Lamu Coal Project will boomerang on us

First published Sunday Standard, May 21, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

A fight has been brewing and it is about to boil over. The issue is coal and it pits powerful business interests and the Lamu community against each other. Under the ambitious LAPPSET programme, the Government of Kenya plans to build it’s very first coal plant. Worth conservatively at Kshs 200 billion, the coal plant is envisaged to generate 1050 megawatts of energy for the country.

Coal like oil or natural gas is a fossil fuel. It is derived from the remains of dead and ancient plants and animals buried in the earth. Coal has been a source of energy since the 14th century Aztecs. More recently, it drove the European industrial revolution powering steam engines, heating buildings and generating electricity. In burning fossil fuels to produce energy, carbon dioxide and other gases are produced and causes global warming.

In 2017, coal is a declining source of energy globally. Solar, hydro and wind based power or renewable energy, is already the second largest source of global energy. Renewable energy is set to overtake coal as the primary source of global energy by 2030. Investing in coal production today is like putting money into the production of facsimile machines. The future will be fueled by the sun, wind and water.

Understanding this, more than Kshs 340 trillion assets owned by a range of institutions from multi-national corporations, governments and universities across the world are moving their money from planet damaging fossil fuels to renewable energy solutions. Africa and Asia are in the forefront of this. In this context, the battle over Lamu’s coal plant is all the more curious.

In the heart of Lamu County lies Kwasasi village. It is here that the proposed coal plant was supposed to have started back in December 2015. Seventeen months on, Amu Power Company, a consortium of Centum Investments and Gulf Energy have been unable to secure a energy generation licence due to environmental concerns and opposition from the local communities. Represented by their leaders and supported by environmental coalitions deCOALonise and Save Lamu, communities have demanded assurances that their air, water and the entire eco-system will not be polluted.

May and June is a critical moment for Centum Investments and the community. The High Court and the National Environmental Tribunal are set to give their judgments. Project supporters have argued the plant could reverse the region’s historical marginalization, produce jobs and substantively meet the national energy gap. Opponents have counter-argued that coal is dirty energy and contributes to global warming. The plant will also endanger fishing and farming, the main source of livelihood. It could destroy the famous mangroves, negatively affect the tourism industry and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Former Kenya Energy Regulatory Commission Head Hindpal Jabbal has also raised strong concerns. In his view, renewable energy expansion renders the coal plant unnecessary for Kenya to meet its energy demand. The plant is too costly to run profitably and lastly, he sounds caution on the contractual obligations agreed by the Government. The Amu Power-Government agreement obligates the national Government to pay for key start-up costs and all of the electricity at fixed rates for twenty-five years. Regardless of how much electricity is produced, this will cost the tax-payer Kshs 36 billion shillings annually.

With the African Development Bank (AfDB) considering underwriting this, a sweet deal for Amu Power may be in the making. If it goes through, former AfDB President Donald Kaberuka could be a beneficiary as he now chairs Centum Investments board.

That Lamu County is in need of public and private investment is without doubt. The county has one of the highest poverty and inequality levels. Decades of land privatization and settlement schemes have disrupted social cohesion and caused communal tension. Years of marginalization have only just  begun to be turned around by devolved county governance. In this context, an environmentally risky, socially divisive and climate threatening large-scale extractive project is unwise.

For those of us watching the looming legal deadline for all Kenyan homes to install domestic water heating solar panels by May 28 or face criminal prosecution, it would seem this project also conflicts with the broader long-term vision of our national energy policy. Perhaps this project is best abandoned before we are left with a very costly asset that will soon be stranded as the rest of the world moves on.

An Open Letter to Religious Leaders in Kenya

17th May 2017

Your Grace, Imam, Swami, Rabbi and all priests of faith,

Why is there such a gap between your vision for our communities and the country and the reality we see every day. What is missing in your leadership that would make a difference?

