By Dr Vincent Okoth Ongore
Many of you will probably know that I worked as a tax collector for a continuous period of three decades prior to my shift to full-time scholarship. Those three decades were some of the most eventful of my life. Please bear with me as I give context to the theme of this post. One thing happened after the 2002 General Elections that would completely change the trajectory of KRA and revenue administration in Kenya. The newly elected President Mwai Kibaki (perhaps only the second time that Kenyans truly elected their President after that of Jomo Kenyatta in 1963) appointed Michael Gitau Waweru (simply MG) as the KRA Commissioner-General.
Coming from a tax and leadership background as a former partner at Ernest and Young, MG quickly settled in and within no time, things started moving in the right direction. The revolutionary Tax Administration Reforms and Modernization Program was conceived and executed under MG’s watch.
The government was wise enough to have retained him for 9 years so he could actualize his vision for KRA. MG had an open-door policy and gave people capacity, support and trust to deliver on their mandates. KRA has never been the same again. The KRA Board and Management identified me to write a book on the reform agenda. I recruited my colleague and friend, Eutychus Kariuki, to work with me on this project.
We delivered a book entitled ‘Revenue Administration Reforms in Kenya: Experience and Lessons‘, which has been lauded as beautiful documentation of the KRA reform agenda. This was the first book I ever wrote, and it was very instrumental in informing my style in the subsequent titles that bear my name. MG was very fast at identifying those who embraced his reform and modernization agenda. He quickly made them agents and catalysts for reform.
I was privileged to have been identified as a resourceful person. He became overly trustful of me, and from time to time, spared time to listen to what I had to say about his leadership style and the direction that KRA was taking. I trusted him too. When he noticed that I was in love with great ideas, he enticed me into enrolling for a PhD program, which he moved KRA to sponsor. I became the first holder of an earned PhD in KRA. Of course, there was someone who had gone the online way, and within six months, received a semblance of a doctorate from some outfit that exists on the Web known as Washington International University. Scholars know what I mean.
On one Thursday evening, MG called me to his office. I used to work late. I was very happy to receive the call. A colleague of mine had been suspended from work on circumstances that were unclear to me. He had asked me to intervene for him. He knew I was close to MG, and that through my personal intervention, many jobs had been saved before. Unfortunately, I was to later learn, that he didn’t share with me the whole story. So, I prepared myself and dashed to the 30th floor to see MG. I was a familiar face on that floor. After all, I was serving as a member of the board of trustees of the KRA Pension Scheme.
The 30th floor was quiet, save for MG’s security officer who was reading a newspaper at the reception to the Commissioner General’s office. Everyone else, including his secretaries, had gone home. As I got into his large corner office, he looked up, and I saw sarcasm on his face. I knew he was up to some mischief. His first words confirmed it. ‘Vincent, your Luo people have been telling us that only the Kikuyu are thieves; now, see this.’ He had severally before talked casually to me about his disappointment at the blatant theft and wastage of public resources that had taken root within the rank and file of KRA officers.
On one of our flights to either UK or Australia (I am not sure), MG had wondered aloud why some young officers would take KES 5 million in bribes, and aid in evasion of up to KES 100 million in taxes! In desperation, he would ask me, ‘Vincent, do these people know what they are doing to our country?’ On this particular evening when MG invited me to his office, he wanted to share with me a video clip of the very friend of mine who had asked me to intervene for him, stashing bundles of money into his socks, coat and trouser pockets, office drawers, and hiding some of it in between files. The man was unaware that the supposed briber was recording him. For a while, I was lost for words as MG punctured my bloated ego about the Luo as hardworking, clean and incorruptible public servants.
When I finally mustered some courage, I revealed to him that the gentleman had actually asked me to intervene for him. I was, however, quick to add that he had hidden the bit of theft from me. MG asked me if I still thought the guy deserved another chance. I said, every human being deserved one more chance. Unfortunately, when the evidence is overwhelming, forgiving him would create managerial challenges in future when other people are caught in similar circumstances. The gentleman was sacked.
The thought of stealing the resources of my own country is one that has never quite won me over. I know that very many people, including some of my close relatives, friends and acquaintances still wonder to date how a sane man could sit at KRA for 30 years and not come out a billionaire! But whenever I ask them what would happen to the millions of Kenyans out there in far-flung areas whose women die in childbirth due to lack of basic medication, children who can’t go to school, people who have no roads to take their produce to the market, and thousands of young people who have no jobs, they tell me that everyone else is stealing! In other words, they think I should steal because everyone else is stealing.
Kenyans have this weird belief that money makes one to be respected. At the same time, they blame their underdevelopment on corruption and poor leadership. So, you don’t actually get to decipher precisely what they really want. On one hand, they want their kin to plunder public resources so they can partake of it, while on the other, they blame people from other communities for engaging in corruption. That’s pricey what MG was telling me.
The Luo have ‘not been left behind in primitive theft of public resources. In fact, they have gone a notch higher and perfected the art of high-level conmanship, generally referred to as’ Wash Wash.’ When a community that previously served as the moral compass for the nation joins gravy train of malfeasance, the country is doomed. Kenyans have become so brazen in their stealing that if you question them, they proudly tell you that everyone in Kenya is a thief; hata wajaluo ndiyo siku hizi wamekuwa wezi zaidi.
My fellow Luo, that’s what Kenyans currently think about us. We have lost the moral high ground to question the run-away plunder of public resources. This brings me to the gist of this post: the blatant plunder and mismanagement of the Luo Nyanza counties. I am so pained about the scorecards of the counties of Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay and Migori. The lacklustre performance of these counties put to shame the Luo who pioneered clean public management at independence.
Everyone looked to the Luo for exemplary performance in critical areas of public management. The Luo have for decades been associated with agitation for better management of public resources. In fact, the former Prime Minister, Raila Amolo Odinga, is credited for his relentless fight for an alternative constitutional dispensation that ushered in devolution as an equitable development model for Kenya. One would have expected that the Luo, having suffered inordinately at the hands of successive regimes with respect to resource allocation, would be the shining examples of judicious utilization of resources.
Alas, almost all these counties have consistently posted dismal performance, with Homa Bay County perpetually holding the tail! It has been argued in some quarters that the performance of these counties can not begin to show immediately because they started far behind other counties. That argument is plausible from the surface until one asks two fundamental questions. First, how come counties like Makueni, Wajir and others that were way behind Homa Bay at the advent of devolution are now ranked higher?
Secondly, how do we explain the fact that the least performing counties have the dubious distinction of creating multi-millionaires out of officials who were hitherto struggling financially like the rest of the population? People know the deals they engage in, LR numbers of their properties, investments in the NSE, bank account details for self and relatives, and monies syphoned to offshore destinations.
To reverse the free fall of the Luo Nyanza counties, the community must first accept that there’s a problem, then and only then can a solution be found. I propose that we start with a discussion on leadership. What makes us put wrong leaders in office? What can we do about it? Is there goodwill on the part of senior leaders to see a change of fortune? Do our senior leaders support universal suffrage? Charity begins at home. Unless we change things for the better at home, nobody will trust our leaders to bring about change at the national level.
The ball is in the court of senior leaders of the Luo community. Let’s see how they dribble the ball.