Geoffrey Mwau: Farewell to one of Kenya's finest economy brains

Five years ago, Dr Geoffrey Mwau, a towering figure at the Treasury spoke about the impact of elections on the economy.

“We [Kenya] are unlikely to face a major risk, because from a macro-economic standpoint we are stable, going by global rating agencies such Standards & Poor’s and even IMF. Some might worry about political risks, but we have put in place legal structures to prevent chaos similar to 2008," he said.

"The first major reform is Judiciary, it has become very independent. Part of these reforms will ensure smooth elections and if there was any dispute it would be cleared within a short period, like a month or so. And the fact is, there is a very clear procedure for handing over power. Legal instruments for preventing hate speech, police reforms, and implementation of the new Constitution have helped a lot. We don’t see any major issue as we transition after the election.”

These words would have been as reassuring now as before, as Kenyans anxiously await the announcement of the presidential election outcome by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

Similar concerns

Years later, there are similar concerns. Kenyans were worried about the impact of the 2017 elections on the economy and they were also facing a maize flour shortage as supermarket shelves were empty. Prices of essential commodities such as cooking oil had also gone up, issues that they are struggling with now.

Dr Mwau, an optimistic economist who died last week, has been part of a team of Treasury mandarins setting the tone and influencing the management of public finance for over a decade, and evaluating economic trends.

It turned out he was too optimistic as that election year, in 2017, growth slowed to 3.82 percent from 4.21 percent the year before, according to GDP figures. Not quite a bad show, though, compared to the chaotic 2007 elections that dented economic growth to 0.23 percent in 2008, from 6.85 percent.

This election year, optimism abounds yet again as experts expect economic conditions to improve.

The 65-year-old has been eulogised by former Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich as a brilliant economist.

“It was too soon for such a brilliant and great person to leave us behind. We have lost a true patriot from a team I worked with at the National Treasury,” Mr Rotich told the Business Daily.

“I interacted closely with Dr Mwau during public service and we cherished his contribution to the workplace as Economic Secretary and advisor. He will be missed greatly. He will always be alive in his excellent contributions and our fond memories.”

Senior advisor

The father of four held various other roles at the National Treasury, including Director for Budget, Fiscal and Economic Affairs.

He also served as senior advisor to the executive director representing Kenya and 21 other African countries on the executive board of the World Bank, a senior advisor of economic policy analysis at the UN and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) economist for Malawi, Rwanda, Botswana, and Uganda.

He once controversially defended the debt-fuelled growth by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration, holding a view that State finances would improve once the bust of infrastructure spending was concluded.

“You borrow to grow your economy,” he argued.

Dr Mwau was involved in the Treasury's push that facilitated the growth of Islamic finance. He also fought to stop revenue losses through transfer pricing by multinationals. Some multinationals operating in Kenya have been accused of manipulating their books to declare reduced profits to pay less or no tax at all through transfer pricing.

“We are looking at foreign transactions such as online businesses, and money transfers and online forex traders and that they could be part of that,” he told The EastAfrican.

Dr Mwau graduated from McGill University in Canada with a PhD in economics in 1994. For over a decade, he was one of the men behind the budget numbers. He was also the go-to person to hold forte for vacant roles at the Treasury when the need arose.

This explains why he served in different roles at the docket, perhaps more than any other Treasury mandarin.

He was soft-spoken, yet forthright. A few years ago, he sought to downplay concerns that the six percent growth, was not trickling down to the wananchi.

“Today, and I’m sure you have seen this, you open a mall like Two Rivers, Kenyans flock there to spend and they have not reduced in Galleria or any other mall,” he said.

“You can see people spending on the weekends, they are going to Dubai in huge numbers. Kenyans are the second largest visitors to Dubai, other than Indians. Where does this money come from? The middle-class is growing.”

The easily-accessible technocrat could take on any controversial topic burking the trend of the long-held tradition of closely guarded public officials, who shy away from the media.

“I highly appreciate the exemplary service Dr Mwau rendered to our country during his many years of distinguished public service. His vast knowledge of economic matters ensured that Kenya pursued policies that are conducive to the growth and sustainability of our economy,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta in his tribute.

Deputy President William Ruto said the friendly, humble, and approachable Dr Mwau “had deep knowledge and expertise in economics, and employed them in improving the lives of the people.”

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