James Wainaina Macharia: A corporate world trailblazer turned valued technocrat

Were it not for the 2010 Constitution, the public may not have benefitted directly from the endowments and exposure of James Wainaina Macharia, the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Transport and Infrastructure. Indeed, the Constitution reconstructed governance and, for the first time since Independence, provided for a Cabinet of technocrats.

Previously, the President handpicked the Cabinet from sitting Members of Parliament (MPs) — elected or nominated.

Macharia, an accountant and banker, was just the right technocrat for a CS position. President Uhuru Kenyatta felt Macharia’s brilliance and intrinsic self-sacrifice were critical in streamlining the Health sector. He was convinced that Macharia’s mettle was the panacea to the ailing sector.

The ministry was huge on budget, but short on delivery. It was clear from Macharia’s comments during his vetting by Parliament that he knew exactly where the problem was — corruption. He convinced Parliament that the Health Ministry needed an overhaul to rid the sector of runaway corruption.

Available reports indicate that Macharia’s career started off at Deloitte & Touche as a Chartered Accountant. He later joined the Standard Chartered Bank in 1989, where he rose to become the Financial Controller. He then headed to Zambia and later to Tanzania as the Managing Director, African Banking Corporation. From 2005 to 2013, Macharia served as Group Managing Director at NIC Bank. It is here, at the NIC, that Macharia’s mettle became markedly evident. The bank experienced unprecedented growth, opening branches in neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda.
Here was a man with a bachelor’s degree in commerce (1983) and a master’s degree in business administration. So, when President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto shopped around for suitable technocrats to take up the 22 slots in the Cabinet, Macharia’s name was one of them. The 1959-born alumnus of Kagumo High School (both O’ and A’ levels) and the University of Nairobi, was ready to forego huge perks in the private sector for national and public good.

“When I joined, my salary dropped to 20 per cent of what I was getting from the bank. A slash of 80 per cent; I balanced on the fact that it was a chance of a lifetime to serve. Frankly, even if it was 10 per cent, I was still going to join government,” he once reminisced.

His résumé in the private sector was impressive. But the call to serve the nation, was a shock, “I never believed it would happen”. This explains his reluctance to take the call that would eventually thrust him into public limelight. “They called on a landline. The call came and I ignored it because I did not know the number and I had clients. Then I got a message saying, ‘Can you please take the call when it comes next … When it came, it was the President’s secretary on the line who put the call through to the President and, as they say, the rest is history.”

Vision 2030 and other socio-economic blueprints place the Health sector among the priority areas for investments. A healthy population is a productive nation, as it were. It is against this backdrop that Kenya, as a signatory to the Abuja Declaration in 2001, committed to increase health allocations to 15 per cent of its Budget. No wonder, his drive was to ensure every Kenya is covered. He once observed, “The health outcomes in Kenya are weak and this is associated with poverty, lack of access to improved water and low access to usage of preventive services. The health systems are overstretched and making universal healthcare accessible is my priority.”

This appointment received instant approval from the industry. The chair of the National Nurses Association, Jeremiah Maina, said that as a financial expert Macharia would ensure that the money allocated to the ministry would be properly utilised.

Within months in his appointment, and jointly with his Principal Secretary (PS) Khadija Kasachoon and Nicholas Muraguri, the Director of Medical Services, the CS had developed the Ministerial Strategic and Investment Plan 2014–2018 whose theme was “accelerating the attainment of equitable, accessible quality health care for all”, and the Human Resources Strategy 2014–2018. Other blueprints were produced in line with Vision 2030, among them the Kenya Health Policy 2014–2030. Macharia also came up with the Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015–2030.
In October 2013, the ministry launched the Kenya National Patients’ Rights Charter that incorporated palliative care as a basic health right. In launching the charter, Macharia said, “The launch of this charter marks a milestone in showing our commitment in upholding health care as a constitutional right to all Kenyans … The national government will reinforce the health rights as stipulated in the Constitution with an ultimate goal of ensuring efficiency in the various areas of operation”.

Just under two years in office, Macharia was called upon to make decisions on Kenya’s role and place in the fight against the Ebola pandemic. He decided to dispatch 170 health experts to Ebola-hit West Africa, to join others from around the world called upon to stem the epidemic. “This outbreak has surpassed all other previous outbreaks put together 8 times over. The African Union has shown serious commitment and we appreciate this,” he told the Kenya contingent before it left. Besides, Kenya contributed KES 118 million (based on the current exchange rate) towards the global response against the disease.

But the defining moment of his tenure at Afya House, the Ministry of Health is headquarters, was the launch in July 2014 of the Universal Health for All campaign, the precursor for Universal Health Coverage (UHC). At the time, only 10 per cent of Kenyans were covered by health insurance. “Our priority is to make healthcare accessible to all. Patients going to India for medical attention can get the same here if we equip our health facilities and increase training to the healthcare givers,” said Macharia at the launch.

