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Sh20billion dams probe keeps money man awake

Treasury CS Henry Rotich
Treasury CS Henry Rotich during a press conference addressing queries on the Eurobond at Treasury on December 4, 2015. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Over the past four years or so, Henry Kiplagat Rotich has faced huge storms in his line of duty as the country’s main money man.

From defending the country’s insatiable appetite for debt to deflecting claims of loss of part of proceeds of a Sh250 billion Eurobond, he has had a handful.

And this week Mr Rotich’s woes took a twist for worse. He was forced to leave the comfort of his office on the fourteenth floor of the Treasury Building on Nairobi’s Harambee Avenue to honour police summons over an ongoing investigation of an alleged financial impropriety that may have hit the construction of the Kimwarer and Arror dams in his native Elgeyo Marakwet County.

For two running days, the Treasury secretary was treated to day-long interrogation by sleuths probing the financial dealings in a Sh20 billion contract awarded to an Italian firm to build the two water reservoirs.

Although the investigations are not complete, the whole matter risks blotting his 25-year career which has seen him serve in many respectable institutions including the Central Bank of Kenya(CBK), the International Monetary Fund(IMF) and now the National Treasury.

Over the years, a good number of Mr Rotich’s 13 predecessors at the Treasury found themselves under similar pressure he now faces to quit, a result of the clamour to control the purse strings that has characterised Kenya’s politics since Independence.

His six years (and counting) tenure in charge of the exchequer is already one of the longest in the country’s history, tied with Arthur Magugu (1982-1988) and the first finance chief James Gichuru (1963-1969), and only behind Mwai Kibaki who helmed Treasury for 12 years between 1969 and 1981.

The honour of shortest stint at the Treasury remains that of Francis Masakhalia, who lasted seven months between February and August 1999 amid a stuttering economy.

First Class honours

Born and raised in Keiyo South, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Mr Rotich joined the University of Nairobi in 1989. He graduated in 1993 with a First Class honours degree in economics before returning later to the same institution for a Master’s degree in the same discipline.

The father of two would later in 2010 earn another Master’s degree in public administration, this time from the Ivy League Harvard University.

When Mr Rotich was appointed finance minister in 2013 after Jubilee administration took office, few Kenyans had heard of him.

He had, after all, spent the better part of his career as a back office bureaucrat at the CBK and the Treasury.

His first stint was at the research department of the CBK, which he joined in 1994, later being attached to the Nairobi office of the IMF to work as an economist between 2001 and 2004.

From 2006 until his appointment as finance minister, Mr Rotich was the head of macroeconomics at the Ministry of Minance.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was in charge at the Treasury for three years (2009-2012) while also serving as deputy prime minister, opted for Mr Rotich as a trusted insider when appointing his Cabinet after winning the presidency.

By dint of his position, he now also sits on the boards of many State-owned corporations.

Public debt

A few things though have stood out during the Rotich tenure, the most contentious one being the rapid growth of public debt to Sh5.27 trillion from Sh1.88 trillion when he took over in 2013.

It is during this period that the country has issued two Eurobonds for a total of $4.8 billion (Sh480 billion) and numerous syndicated loans, which have contributed significantly to the higher debt load.

He has also overseen a sharp growth in loans from China, most notable the Sh477 billion used to construct the standard gauge railway from Mombasa to Naivasha.

The minister has always maintained that incurring debt for development spending is necessary for Kenya to grow its economy.

It was the first Eurobond though in 2014 that gave the minister his first series of sleepless nights after questions were raised by the opposition about the use of the proceeds.

Tough questions

After weathering the Eurobond storm, he would again find himself in uncomfortable waters last year during the sugar import scandal, where he survived tough questions about the Treasury’s decision to open a duty free import window that saw contraband sugar come into the country.

A soft spoken, affable and self-effacing man, Mr Rotich has often come across as one who is more comfortable out of the limelight, with a demeanour that carries none of the zeal and grunt of some of his Cabinet colleagues.

This has served him well whenever he faces troubles in his role as finance minister, garnering him sympathy where others would have suffered a rougher treatment in the hands of the public.

However, the raging dam probe is proving to be the biggest hurdle yet for him, earning him two straight days of interrogation at the DCI headquarters and calls for resignation from a section of MPs.

It is perhaps symbolic that the two dam projects threatening to fell him are in his Kerio Valley home area, where there was widespread joy upon the appointment of their son to the Cabinet in 2013.

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