The suspension of the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) managing director Catherine Mturi-Wairi last Wednesday has, as widely expected, kicked up a storm at the coast, with politicians demanding that someone from the local community should be appointed to the position.
The KPA board said the decision to send Ms Mturi-Wairi home was due to lack of effective leadership and a non-responsive work culture, consistent failure to implement board resolutions and absence of clear performance targets.
Dr Daniel Manduku, who until last week was executive director at the National Construction Authority (NCA) was appointed in an acting capacity for two months as the board recruits a substantive CEO.
Being the gateway not just to Kenya but also the landlocked eastern Africa region, the Port of Mombasa is a strategic national asset whose top leadership attracts keen interest, especially from politicians at the Coast.
The KPA Act stipulates that the MD shall be appointed by the Cabinet Secretary after consultation with the board.
In the past, Coast politicians have demanded that the KPA boss position as well as 80 per cent of the jobs at the facility be reserved for locals. Mombasa County has also been demanding a portion of the revenues generated at the port, without success.
Before being elevated to the position, Ms Mturi-Wairi was general manager in charge of finance and was sent on compulsory leave just two years since she was confirmed to the position after her predecessor Gichiri Ndua was sacked in February 2016 in a purge aimed at curbing corruption at the facility.
In the 2016 changes, several top officials including operations manager Twalib Khamis, corporate services manager Justus Nyarandi, board and legal services manager Muthoni Gatere and security head Mohamed Morowa were sent packing.
Even as jostling for the position takes centre stage, Dr Manduku said he should be given a chance to improve efficiency at the port, while dismissing Coast politicians calling for his removal for being a non-local.
A section of Coast politicians and Kaya elders urged the government to appoint somebody from the Coast and defended Ms Mturi-Wairi saying her sacking was not justified.
Speaking on Monday during his first interview five days since he was appointed as the acting MD, Dr Manduku said his main goal is to reduce inefficiency at the facility.
“I am here to enhance business not disrupt it and I will reach out to the business community to help me achieve competitiveness. I have identified key players including shippers, shipping lines and Container Freight Station owners to ensure we work as a team. I opted not to sit in the headquarters, my office is at the container terminal,” said Dr Manduku.
Maritime experts have however warned that so long as the port is managed by people who did not have a clear understanding of how the global port business operates, the inefficiencies will continue to be experienced at the crucial facility.
One of the reasons cited for sacking of Ms Mturi-Wairi was congestion of containers, with a population of over 20,000 TEUs. This was due to slow loading and offloading of containers, as well as a huge number of empty containers railed from the Nairobi Inland Container Depot (ICD).
According to Stanley Chai, Ultimate Maritime Consultant managing director, the port should be run by a professional with experience on how ports are managed in other parts of the world.
“For instance, when they started transporting containers to the ICD without the goods being designated as the port of destination, the MD was supposed to advise against that because it was bound to bring problems,” he said.
“Our economy is import-based and the moment we start messing up with empty containers, we are in trouble. It is the positioning of this equipment in an import-based economy that determines the effectiveness and efficiency in cargo handling,”
Mr Chai noted that performance of the port’s MD is also influenced by operations of other agencies including the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) and Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs).
“There should be a way of apportioning responsibility to other agencies especially customs because at times performance of the MD is affected by outside forces,” he said.
Dock Workers Union General Secretary Simon Sang said there is need for dockers to sign a performance contract with the management if efficiency is to be achieved.
“I have been pushing for this contract for a long time now but the former MD did not listen to us. What they were proposing is a score card as a way of measuring workers’ performance but that is not enough,” he said.
“I intend to pursue this matter with the new boss because our major concern is to ensure that there are no delays in loading of goods at the port.”
He faulted the former MD for adopting a “hands-off” management style which eventually alienated her from the intricacies of cargo handling at the port.
“Success or failure in managing the port depends on how the top executive positions themselves in the entire port community,” Mr Sang said.
Management challenges at the Mombasa port come at a time when the facility is enjoying expanded capacity after completion of the Sh30 billion phase one of the second container terminal that increased capacity by 550,000 teus.
The second and third phases are expected to add a combined capacity of 1.2 million teus.