Uncertainty, fear and suspicion of public institutions stalks our country. Too many young people feel powerless to create or instill democratic change in our system. This distrust has created insurrectionists who seek to disrupt public policy processes. As OAIC Secretary General Nicta Lubaale has noted, “As a country we miss collective reflection and discernment. Collective conviction is impossible without this.”

Your ineffectiveness as leaders has nothing to do with your intentions. It has everything to do with the lack of transformation around you. Even inspiring quotes have no power unless we can translate them into our context and they call us to care enough to act. As Reverend Phyllis Byrd notes; “We can’t only quote scripture. We have to be the living example of Jesus”. Remain uncomfortable with our daily circumstances. Discomfort is a very necessary part of being a leader whose congregation does not reflect the values you stand for. Look for new ways to translate your intentions for this country into real change.

You will leave a greater legacy if you assertively tackle the current challenge of ethical both among citizens and within our leaders. How can you transform the challenge of followers stealing the offertory or their neighbor’s phone while they are in prayer? Do not also allow your prophetic role to be compromised by the donations of thieves or the use of the pulpit to make political speeches without values or faith.

It is only by consciously taking bold leadership choices will you be able to recreate our country, moment by moment, conversation by conservation. Leadership is not always about popularity. If the status quo does not inspire you, you must work towards transforming it.

Historically, less than 15% of society have acted to make transform societies. Most Americans in the 1960s thought Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the Dream Riders were reckless and crazy. Neither Martin Luther King Jr nor our very own Wangari Maathai, had the support of most of their societies. Yet, they are remembered decades later as icons of change. Surrounded by injustice, even Jesus was not popular. Palm Sunday march is a political protest against the leaders of that time.

Use all opportunities to discuss and elevate your followers into fearless influencers of change. Have a direct conversations with them. Do ordinary things with compassion and care – this will inspire us. Declare who you are for this country, take consistent actions and the result will show around us. Boldly declaring your life’s purpose as a way of being will place you at the center of change.

If you want a different country from the one we have today, as religious leaders you must stand out and be different. Bishop Salmon Obiero captured it best when he said, “The real tragedy in our lives is not that we die, but that we live lives without a higher purpose.”

Thank you for your attention and commitment to transforming Kenya,


Irũngũ Houghton

This letter is adapted from a discussion on Integrity and leadership with Religious Leaders from the Organisation of African Independent Churches (OAIC), Nairobi, April. The author expresses his gratitude to Naz Njeru for documenting this dialogue. 

We must act against landgrabbing

First published Sunday Standard, May 14, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

This week I was excited to be a guest of Moi Girls High School in Eldoret. Nearly 90 years old, Afrikaans speaking settlers from South Africa established the 109-acre school in 1928. It would take thirty-five years for the first African girl to be admitted. Today, 1,300 girls from all over Kenya study here. They walk in the footsteps of former girls Emma Too, Esther Murugi, Margaret Kamar, Ida Odinga and Tess Mudavadi among others.

Moi Girls High School was the venue for the awarding of the first 1,000 title-deeds to head-teachers of public primary and secondary schools. The head-teachers came from Bungoma, Busia, Embu, Elgeyo Marakwet, Kericho, Laikipia, Machakos, Makueni, Mombasa, Murang’a. Nyeri, Siaya, Taita Taveta and Uasin Gishu counties.

Conservatively, these schools educate over 200,000 girls and boys from low income communities. Between 30-60% of the citizens in these counties live below the poverty line. In Uasin Gishu county alone, these titles safeguard 300 acres.

Who could have imagined that the courage and tears of Lang’ata road primary school students in January 2015 would catalyse a nation to act? Following the Presidential directive three days after the reclamation of Lang’ata, 10,000 school head-teachers applied for title-deeds. A coalition of civic organisations formed the ShuleYangu Alliance.

The Lands Ministry and National Land Commission established the Rapid Response Surveying Task-force. The Institution of Surveyors of Kenya have now offered the services of professional surveyors to assist. Behind the smiles and joy of head-teachers is the patience and patriotism of many Kenyans who worked to make that moment happen.

