasury, loves his camels.

Mr Yatani told this writer in September last year as he prepared to hand over to Prof Njuguna Ndungu that for him just being around the camels is therapeutic.

Bogged down by a busy schedule during the four years that he had been in charge of the country’s coffers, the former Governor for Marsabit County would often be estranged from his animals. He, therefore, missed his camels and could not wait to be reunited with them in Marsabit.

He was probably in Marsabit last week—in the company of his camels— when he learnt about the allegations by Controller of Budget Margaret Nyakang’o that he coerced her to controversially approve some payments amounting to Sh15 billion just four days before the last General Election.

Read: Uhuru Kenyatta's Sh32bn last budget discrepancy

The next day, a seemingly shell-shocked Mr Yatani came out charging like a bull. He insisted that not only did Dr Nyakang’o approve these payments on her own volition, but she also signed off some new spending by the incoming administration amounting Sh127.5 billion under Article 223 of the Constitution.

“This begs the question: What makes this approval of Sh15 billion ‘sneaky’ and that of the Sh127.5 billion before Parliament and mostly under the current government legitimate?” wondered Mr Yatani.

Article 223 allows the Treasury to spend on emergencies without the approval of the Parliament within two months after the expenditure.

“Use of Article 223 is constitutional; it is not an illegality. After the spending you write to Parliament telling them to regularise,” said Mr Yatani, adding that these expenditures had also been sanctioned by the National Security Council and the Cabinet.

Mr Yatani, who said he was considering legal action against Dr Nyakang’o, also sought to exonerate himself from blame for any misappropriation of public funds.

“Once approval is given, money is paid to ministries. How they spend and how they account for it is not my business,” he said.

Ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) through their respective accounting officers, who are the principal secretaries, account to the Controller of Budget and the Auditor-General. The latter two in turn answer to Parliament.

The new Constitution and the Public Finance Management Act of 2012 gives powers to the National Assembly in the budget-making process, making the clash between the Treasury and the independent offices such as the Controller of Budget and Auditor General inevitable.

Payments Mr Yatani said he had approved under Article 223 for the current administration include the Sh12 billion for the Hustler Fund, fertiliser and fuel subsidy.

Another payment that he approved under the same law just after the elections was Sh500 million for the office of Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.

Mr Gachagua had reportedly requisitioned for Sh1.6 billion for cars, travel and refreshments as well as activities related to his wife’s office. Mr Yatani denied him Sh1 billion, citing a lack of funds.

But Mr Yatani should have seen this coming having served in an office that is somewhat jinxed and no one quite sits pretty.

His predecessor was hounded out of the office and taken to court for allegedly flouting procurement procedures in awarding a contract worth over Sh51 billion for the construction of two dams in Elgeyo Marakwet County to a bankrupt Italian company CMC de Ravenna.

Indeed, save for a few individuals like former President Mwai Kibaki, the longest-serving finance minister, most individuals that have been tasked with overseeing the country’s coffers in that role have barely lasted three years.

And their exits have been steeped in controversies, including major scandals such as Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing.

Second, President William Ruto campaigned on the platform of repairing an economy that he believed had been battered by years of elitist policies that favoured a few well-connected individuals and businesses by, for example, exclusively offering them tax exemptions.

According to the Ruto camp these skewed policies that favoured ‘dynasties’ at the expense of millions of ‘hustlers’, widened the gap between the rich and the poor.

Mr Gachagua likes lamenting that the Kenya Kwanza government inherited empty coffers at the government’s bank account at the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK).

Read: Yatani budget exposes Fuliza economy

But nothing could have prepared Mr Yatani for the dramatic nature of the accusations by Dr Nyakang’o, with the controller of budget tabling a copy of a confidential conversation between her and the former Treasury boss in which the latter several times invoked the name of former President Uhuru Kenyatta to push her to approve the payments.

The conversation — which occurred on August 4, 2022 at 3.34 p.m. — shows an apparently panicked Mr Yatani asking Dr Nyakang’o to facilitate approvals for infrastructure ministry amounting to Sh8 billion and Sh2 billion failure to which Mr Kenyatta himself would intervene.

“He’s just called and I assured him that I have spoken to you and you promised before the end of the day. HE (Mr Kenyatta) might even call you if we don’t deal with this by 4 p.m,” Mr Yatani told Dr Nyakang’o between 3.33 pm and 3.34 pm

An equally panicked Dr Nyakang’o responded: “Are you saying we have 26 minutes to complete the process? The timing requires up to tomorrow as I am still out of the office.”

On August 5, the Controller of Budget approved a series of payments, including three tranches of payments worth Sh9.95 billion to the State Department for Infrastructure and a Sh6.01 billion deal that saw the Treasury acquire a 60 percent stake in Telkom Kenya from a UK-based private equity fund, Helios Investment Partners.

Only time will tell if this dark cloud will pass and allow Mr Yatani to continue keeping the company of his camels in peace.

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