Chrysanthus Barnabas Okemo – Commited to excellence

Chrysanthus Barnabas Okemo, Kenya’s eighth Finance minister, joined the National Treasury at a time when the country was having difficulties with donors. Okemo became part of what was dubbed the “dream team” — a group of leading personalities from the private sector selected to revive the country’s ailing economy — when he was appointed Finance minister in August 1999.

When President Moi crafted the team of technocrats from the private sector in September 1999, he added the Planning portfolio to Okemo’s docket.

Moi named internationally renowned conservationist Richard Leakey, with whom he had fallen out before the 1997 elections, as Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of Public Service in his office.

Martin Oduor-Otieno, a Director of Finance and Planning at Barclays Bank in Nairobi was named Permanent Secretary Treasury, Mwaghazi Mwachofi, a resident representative of the South Africa-based International Finance Corporation as Financial Secretary and Kitili Mbathi as Investment Secretary. Additional members of the team were Titus Naikuni, Chief Executive Officer of Magadi Soda Company, who was taken to Transport and Communications as Permanent Secretary; Shem Migot Adhola, a leading specialist for rural development in Africa at the World Bank, who was taken to agriculture; and Wilfred Mwangi, of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, who was assigned to the Ministry of Energy.

These PSs in key ministries were tasked to turn the economy around and convince donors that Kenya had begun a new chapter.

Based on his private sector engagements as a banker and successful businessman, Okemo had been moved from Energy to Treasury, swapping positions with Francis Yekoyada Masakhalia, the seventh Finance minister. The intention was to give Okemo a World Bank look-alike boardroom with top brains to help convince donors that Kenya was headed for better times.

The Breton Woods institutions had put what they called irreversible demands on the Moi government. They wanted the government to cut down the bloated civil service by carrying out retrenchments and merging non-performing parastatal corporations. Restructuring the energy sector and a zero tolerance to corruption were also key on their agenda.

For Moi, economic growth was a legacy that he wanted to leave. He therefore sought help from outside his government, hence the Dream Team.

After the annual Paris Club round table talks with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that year, a quick disbursement was released to meet the country’s balance of payments to international financial commitments.

At home, the National Bank was almost on its knees following demands by state corporations, including the National Social Security Fund, to return billions of their deposits.

Okemo and the Dream Team converted these deposits to equity, meaning the corporations became shareholders in the bank, pending floatation of shares on the Nairobi Stock Exchange for the public to pump in money.

But it was his first budget speech that brought him fame. Okemo scrapped duty on bicycles commonly known as boda boda, arguing it would spur transport in the countryside. Indeed the entire Parliament broke into laughter but boda boda, meaning crossing the (international) boundaries, began at the Busia border where they would carry people from Uganda and Kenya to either side carrying their merchandise for cross-border trading.

This was long before the motorcycles and tuk tuks widely used today all over the country arrived on the scene. While many saw it as a “sentimental tax waiver” by a minister from Busia County, it spurred economic growth as intended.

Despite his commitment to economic reforms, Okemo’s tenancy at Harambee Avenue did not leave an impact. Influential forces soon set their sights on him as he was seen as blocking payments to contractors who in his opinion were doubtful. Road blocks were put in his way by both influential individuals and Parliament, which blocked laws to create the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (KACA) to fight corruption.

The retrenchment of 250,000 civil servants, for which he had budgeted, also annoyed many.

The Dream Team crumbled, having been fought hard by influential members of KANU. They accused the team of arrogance, using their hefty salaries and a condescending attitude towards their peers in civil service among other reasons for dismantling the team.

They had hardly been in office for 18 months when the fight reached a crescendo. During a fundraising event in St Mary’s School Maraba, Kisii, on 14 October 2000 Okemo defended the team’s excellent performance and their total package of KES 10.8 million per month as justifiable and supported by the contracts they signed.

He told his audience that it could only be reviewed when they renewed their contracts – which they never did as they were disbanded before that could happen. Both Leakey and Oduor-Otieno left in 2001 and others followed.

Later Okemo was appointed Minister for Energy where he oversaw expansion of the energy sector mainly in electricity supply from the traditional hydroelectric power to other sources, including geothermal. He also developed the blueprint for wind power although he did not implement it.

It was under his watch in the first stint (1998) that Independent Power Producers (IPPs) were vigorously used in a move explained as boosting electricity on the national grid to meet a shortfall by traditional power generators.

Although Okemo became a politician after an illustrious career in the private sector and in business — even serving as Managing Director of the government-owned Kenya National Assurance Corporation — he won the Nambale parliamentary seat in Busia County during the 1997 elections, dislodging his political nemesis Phillip Masinde. This was his second attempt.

He had contested the seat in 1992 on a FORD-Asili opposition ticket, losing to KANU’s Masinde amid claims that the election was rigged in the ruling party’s favour.

Despite an otherwise good track record, a scandal surfaced in earnest when Okemo was still influential in the Moi government. In January 2001 his name was linked with that of a company associated with the former Managing Director of Kenya Power and Lighting Company Samuel Gichuru, a powerful executive under Moi. Okemo was still at the Treasury.

A British MP raised the matter in the House of Commons in which he said there were companies in the UK which were being paid inflated bills by the Kenya Government for alleged services delivered.

The MP told the House that there were many contradictory audit queries on those payments to companies based in Jersey, a UK island known to be among offshore destinations for money laundering.

The MP pointed out that the contradictions suggested that British companies, which by law were supported by the UK Government to do business in Africa, abetted corruption. Details of the scandal emerged in the warrants of arrest from Jersey in which the island government intended to charge the two with 53 counts related to corruption.

It emerged that Okemo had opened a bank account in Jersey under his name and that of Arus Management Services where funds were deposited between 1 August 2000 and 3 August 2001.

The papers stated that the two (Okemo and Gichuru) had misled auditors of Wartsilla firm that a company associated with Gichuru, Windward Trading, was receiving the money as consultation fees.

Other charges included false declaration, fraud and money laundering. Some of the payments were related to phantom power projects such as the Ewaso Nyiro Power Plant whose history dates back to 1990 but does not exist.

Okemo and Gichuru fought extradition orders by the Jersey Government. Eventually, the UK government instituted restitution processes to recover the laundered money.

In February 2016 (under Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency) the Royal Court of Jersey confiscated the money laundered by the two. And on 3 March 2017 Jersey Chief Minister, Senator Ian Gorst, signed an agreement with Treasury Permanent Secretary Kamau Thugge to return KES 380 million to Kenya.

Two years earlier, Kenyatta had appointed Okemo to the Kitale-based Kenya Seed Company Board via a gazette notice on 20 March 2015. This kicked up a storm, with lobby groups and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission launching protests about Okemo being appointed to public office while he still had pending integrity questions over the Jersey scandal.

Okemo declined the president’s appointment.



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