Opinion

To end ineptitude, hold officials to account for failure in dockets

To end ineptitude, hold officials to account for failure in dockets
  • If the officials of a ministry were punished for bad performance, this country would be charging ahead like a rocket.
  • Public officials should not have the discretion to interfere in commerce in ways that lead to losses to the public and to investors.

Kenyans are outraged that Mariam Kighenda’s car slipped over the edge of a malfunctioning ferry ramp and disappeared into the dark depths of the Likoni Channel, with her four-year-old daughter Amanda Mutheu on board, that no organised rescue was attempted by the Kenya Ferry Services, and that the government is basically helpless: The prospect of the body being recovered is dim. And no one will ever be held to account for it.

This does not surprise me. The reason why Kenya is still a backward place is because public servants, who are paid by the taxpayer, are generally not held to account for the performance of their sector or ministry or department.

There is no incentive for the KFS to be mindful of the lives of commuters. There are no consequences for KFS or the Transport ministry if somebody falls overboard from their faulty ferry.

There are no consequences either if the government, as a corpus, is unable to mount a successful recovery operation or screw up the courage to tell the family — and the public — that it does not have the capacity to do it.

TELKOM MERGER

If the officials of a ministry — from the Cabinet Secretary to the relevant officers — were punished for bad performance, this country would be charging ahead like a rocket.

Recently, we reported the sad story of Telkom Kenya, which is facing almost certain collapse after MPs called in the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate the proposed merger between it and Airtel.

These two firms have been whipped by Safaricom and, if they do not consolidate, who knows whether they will last until the end of the year?

MPs — possibly out of an outsize sense of public interest, if you believe in miracles — wanted the transaction investigated because of a dilution of government shareholding in Telkom from 49 per cent to 30 per cent sometimes in 2012.

Telkom was then owned by Orange. The business required a cash injection, the government would not cough up, so the French put up the money but took a larger stake.

RESPONSIBILITY

Orange has since sold its stake to venture capital firm Helios. When EACC moved in, it stopped the Telkom-Airtel deal, and the work that was being done on the transaction by the regulators was put on hold.

The representative of the shareholder is, of course, the National Treasury, and the experts to look at the transaction should probably have come from either there or the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), where the telecom experts are.

But in their wisdom, MPs thought EACC was better placed to probe the deal.

My argument is not that the merger should not be investigated — by all means, if there is good reason to investigate, go ahead and investigate.

The question is: If Telkom suffers losses or collapses as a diligent policeman investigates what happened almost seven years ago, who takes the responsibility for that loss?

Can the transaction that took place those many years ago be reversed? Should my money be used to buy a loss-making mobile phone company?

Hell, I’m already a shareholder of a very profitable phone company, thank you very much.

PUBLIC INTEREST

Where is the public interest in all this? It’s in protecting the public shareholding in Telkom.

Does the merger diminish or increase the value of the public stake? It increases and secures the value of the public stake, in my opinion.

Telkom becomes part of a bigger, more viable enterprise. The public interest is having a vibrant, profitable telco with some healthy competition.

And why can’t the transaction go on amid investigations? Neither the assets nor the folks involved are likely to run very far. Remedies can still be enforced.

My knowledge of this complex deal is limited. But common sense tells me that MPs ordering an investigation, without clear probable cause, into a private sector deal, and have it conducted by good people who may not have the requisite expertise and whose investigation is generally a glorified fishing expedition, is a bad idea.

Few investors will be willing to go anywhere near a transaction that has even the smell of the government about it.

BOTTLENECKS

Anybody who has tried to invest in this country will tell you that’s the beginning of your problems.

You will be shaken down by the authorities; you have no right to invest in this country unless you have paid bribes.

And you can only own property so long as a well-connected thief does not want it.

The minute the thief wants it, the police, the courts, Lands officials, brokers and all manner of criminals will form a coalition to ensure that your wealth is stolen in broad daylight.

And none of the officials paid to safeguard you and your property will ever be held to account.

There must be rules which are strongly enforced on how we go about stuff.

Public officials should not have the discretion to interfere in commerce in ways that lead to losses to the public and to investors.

But most important of all, officials must have a strong incentive to ensure positive outcomes in their areas of jurisdiction and be punished for failure, whether it is sinking cars or multibillion-shilling transactions blocked by endless investigations.