Francis Yekoyada Omoto Masakhalia – Career civil servant who became the seventh finance minister

Francis Yekoyada Omoto Masakhalia, Kenya’s seventh Minister of Finance, went down in history as Kenya’s shortest serving minister in this role under President Daniel arap Moi. He served only six months in the job. He entered the Finance office on 27 February 1999 after serving as Minister of Industrial Development, and left in August of the same year.

During his short time at the Treasury Masakhalia capped the engine size of cars driven by Cabinet ministers and Permanent Secretaries at no more than 1,800 cc. Large Mercedes Benz vehicles were parked at the Foreign Office, ostensibly to be used by visiting foreign dignitaries, while others were parked in Nairobi’s Industrial Area to be offered for sale through public tender.

But he was just implementing what his predecessor, Simeon Nyachae, had proposed in an earlier budget reading. However, Nyachae’s attempts to seize the big vehicles had floundered as politicians fought the initiative.

Masakhalia was a technocrat par excellence. He was a career civil servant who rose steadily through the ranks of the civil service. With a doctorate in Economic Development, founding President Jomo Kenyatta appointed him the first Chief Economist in the Ministry of Finance and Planning on 17 May 1972. When Moi came to power seven years later, he appointed him Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Economic Planning in 1980.

His peers and critics alike acknowledge that he was a brilliant man throughout his academic career. He was a schoolmate of Barack Obama Sr, father of former United States President Barack Obama, at Maseno High School. One of their teachers was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

When Tom Mboya began the US airlifts (education sponsorship to study in America) in 1957, Obama Sr and Masakhalia were beneficiaries; Masakhalia went to study at Denver University, Colorado while Obama Sr went to Hawaii. They linked up again in the Treasury where Obama Sr was working as a Research Economist.

It was perhaps his career at the Treasury that caused Moi to notice him. From the Economic Planning ministry, he was switched to Water Development as PS. While there, he was accused of nepotism because he employed people from his home area, Busia, causing a public outcry. He was fired in 1984 and was later employed in the United Nations system.

He was posted to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as an Economic Advisor at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), a body that at the time was headed by Nigerian finance guru Adebayo Adedeji. Later he was transferred to Lesotho in the same capacity, where he remained until the 1988 elections.

Masakhalia will be remembered as a uniquely brilliant person whose intellect and performance were unmatched.

In an ironic twist, the circumstances that led to his sacking endeared him to his constituents. He sailed through as the first MP of the new Butula Constituency in the 1988 General Election. Although he served as minister at the Treasury for only six months, his background gave him an advantage in Finance as he had served in the ministry for a long time before he was appointed minister.

Despite his experience and knowledge of Finance, his stewardship at the ministry did not reverse the downward trend of Kenya’s economy. The shilling plunged from KES 62 to KES 74 per dollar, bank interest rates soared from 7 to 15 per cent and the government defaulted on a USD 52 million (KES 4 billion at the time) foreign debt.

The default on foreign debt was later explained as “administrative delays at the Treasury”, a situation that could have been averted if the minister was a meticulous administrator. Due to the heavy penalties that foreign debt default attracts, any unwarranted default is taken seriously and usually means that someone was asleep on the job and therefore did not deserve to hold that portfolio.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Masakhalia learned of his transfer to the Ministry of Energy via the (in)famous Kenya Broadcasting Corporation one o’clock news bulletin from his Personal Assistant.

As he packed his belongings at Treasury, he told journalists that the energy portfolio was equally challenging as it had a bearing on economic recovery.

“The six-month stint was not adequate for me to put in place economic policies, strategies and measures to get things moving,” he was quoted by the media. He explained that bank interest rates plummeted because there was pressure for additional resources for servicing foreign debt.

Masakhalia revealed that the country was spending KES 35 billion at the time to service domestic and foreign debts. To his credit, he is the Finance minister who instituted the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, a three-year budgeting system enabling the country to project future spending.

His gradual vertical rise through the ranks at the Treasury may have been his undoing. As a minister, one is required to get briefings from technocrats, digest them and attend news conferences or meet donors equipped with the right information. Presentation is equally important.

But here was a minister who considered it strange to be briefed on matters he used to deal with himself and thought he knew it all.

Because he was averse to briefings, he often found himself at a loss when attending crucial meetings with foreign dignitaries. Yet, Treasury is an important part of all governments.

His lacklustre six months at the Finance ministry, coupled with subpar focus, influenced Moi to swap him with his Busia County kinsman Chris Okemo, who moved to Finance from energy.

Masakhalia will be remembered as a uniquely brilliant person whose intellect and performance were unmatched.


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