Kenyans question cabinet secretaries’ political neutrality

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Wednesday, 24 November 2021 18:01

Kenya's finance minister to present the budget to parliament
Kenyan members of parliament in Nairobi, Kenya June 10, 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

As the countdown to next year’s general election begins, Kenyan government officials who had been seen as politically neutral have been throwing caution to the wind. Recent controversial statements and endorsements have left many would-be voters questioning the state's commitment to a free and fair poll.

On paper, last month’s meeting at Mwongori High School in western Kenya was billed as a simple fundraiser within the political backyard of Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i.

However, the list of VIPs on the program revealed that it was more than just a show of support for a worthy cause. Joining Matiang’i on stage was presidential hopeful Raila Odinga, who is also the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party leader.

After a brief entertainment interlude, politics took centre stage as Matiang’i urged his tribesmen and women to rally behind Raila in his quest to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta in 2022. Former legislators-turned-cabinet-secretaries Eugene Wamalwa and Mutahi Kagwe as well as Solicitor General Kennedy Ogeto were also present.

“When my president takes a position, I queue behind my president,” Matiang’i said, hinting at Kenyatta’s apparent support for Raila, over his former ally and deputy, William Ruto. “[The] majority of our people are where the president and Raila are.”

Matiang’i’s support for Raila was telling, given his past run-ins with the former prime minister, especially during the 2017 election. His cabinet colleagues, Wamalwa and Kagwe, followed his lead, showering Raila with praise and urging Kenyans to elect the ODM party leader as the country’s fifth president.

“This cooperation (between Kenyatta and Raila) is what we expect to see us through so that the projects that are currently going on will not stop when the president retires,” said Kagwe, the cabinet secretary for health.

Wamalwa, the defence minister, concurred. “We are appointed to assist the president, so if he says the handshake between him and Raila will bring peace and development I, Fred (Matiang’i) and Kagwe, as his helpers, we support it.”

Ogeto, on the other hand, did not mince his words. “We want to say that perhaps this is the time now for you (Raila) to be rewarded,” he said.

Ruto under attack

A few weeks earlier, the ICT cabinet secretary, Joe Mucheru, had dismissed Ruto’s bottom-up campaign slogan as an archaic economic model aimed at hoodwinking vulnerable youth.

His sentiments reignited memories of 2020, when the environment cabinet secretary, Keriako Tobiko, stirred a war of words in the ruling Jubilee party after he referred to Ruto as a mere “secretary”.

“Under the constitution there is only one office that is recognised, and that is the president of the Republic of Kenya, and that office is not vacant,” Tobiko said in response to criticism of the president by Ruto’s allies. “The deputy president is just a secretary of the president.”

What we do not understand is that we have a deputy president who has taken a political position.

As the general election draws near, at least 10 cabinet secretaries have joined the campaign fray. Some have attacked politicians perceived to be opposing the president, contrary to the rules and regulations.

Some Kenyans worry that this behaviour, if left unchecked, might further dent voter confidence and spark suspicion and disputes linked to election preparations. Indeed, some cabinet secretaries are required to work with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to ensure free and fair elections.

In fact, a day after the school fundraiser, Ruto’s allies demanded that Matiang’i, Kagwe and Wamalwa resign. Critics say the trio can no longer be trusted to handle tasks related to the forthcoming election, after they publicly expressed their political stand.

Electoral integrity at stake

Matiang’i and Mucheru are members of the multi-agency forum, which is tasked with planning next year’s general election. Members of the body include the National Treasury, the IEBC, the Judiciary, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, the State Law Office and the Registrar of Political Parties.

Speaking after attending a forum meeting recently, Matiang’i reiterated the government’s commitment to free and fair elections. He said trained security officers will be deployed to offer support to the IEBC in 2022.

However, Matiang’i’s assurances did little to convince the deputy president and his allies, who have repeatedly accused the interior ministry of being used by the so-called ‘deep state’ to lock Ruto out of the presidency. Matiang’i has denied the accusations.

“Cabinet secretaries are supposed to be impartial, but we have a cabinet secretary who is part of the team preparing for an election who has decided that he will support a specific presidential candidate, then the compromising of that election has begun,” said Nandi County Senator Samson Cherargei, a staunch ally of the deputy president.

I have heard that we have been asked to resign because of talking politics. We are stakeholders here and we are going nowhere.

Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro, also a Ruto supporter, expressed similar concerns.

“There is no way the ICT minister (Mucheru), who we believe will be giving technical advice to [the] IEBC, should be going out there declaring his support to one of our competitors,” Nyoro said. “It is also unacceptable for the person in charge of the entire police force in Kenya – that is the cabinet secretary for interior (Matiang’i )– and his defence counterpart (Wamalwa) to be seen as partisan at this critical time.”

The secretary general of the deputy president’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party, Veronica Maina, escalated the matter by writing a protest letter to the IEBC, calling for the removal of Matiang’i and Mucheru from the multi-agency forum.

“It was shocking to see and hear (Matiang’i and Mucheru) publicly endorse the presidential candidature of Raila Odinga, contrary to the provisions of the constitution and statute,” the letter said.

In his reply, IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati asked all state and public officers to uphold political neutrality when discharging their duties. Chebukati argued that Section 23 of the Leadership and Integrity Act of 2012, which seems to give cabinet secretaries and county executive committee members a window to engage in political activity, appeared to run afoul of constitutional requirements surrounding government office holders’ leadership and integrity.

Must political appointees stay neutral?

Chebukati’s response irked some of President Kenyatta’s supporters, who demanded his resignation, accusing him of bias. They say that Ruto is also a member of the Cabinet.

“What we do not understand is that we have a deputy president who has taken a political position,” said Nyeri Town legislator, Wambugu Ngunjiri, a staunch ally of the president. “I have never seen Chebukati write to him.”

Legal experts disagree on whether cabinet secretaries fit the strict definition of public officers who are barred, by the constitution, from engaging in politics. Indeed, they are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president.

According to Nelson Havi, the chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, the issue is not new and has been addressed by the courts. “In 2016 and 2017, there were cabinet secretaries who were actively involved in the campaign aligned to one of the major political coalitions. This matter [was] before the High Court and the Supreme Court. Both courts determined that Cabinet secretaries being state appointees should not participate in political activities,” he said in an opinion piece published in The Star newspaper last year.

ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna, also a lawyer by profession, however differs. “I am a lawyer, and there is no law that bars cabinet secretaries from giving political advice and guidance to their people.”

They should not play party politics that may affect fair public service delivery.

Public Service Cabinet Secretary Margaret Kobia also defended her colleagues, arguing that cabinet secretaries are political appointees and “hence may participate in political rallies and meetings.”

“However, it is with a word of caution and personal responsibility,” she said. “They should not play party politics that may affect fair public service delivery.”

In any event, the politicians under fire have vowed to ignore Chebukati’s plea, maintaining that Article 38 of the constitution gives every Kenyan the right to make political choices. “We shall talk politics from morning to evening,” said Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho. “I have heard that we have been asked to resign because of talking politics. We are stakeholders here and we are going nowhere.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options