On Wednesday, December 1, 2019, Margaret Nyakang'o was making a routine entry to Vet Lab Golf Club for a golfing session with her husband when she got a call that would catapult her to the centre of Kenya’s public finance management.
The soft-spoken career accountant was needed at the Supreme Court for swearing-in to become the country’s second Controller of Budget (CoB).
In less than 30 minutes she had to change from her sporting attire to an official outfit and drive to the court.
“As we entered Vet Club my phone rang, I picked it and it was from a landline. The caller said he was calling from Harambee House regarding my appointment as the Controller of Budget,” she says with a chuckle.
“He told me, you’re required at the Supreme Court within 30 minutes for your swearing. We reversed and went home,” she says.
She was forced to drive on the wrong side of Waiyaki Way in a bid to beat the heavy traffic and get to the Supreme Court for the swearing in.
She arrived 15 minutes late but found then Chief Justice David Maraga and a battery of journalists waiting for her. But instead of driving home and reporting to her office the following day, she was required at Bima House where a pile of documents mainly for debt repayment waited for her.
“Instead of going home, I was driven to Bima House to start signing requisitions. Public debt files were on the table waiting for my signature,” she says with a smile.
On Wednesday, August 30, when I arrived at her office for the interview dozens of documents from counties and the national government were on her desk.
Dr Nyakang'o attributes the decision to apply for the position of Controller of Budget to one of her two sons who pushed her saying that she had all it takes for the job. After over three decades of working in the public service since 1984, Ms Nyakang'o had retreated to their family business, an accounting firm in Nairobi’s Upper Hill.
Her 10-year stint at the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) where she worked as the Director in charge of Finance and Administration from 2009 had just come to an end.
Before joining the State statistics authority, Dr Nyakang'o served as Finance Director at Harambee Sacco between 2003 and 2006 where she left upon the expiry of her contract.
“I was still leading the consulting arm of our family accounting firm when I applied for the CoB job although I had mixed feelings because of my age (I was 59 then). But my son who is an architect told me to apply because all my life I had been doing budgets,” she says.
Dr Nyakang'o replaced Agnes Odhiambo as the country’s second Controller of Budget in 2019. She is serving a non-renewable term of eight years.
She adds that this is most likely her last public service position that will cap a glittering career that she says has for the better part revolved around Harambee Avenue.
“I have worked within a radius of two kilometres [of Harambee Avenue] all my working life. My life has somehow revolved around Harambee Avenue,” she says.
Her career in public service saw her serve as the provincial auditor in charge of Bungoma, Busia, and Kakamega for six years in the 1990s.
Dr Nyakang'o left the position to become the senior auditor in charge of local authorities in the then Nyanza and Western provinces between 1993 and 1994.
She also served as a senior auditor at the Lake Basin Development Authority in the 1990s besides being one of the pioneer senior staff in a similar position at the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (now Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission).
For the close to three years overseeing the expenditure of public funds as the COB, Dr Nyakang'o has had a first-hand experience of the magnitude of waste of taxpayer funds.
“Foreign travel even for flimsy reasons is rampant across the counties and national governments and some of the destinations attract lucrative per diems, a big reason for the numerous trips,” she says.
“There is also mischief in the payment of contractors, mainly by the counties. We have officials whose work is generating fake claims denying genuine Kenyans their hard-earned money.”
Dr Nyakang'o has been pushing to have real-time access to the bank accounts of the counties and State agencies. She says that this is key to clamping down on the wanton wastage of public funds and also ensuring businesses get paid for work done.
“How right is it that I can only approve requisitions yet I am not allowed to see what happens at the payment stage? These are public funds and must be protected, that is my responsibility,” she says as we end our interview session that has lasted more than an hour.
The CoB adds that there is a need to clamp down on the wastage of public funds at a time debt payment obligations have taken a toll on the country’s fiscal plans.
Dr Nyakang'o breaks her routine at Bima House every Wednesday afternoon for golfing at the Vet Lab Golf Club. Her handicap index is 15.3.
A golfer rated at handicap 15 is considered way above average, a reflection of the many years that she has dedicated to the sport. Dr Nyakang'o is a strict Catholic who would never missed the holy mass for anything until the Covid-19 interruptions that forced faithful into online fellowships.
One of her sons works at the KNBS while the other is an architect. She has two daughters, one a lawyer while the other is a medical researcher for rare diseases in Scotland.
Her husband, a career accountant too, heads the family-owned MDN Kenya LLP - Certified Public Accountants in Upper Hill, the firm that looks certain to host her once her tenure at Bima House comes to an end.