Dam scandal muddies water for Treasury's 'gentleman'

Former Treasury PS Kamau Thugge. FILE PHOTO | NMG

This week will certainly stick in Kamau Thugge’s memory for a very long time if not forever. In under 72 hours he had moved from the comfort of the office of Principal Secretary in-charge of National Treasury, spent a night in a demeaning police cell and later whisked to court as economic crimes suspect.

And that wasn’t all, he lost his job after President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Julius Muia to replace him.

And in the months or even years to come, Dr Thugge will have to endure more misery in the corridors of justice as he attempts to clear his name for alleged involvement in a scandal over the planned construction of Kimwarer and Aror dams in Elgeyo Marakwet.

For those who have worked closely with the “soft-spoken gentleman of the Treasury”, Dr Thugge is a man of few words who sticks to the business at hand and strictly keeps his meetings within 30 minutes.

Those who have known him long before he became the PS seven years ago talk of a fitness enthusiast who would tuck both hands in trouser pockets and walk freely across the city to the Treasury Building in the morning and leave the same way in the evening.

Journalists invariably describe the Johns Hopkins University-educated economist as sagaciously circumspect, a technocrat who frequently drifts to the arcane world of figures to gloss over matters of great public concern.

He would come early for media functions, read the official speech in the diction of a classroom teacher and stop at the last full stop, nothing off the cuff.

His question-and-answer engagements were always curt with the occasional detour to economic indicators. It was an unlikely sight, seeing the often publicity-shy Dr Thugge, together with his boss Henry Rotich go through the legal motions in televised court proceedings.

While Mr Rotich occasionally smiled and even laughed along as lawyers took turns to share jokes during the proceedings, Dr Thugge was pensive and maintained his official look through the court session by occasionally adjusting his lapel and making sure the tie was at its place.

The red-carpeted office 14th floor of the National Treasury Building is now regarded as a crime scene — and out of bounds for him — even after the courts granted him Sh15 million cash bail.

From 2013 when President Kenyatta named him as PS following the elevation of Mr Joseph Kinyua as head of public service, Dr Thugge has enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of both the capital city and Kenya’s entire economy. He has had his fingertips on the pulse of the economy.

Being the top technical man at the National Treasury, all the arms of government regarded him as Kenya’s official penny pincher even though the Constitution has vested immense budget marking powers on MPs.

He goes through the financing requests of all the ministries, departments and state agencies with a tooth comb every budget cycle, often cutting them “back to reality.” He waxes mathematical in defence of his position.

“It is simplistic to argue that we need only Sh27 billion to implement 30 to 60 percent pay rise demanded by teachers,” he once told the Business Daily. “Public service salaries are now harmonised. If you effect that CBA, you must do the same to others public sector workers and our calculation is that together with accrued pension bill and arrears, this is going to cost the taxpayer Sh118 billion.”

He went on: “The choice is simple: either we retain the teacher’s pay at an affordable level or grant their wish and raise VAT from 16 to 22 percent.”

On several occasions, the Business Daily has asked him too about rising concern over untamed borrowing and swelling public debt.

“Debt arises from a deficit,” he said the Treasury worked on the 2016/17 budget. “We are on course to reduce fiscal deficit to six percent. The more you bring down the deficit, the slower the rate of debt accumulation.”

He went ahead to predict that the country’s deficit would fall to 7.2 percent in 2017/18 and 5.7 percent in 2018/19.

Official data shows debt has continued growing despite narrowing the fiscal deficit. Public debt, which at the time was 47 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is now at least 10 percentage points higher. Dr Thugge changed the tune: “We believe that our debt position is sustainable and the International Monetary Fund believes so as well,” he said. “The ratio debt to GDP has both the numerator (debt) and denominator (GDP). Since most of the money borrowed is being spent on development, we expect the denominator to expand faster thereby weakening the numerator.”

On Tuesday, he did not have a chance to get mathematical as the prosecution lawyers accused him together with Mr Rotich of involvement in the multibillion-shilling Kimwarer and Arror dams’ scandal.

The officials have denied 24 charges among them abuse of office, conspiracy to defraud and engaging in a project without planning.

This is not the first time the two officials find themselves in the eye of the storm though. In October 2016, Opposition leader Raila Odinga accused them of failing to account for the proceeds Kenya’s first Eurobond.

A year later, and though as a witness, Dr Thugge was in court in a case where a private firm had claimed to have been contracted to collect revenue from eCitizen users.

Though appearing in court as a witness, he was hard-pressed to explain how for close to three years, a private entity was able to collect money on behalf of the government without the Treasury’s knowledge.

Information published on the Treasury’s website shows Dr Thugge had earlier worked in the Ministry of Finance in various capacities, among them the head of the Fiscal and Monetary Affairs Department, economic secretary and as a senior economic adviser.

Before joining the Treasury, he worked at the International Monetary Fund as an economist.

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