Baptism by fire for Kipchumba Murkomen as he takes over Transport docket

Roads, Transport and Public Works Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

It is baptism of fire for Roads, Transport and Public Works Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen as he settles into his new role.

Just weeks after his appointment, Mr Murkomen is leading the ministry through one of the biggest challenges in recent years, with a pilots' strike at the national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ) disrupting flights to different destinations around the world.

The strike, which started on Saturday, has left thousands of passengers stranded at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

Even after holding a closed-door meeting for more than five hours with members of the pilots association on Friday, and more meetings over the weekend, Mr Murkomen who described himself as a hands-on person during his vetting before Parliament, could not persuade the pilots to resume work.

The airline, which is 48.9 percent government-owned, normally does between 60 to 70 flights daily. Several flights were cancelled as Mr Murkomen addressed the press late in the evening on Friday, to appraise the nation on the talks so far.

“I have asked the pilots to reconsider their position because there is a court order in place and the management has expressed its willingness to engage,” he said.

On Saturday, he hardened his stance.

“The strike is unwarranted. The pilots are trying to test the new administration,” he said.

Mr Murkomen asked the pilots to consider the state of the economy, the status of the company and plans the government has put in place to save the loss-making company. But his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Cancellation of flights means hefty fines for the national carrier. There are also additional costs arising from transfer of KQ passengers to other airlines or booking them in city hotels.

The airline has been facing turbulent times but passenger numbers had started going up. KQ flew 2.2 million passengers last year, a 25 percent growth from the previous year, while cargo grew by 29 percent to 63,726. The company was looking forward to increasing the number of passengers and cargo.

In calling for the strike, the pilots through the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) raised four grievances: withdrawal of the staff provident fund, alleged victimisation and harassment of union officials and members at large, none adherence to regulations together with a collective bargaining agreement and leadership and governance issues in the company.

To try to forestall the strike, the company had rushed to court and obtained a temporary order suspending the industrial action, which they had issued October 19.

The airline said it was willing to engage in negotiations with the association but the pilots reportedly called for radical measures in the middle of the talks.

Mr Murkomen had to step in when it was apparent that the pilots would make good their threat.

During the talks, the 43-year-old lawyer wondered why the pilots called the strike when President William Ruto’s administration was settling down.

“The management says it is willing to consider the demands of the pilots and engage in open discussion. But we are wondering why now, when the new government is coming in,” he said.

Mr Murkomen, a holder of Master of Law degrees from Washington College of Law, US and the University of Pretoria, South Africa, took over from James Macharia, who also had to deal with a pilots’ strike.

In 2016, the pilots called a strike and demanded the exit of then airline’s CEO and chairman. They said the airline was suffering under the stewardship of Mbuvi Ngunze as CEO and chairman Dennis Awori.

“With every passing day, it becomes clear that Kenya Airways’ leadership lacks a clear vision, the right synergies and the willpower to lead the airline’s recovery efforts,” the pilots said.

Mr Macharia termed the strike economic sabotage and that Kalpa leadership’s demands were solely driven by “personal gain” without giving dialogue a chance.

This year, the pilots have near-similar grievances, asking for termination of employment of six top executives.

The KQ pilots strike has proved to be a hot potato and it remains to seen how the new Cabinet Secretary will convince the pilots to call of the strike.

Before his appointment to the Cabinet, Mr Murkomen served as a Senator for two terms.

The tough-talking Cabinet Secretary said during his parliamentary vetting that he would make public contract details of the controversial Sh670 billion standard gauge railway (SGR) contract.

The details of the contract have remained opaque despite activists pushing to know whether some national assets were used to guarantee the loans. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration resisted pressure to make SGR contracts public, citing non-disclosure clauses.

“I have spoken to everybody whom I thought was a person of influence in government and privy to the SGR contract but they have said they have never seen the SGR agreement,” Mr Murkomen told the MPs one month ago.

A few days ago, he said he is “almost locating where it is and once I get it I will talk to the majority leader so that they can provide a forum in Parliament through the representatives of the people to present to the people."

As Kenya Airways CEO Allan Kilavuka, appointed two years ago, and Mr Murkomen seek to end the pilots’ strike, Kenyans will also be waiting to see how the government plans to revamp the company, which has been surviving on State bailouts since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The company tapped a US-based advisory firm Seabury Consulting in early February to advise it on financial restructuring and a revival plan amid the losses.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.