Speaking to some of the head-teachers at the ceremony presided over by Lands Cabinet Secretary and National Lands Commission Chairperson, I asked them, what does a title mean for your school? The responses were similar. Titling my school safeguards the right to education and keeps our children safe from outsiders. It ensures we protect poor families from the higher costs in private schools. It keeps open, access to play grounds. It means we do not have to deal with threats and intimidation by land-grabbers or their lawyers. Their comments confirm our research findings in 2015 and 2016.

The awards need to be understood in a broader context. Kenya faces an epic rush for public land, an epidemic, the Lands Cabinet Secretary is fond of saying. For the last six years, state officials and private business-people have actively undermined the moratorium on the transfer of public assets during the transition to devolution. Today, public silence, corruption and the collusion of public officials is at the heart of the problem.

While in Eldoret, I heard the tragic-comic story of a judge who awarded a land-grabber the very land his court was sitting on without even knowing what he had done. Every time a school-child sees their playground being grabbed and the land-grabber goes from rags to riches, we sow the seeds of future adults who will have no respect for public land. Too many of us are like that bitten hyena who, noticing his own blood, turns and tries to eat its leg. Titles are not just papers; they are the basis of ownership.

Administrative delays implementing Presidents’ directive has led to countless demonstrations, wall demolitions, occupations, legal injunctions and media coverage. If state officials did their jobs, there would be no need for this activism, Boniface Mwangi is fond of saying. Children Government leader Fidelia Uzoamaka put even more passionately, “Do you see my size? This size is for studying and not pulling down walls.”

So, what is next for the growing movement of public land defenders in schools, civil society organisations, government and business offices? All head-teachers could hold title receiving ceremonies for their school communities and build permanent walls or fences to secure their school boundaries. Other head-teachers must demand their titles and invite the rapid results task-force to survey their schools. County Governments can stop issuing building approvals to private developers for public land.

We can all blow the whistle on land-grabbing. We can protect all the community leaders, teachers and public land defenders like Stephen Mbinu, Hamisi Mwelu, Sister Mary Kileen, Francis Mwangi who daily stand up against powerful land-grabbers.

Active citizens working with responsive Government offices makes a transformative difference. However, 1,000 titles are still only a 10% of the applications before the National Land Commission and only 3.5% of the schools still without titles. Until all our schools are titled and collectively owned by their school communities, our children and the future of public education are not safe.

Two questions remain for us to ask. Ask your local public school head-teacher, “Do you have your title?” Mr President, did the primary schools of Lang’ata road, Naka and Mwamdudu also get their titles? Are all the Nation’s schools safe?

A value driven society is within our reach

First published Sunday Standard,May 7, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

The search for leadership and integrity is growing slowly in the republic. We are increasingly questioning not only our leaders but ourselves. Last week, I spent a morning discussing integrity and leadership with twenty religious leaders. Several insights emerged.

Asked what our personal values are, we are quick to declare that honesty, integrity and faith are core principles for our lives. Yet, the very values of honesty, integrity and faith are missing all around us. Instead, public apathy, future uncertainty and a profound mistrust in our leaders shows up in every conversation we have.

Parents think twice before leaving money on their dressing tables. The faithful pray to God with one eye open in case others prey on their smart-phones. Funeral committee treasurers don’t announce how much has been raised by those present lest they be mugged on their way out. Jamani, we are not safe in our homes, in prayer or in mourning. So, what are we really committed to creating in our families, places of worship and the country? Are we committed to these values as intentions in our heads or are we committed to transforming the behavior of those around us?

Let me eliminate a couple of other comforting thoughts. No number of passwords on our phones, online bank accounts or our Treasury IFMIS will fix this. There are no alternative leaders or angels coming to save us. As Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker noted recently, we must be comfortable with being uncomfortable and start having new conversations for change to happen.

