Electoral commission failed us by clearing tainted candidates

First published Sunday Standard, June 4, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

For some, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s clearance of leaders with an unethical past this week was inevitable. Faced with repeated disappointments, it is easier on the emotions not to expect the future will be different. For the rest of us, our faith in our electoral system just suffered a crack and we must choose what to do next.

The establishment of the Chapter Six Working Group a month ago raised expectations that leadership integrity would underpin the upcoming General Elections. The last two weeks has seen a vigorous national conversation on whether a criminal or ethical standard would guide the Working Group’s vetting of candidates. Many Kenyans urged the IEBC, EACC and the Chapter 6 vetting agencies to put a clean list before the Kenyan voter in August.

The record of some of the most powerful and populist politicians found themselves under public scrutiny. The Senate Public Accounts and Investment Committee, a Cabinet Secretary, the Cabinet Bishops, media editors, civic organisations and many citizens called for the IEBC to apply an ethical standard. Early this week, the National Integrity Alliance’s #RedCard20 became 87 when the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission submitted a list of 18 Governors, 4 Senators, 3 Women Representatives, 25 Members of Parliament and 37 Members of County Assembly.

Most of the politicians have dismissed this attention as the work of their detractors, political opponents and busy-bodies without mandates. One was mis-advised by his lawyer to sue for character defamation. Another more impressively exercised his right to reply and robustly responded to the allegations. Despite all this, in what could be one of the darkest moments in the history of Chapter Six, the IEBC has proceeded to clear nearly of the individuals on the EACC list. Unless, some of the clearances are revoked, this could be a disappointing end to an impressive set of integrity stress testing events.

Why is integrity testing important for our electoral democracy? Afro-barometer research suggests we are all about to check out or get really rebellious. Less than 25% of our younger citizens are committed to governance and public affairs. Army, religious and traditional leaders are now trusted more than elected leaders. Protests and riots are up tenfold and electoral violence has occurred three times more in this decade than in the last. Sadly, we live in a time of unprecedented contempt or praise for political leaders. Yet, neither leader vilification or glorification leaves us or them with new openings for raising the integrity bar.

We need to ask ourselves as citizens, when did we cross the ethical line? When did it become okay to justify and rationalize unethical behavior? That it is okay to bully and beat our children when they don’t do as we demand? That it is okay to use the company’s time and resources to do private business? That despite the explicit advice of the EACC, we may still vote for leaders unable to protect public monies. Until we are willing to throw five hundred banknotes back in the face of candidates, we are vulnerable.

As leaders, when did you cross the ethical line? When did it become okay to amass unimaginable wealth using public resources? When did the argument that you have accomplished so much and that corruption is not hurting anyone begin to make sense? When did your word become a tool to manage public expectations and not one that holds you accountable? How did your personal integrity become the cat and mouse legal game in our courts? Until you are willing to apologize, seek forgiveness and rebuild public trust in your leadership you will always be vulnerable.

Ultimately, the power lies with the electorate. Six incumbent Governors and 21 MPs were sent home during the primaries. Voters have tasted their power and exercised well could still produce the collective leadership we need. To elect unethical leaders would be like planting lemon trees on August 8 and expecting to harvest bananas in future. We cannot allow those that seek our mandate to govern enter our house with dirty feet.

The next episode in Chapter Six is about to written but it is only us who can determine whether it will a repeat episode or the premiere of a new season.

Read also http://www.nation.co.ke/news/politics/politicians-on-eacc-blacklist-agency-serving-rivals-agenda/1064-3954904-wun2e1z/index.html

Are you suffering from Corruption Stress Disorder?

First published Sunday Standard, May 28, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

Kenyans are not apathetic, but we may just be suffering from Corruption Stress Disorder (CSD). CSD is a mental health condition triggered by a series of terrifying events over the last five years. Many of us have experienced it. All of us have witnessed it.

In case you are wondering whether you are affected, there are three symptoms. The symptoms include vivid flashbacks of scandals, recurrent moments of anxiety about the quality of the aspirants that will be on your ballot paper and the feeling that nothing will come out of the #RedCard20 national conversation.

If you have any one of these three key symptoms, you probably need to see a psychiatrist or mentor. Alternatively, you could tap into some inner courage and face the fact that unless we do something to interrupt the quality of leaders now, the past is about to consume our future.

Over the last seven years, Kenyans have crafted a new Constitution and several laws. We have generated and reformed the Senate, Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) and Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) as well as County Assemblies. These new institutions join older bodies like the Office of the Auditor General, Parliament and the Judiciary. An impressive array of laws and an architecture of institutions now exist.

Incredibly, despite these laws and organisations the national sport of looting the public has become even more popular than betting. Aspirants under investigation or before our courts for corruption, hate crimes and unethical behavior seek public office. Parents seem incapable of leading families with ethical values. Priests and Imams reach out to God to change the hearts of the corrupt yet every Sunday or Friday, the corrupt pray in front of them. We seem collectively powerless or conflicted to stop the deterioration of our ethical standards.

The integrity or uadhilifu conversation goes to the shadows of our society. It raises the conversation whether applying a criminal standard to our leaders is enough. Consider this. Of the 1,500 men and women adversely mentioned in the reports of statutory agencies, only 180 have been convicted. Most of the 180 are small business-people, constables, clerical and labor officers, ward administrators and other junior public servants. None, not one, sio mmoja of the architects or managers of the mega-million dollar scandals are on this list of convictions.

Despite new energies from within the Judiciary, our courts still take too long to release or convict corruption suspects. At least sixty tactics are used to frustrate the administration of justice. Courts obstruct EACC investigations. Lawyers, witnesses and even judges fall sick or travel at critical points. Files and evidence gets misplaced or lost. The courts will face their biggest test in this season.

Should we lose faith in our chapter six, law enforcement and other public oversight institutions therefore? No, not unless you have an acute case of CSD. The rest of us must continue to speak truth to power. We must expect public institutions to follow their legal and professional mandates. We can request all our leaders to be accountable.

This week, a long national discussion on leadership integrity gripped our homes, work spaces, matatus, bars, Senate and places of worship. It is just the beginning. It’s time the party whips, councils of elders, religious leaders, professional associations, unions and voters raised their voices. Chapter six is not just a paragraph in our Constitution. It is not just a choice we made in 2010. It is the choice we must make every day by everyone.

Those who know about body-building know that building new muscle is all about damaging your existing muscle fibers. Building a nation based on ethical values is no different. Instead of pretending we accept corruption, let us have the grace to say, “No, no yet. Until you accept responsibility for past errors, I have no use for you in this role.” It’s time to set aside inertia and collectively raise the ethical bar.

The bigger question remains. How can leaders and citizens who have slipped restore their integrity? That, is the column for next week.

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.