Religion has always been a powerful force for integrity and social change. By all accounts, the thousands of disciples, prophets and messengers were remarkable men and women. Most were hope messengers and active disruptors in their societies. 1,976 years before we enshrined the right to peacefully picket and demonstrate in our constitution, Jesus Christ organized one of the most powerful political demonstrations against the Israelites in Jerusalem. Palm Sunday is still re-enacted every year all over the world.

All religious texts from the koran to the bible are framed around the extra-ordinary power of ordinary actions. An Uber taxi-driver expressed this powerfully recently. We had just stopped to protect a man from falling into a busy road as he underwent an epileptic fit. After the man recovered, he explained that over the last two days, he had missed taking two pills (worth ten shillings) because he was broke. We bought him ten days’ worth of pills and took him home. Our taxi-driver went quiet and then said aloud, half to himself, “Perhaps these are the miracles we read in the bible. Was this what Jesus was doing when he was helping others? I see many things on our roads, perhaps I should train as a St Johns First Aider?”

Hearing this story, Reverend Phyllis Byrd commented, “The central gospel of the bible is to be the living example Jesus was. We also forget that Jesus was not popular or loved by all. He was persecuted for his faith and convictions.” We are told by the Muslim scholars so too was Bilal, Asiya and many others.

Perhaps we all – religious or otherwise – can draw strength from the power of Jeremiah 31:31 that says, “A time is coming when my law will be placed in the hearts of all men and women.” Can we also imagine a time when the constitutional values of leadership and integrity are alive in our homes, places of worship and work?

If you are like me and past the 50-year-old mark, you may be thinking this is talk for young men and women. Consider the world remembers Jesus for the miracles he performed in the last four years of his life. He was a humble carpenter for the first thirty years. Professor Wangari Maathai was in her seventies before she was globally recognized. The Pan African and black consciousness icon and leader Malcom X earned global influence in only last twelve years of his life. In his younger years, he was addict, pimp and petty thief.

There is space for all us in this journey to a society of conviction and dignity

Party primaries not perfect, but necessary for democracy

First published Sunday Standard, April 30, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

As the dust settles from the hot season of the party primaries, the full implication for a future leadership and culture of integrity is yet to emerge. One thing is clear though, trying to understand what just happened from either a purely good or bad perspective is a prescription for a headache. The complexity of Kenya does not lend to binary thinking. It also does not help to have a “wait and see” or a cynical mindset. Let’s take a step back to frame what just happened.

Kenya has had 25 elections since 1920. Each of these elections saw the voter base expand, new and more complex electoral systems, policies and procedures. To put this in perspective, at independence, only 2.5 million Kenyans voted for 275 aspirants to take up 162 seats in our first independent Parliament (House of Representatives). Since then, tyranny of the single party and the single leader, incumbent rigging, queue voting experiments, sexism and ageism has robbed Kenya of free, peaceful and fair elections for most our independent life.

This history and current disillusionment with the mainstream political class has led some cynics to return to ancient Greece for inspiration. A long time ago somewhere around 508 BC, voters engaged in negative elections. Instead of voting for candidates to lead them, they voted who to send into exile for ten years. Perhaps this is the unstated theory of change of those that advocate for #FagiaWote.

The experience of last week’s primaries cannot be captured in a single narrative. #RedCardKE crusaders rejoiced at the fall of corrupt leaders in one end of the country and were dismayed at their ascendancy in another. In several upsets, six Governors and twenty-one MPs lost their seats. Who knows what would have happened if the performance of all 47 Governors had been subjected to the accountability of their party members?

Gender champions welcomed the election of several women nominees for all levels of government. Muranga, Bomet, Kirinyaga and Nakuru deserve some special mention here. The prospects for the first elected woman Senator and Governor is within reach. Should some of these “firsts” come wearing heels tainted with the mud of mega corruption scandals, feminists may be faced with some awkwardness soon. Youth champions welcomed the nomination of Stephen Sang. At thirty-two, Sang is a step away from becoming our youngest Governor and manager of Nandi county’s Kshs six billion budget.

Violence and death accompanied these primaries as well. Sadly, all the flashpoints – Homa Bay, Nairobi, Migori, Uasin Gishu and Kirinyaga – had been predicted. Apart from Homa Bay and Migori, police can be acknowledged for quickly moving in to disrupt the conflict. Also encouraging were some of the gracious victory and concessionary speeches by winners and losers. We are maturing beyond the “scorched earth” campaigns of the past.

On the other hand, IEBC’s hands off approach to the violence must change in the coming days. We cannot police our way through the coming elections alone. Stronger actions to hold candidates directly accountable for their wild followers must now be the deterrent. Parties can learn lessons from the dangers of knee jerk announcements, weak tallying systems and the mother of all, multiple voter registers.

Nevertheless, party primaries are now an important pillar of our democracy. We must strengthen their conduct and make them more credible across all parties not just the big ones. In doing this, we can stop the party hopping and leap frogging. We also need to stop the culture of direct nominations.

Direct nominations neither builds party accountability nor democratic practice. Several Governors got free passes this week and they shouldn’t have. Being patient, perhaps we can remind those with dirty hands that we shall still see them soon in the polling booth, Political Party Disputes Tribunal and the courts. It’s not personal or partisan.

Our conscience and our constitution demands as much.

Chapter 6 needs bold interpretation by Supreme Court

First published Sunday Standard, April 23, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

The need for a leadership based on integrity is turning out to be the elephant in the shamba in these General Elections. Recently, hundreds of aspirants have been publicly accused and some even sued by the public, politicians and election governance bodies as unfit for public office.

Party leaders have drawn the line for aspirants who do the leadership and integrity threshold including the minimum educational qualifications, are indebted or bankrupt.  The Senate Public Accounts Investment Committee has called for six Governors to be barred from running again. Not to be left behind, Civic organizations and citizens have called on eight Governors, a hundred or so MCAs and former Cabinet Secretaries in court on procurement related fraud cases to be stopped from running. Social media has delighted in flashing school grades, university certificates and at some bizarre moment, even a birth certificate. In Chapter six, aspirants have found a new club to strike the incumbents.

Given the staggering levels of corruption, abuse of public office and conflict of interest this is comforting on one level. On the other, it has a created a cacophony of accusations and counter-accusations that one would expect in a rowdy boxing match.

Despite the clarity of Chapter Six, the Leadership and Integrity Act, Political Parties Act and its Elections Code of Conduct, the legal standards remain muddied by contradictory judgments in at least seven legal cases.  Just before the last General Elections, President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto were cleared to run for office on grounds that they were presumed innocent until the International Criminal Court found them guilty.

In other cases, courts have either ruled that voters should be left to exercise their judgement or the Court of Appeal has no jurisdiction. In others, the court has ruled that the disbarring of a Public Official by their professional association is sufficient to disqualify them from office.

Attempts to have John Ndirangu declared unfit to be a Member of Parliament due to a prior criminal conviction in 2004 were declined by the court on a technicality. Ferdinand Watitu was not so lucky, the court quashed his appointment to the Athi Water Board based on his lack of suitability for the position. If Jubilee clears him, he is now seeking an elective position as the future Kiambu Governor.

The inconsistencies of these court cases and the velocity of claims require clear determination by the highest court of the land. If this does not happen, we may lose this moment to give teeth and enforcement to the Constitution. It is for this reason, that the decision by the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights to seek an Advisory Opinion from the Supreme Court is to be lauded. The petition seeks an authoritative legal opinion on the fit and proper test for leadership including elective and appointive office.  It would provide guidance to both the judiciary and vetting institutions on how to ensure that all persons seeking elective/appointive offices are suitable to govern or manage public offices.

The average voter is slowly wakening up to the need to monitor the wealth and lifestyle of leaders and aspirants. However, we have no means of collecting the information we need. Institutions such as EACC and IEBC would do well to make this information accessible to citizens as required by the Constitution as this will empower citizens to make informed choices.

While the criteria of leadership and integrity is framing the 2017 General Elections, it remains to be seen whether the winners will reflect the best leaders Kenya has. What the Supreme Court can now offer us is a formula to breathe life into Chapter Six, reject those that cannot be trusted with public office and prepare us for the leaders we so desperately need.

For more on this issue see Mzalendo Trust blog

Time to pull out the red-cards, the party primaries are upon us

First published Sunday Standard, April 16, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

If you are like me, you may be wondering whether to have a sigh of relief or hold your breath this holy weekend. On one hand, the long-awaited rains have thankfully hit our farms and dams. Simultaneously, the elections are upon us. Over 20,000 individuals and their campaign teams have formally launched a scramble for 1,871 seats for the positions of Governor, MP, Senator and MCA. Only seven counties offer a real contest between the various parties. These seven counties contain “swing” constituencies in places like Nairobi, Narok and Garissa. For all the other parts of the country, the real election takes place over the next two weeks of the party primaries.

Depending on your level of “awokeness” you have probably internalized the elections calendar, are following IEBC and your party on twitter and Face Book and ready to flash your party membership card by now. For others, you are probably wondering why all the fuss given the elections are four months away. Is it necessary for all the aspirants to deface our walls with posters and why the sudden sensitivity of strangers to you wearing orange, red or yellow in public? Regardless of where this moment finds you, a hornet of bees has begun to swarm, and you, the voter, are the honey they seek.

From community leaders to corrupt public servants, distinguished businesspeople to disgraced doctors they come before the 19 million registered voters. Many seek public office to serve their own private interest while some have a vision for their ward, county and the nation. All will be pre-occupied with photo-shopping their profile, exercising their networks and resources to reach as many party supporters as possible. What ultimately matters is none of this.

The depth of corruption and impunity in our public offices and among us, the public, makes this election season a critical moment for continuity of the same or a radical break. The theft of public resources, national divisions and violence has become the new normal. Left unchecked, the seeds of corruption will grow into large trees of impunity spreading a dark shadow over us personally and the nation.

For this reason, we could do no better than start to note who the candidates are, what they stand for and as importantly, what their track records are. We must start asking the real questions in the house to house meetings, community dialogues and party rallies. What changes do they seek to bring about? How are they financing their campaigns? Who is paying for those T-shirts, posters and especially, those helicopters? Have they ever been mentioned adversely in the Office of the Auditor General’s reports, disbarred by their professional association, declared bankrupt or are they being prosecuted for economic crimes, bribery or fraud?

We can start demanding zero-tolerance of our churches, mosques and temples. No. We don’t want to turn our places of worship into political platforms and corruption havens for stolen tax-payers’ monies. We can challenge our integrity vetting institutions and especially the EACC and the IEBC to define and apply Chapter 6 without favoring one party aspirant over the other. If twenty-two players on the pitch and all the audience loses faith in the referee, not only does the referee lose power, we all lose the game.

The members and national party election boards across our sixty or so political parties also hold the future of our country now. The Constitution and various laws including the Political Parties Act requires political parties to set and enforce ethical and integrity requirements and procedures for identifying, vetting and approving aspiring candidates.

It is worth reminding our party leaders, there is a high cost of ineffectively doing this. Unethical party nominees will probably be subjected to costly public ridicule and rejection. They could also be disqualified by the IEBC or legally petitioned by responsible citizens. Lastly and most importantly, ferrying corrupt, divisive and violent aspirants into our public could open a hole that swallows the nation alive in future.

For me, I am printing red-cards and preparing to flash them in the face of anyone who offends our constitutional standard of Chapter 6 on leadership and integrity. Join me, I dare you