Although this profile cannot list all his achievements at the ministry, the President was impressed by Macharia’s administration. “The investments the government has made since 2013 have seen an increase of 43 per cent in public health facilities from a stock of 4,429 facilities in 2013 to 6,342 currently. In the same period, our ICU capacity has increased by an impressive 502 per cent and our total hospital bed capacity has also increased significantly by 47 per cent”.

But his stint at the ministry’s headquarters, was marred by questions about corruption and financial probity, and an outstanding case was the USD 109 million (KES 12.8 billion, based on current rate of exchange) reportedly lost in the period 2015/16, according to the then report by the Auditor General Edward Ouko. Macharia’s successor Sicily Kariuki later disputed this and cited accounting lapses at the ministry.

But two controversial projects — provision of mobile clinics and the Managed Equipment Services Scheme (MES) — remain a blot on Macharia’s sterling performance as Health CS. In the first case, Kenya lost KES 800 million to politically connected individuals who, it is alleged, supplied empty containers rather than mobile clinics.
The MES was the government’s idea to support devolution through equitable, accessible, affordable and quality healthcare in counties. The project provided for the equipping two hospitals in every county and four national referral hospitals with outsourced specialised state-of-the-art medical equipment. However, the beneficiaries, mainly counties, were hardly involved in this KES 41 billion project. The Council of Governors and the Senate faulted the investment. “The MES (Managed Equipment Services) project was a criminal enterprise shrouded in opaque procurement processes,” the Senate’s ad hoc committee on the deal said in its report.

Macharia’s tenure at the Ministry of Health ended in November 2015, when the President moved him to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, to replace the then embattled Michael Kamau. Not only does it have clout, this Ministry is a big-money spending docket, taking up a huge chunk of the Budget. The previous office-holder, Kamau, had earlier been charged in court, accused of ignoring government regulations and redesigning the Kamukuywa–Kapsokwony–Sirisia road leading to a loss of KES 33 million.

Indeed, it is a huge docket that draws, among other departments, Housing and Urban Development, Marine and Shipping, and Public Works. It comprises tens of State agencies. It is perhaps the most crowded in terms of departments and agencies.

Currently, and given the President’s focus on infrastructure development, the ministry is the most heavily funded of all ministries, only rivalled by the ministries of Health and Education. Uhuru, like his predecessor, President Mwai Kibaki, was convinced that infrastructure is a big stimulant to economic growth.

Within seven years of his appointment, Macharia had superintended over the implementation of epochal projects not achieved since Independence 59 years ago. These include the multi-billion Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), Dongo Kundu road network, the Nairobi Expressway connecting the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and James Gichuru Road in Westlands, the Lamu Port–South Sudan–Ethiopia–Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor and new terminals at the Mombasa Port. He also takes credit for the rehabilitation of the old railway network, the construction and rebuilding of thousands of kilometres of roads countrywide, and the building of thousands of house units. Instructively, SGR and Nairobi Express are game-changers.

Cabinet Secretary James Macharia joins President Uhuru Kenyatta, and Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi among other Government officials and representatives of the contractors during the launch of freight service on the Standard Gauge Railway from Nairobi to Naivasha.

In Macharia’s own view, the KES 60-billion Expressway, the first in Africa using private foreign capital and which seeks to ease vehicular movement in Nairobi, is “one of the finest projects in the continent”. It opened to the public on 14 May 2022, and within a month of its operation, over 31,000 vehicles were using it daily.

During his 2022 Madaraka Day (1 June) speech, the President was all-praises about this awe-inspiring development. “Today, the Nairobi Expressway snakes majestically through the skylines of Nairobi as a wonder to behold. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken us 4 years to build it but we achieved in a year and a half because we believed in Kenya, in our people, and in ourselves as government.”

When complete, the SGR — which remains Kenya’s single largest investment ever — will have cost KES 800 billion, from Mombasa to Kisumu. The KES 477-billion stretch between Mombasa and Naivasha is already functional.
The government believes that infrastructure is the number one enabler of economic growth and transformation, and this is why the President decided to pick up where his predecessor Kibaki left off. But unlike Kibaki, Uhuru has gone full throttle and he sees the transformation of highways, rural roads and railways as his signature legacy projects. His government has spent KES 1.5 trillion on roads since 2013, compared to Kibaki’s KES 474 billion in the period 2003–2013. In fact, road projects recorded the highest proportion of programme expenditure during Uhuru’s tenure as President.

Macharia’s docket has been using between 38 per cent and 41 per cent of the national budget. A national daily newspaper once branded him “super”, minister owing to the large budget enjoyed by his ministry. When he took office, expenditure on roads rose from KES 120 billion in 2014/15 to KES 184 billion in 2021/22.

During the same Madaraka Day event of 2022, the President could not hide how impressed he was at the infrastructural heritage he was set to leave behind as part of his leadership legacy. “Our world-class infrastructure, from iconic elevated expressways to floating bridges, (has) put Kenya on the global map. As a result, we have distinguished ourselves as an investment destination of choice, a regional and continental hub, and a leader on the African continent.”

Kenya’s attainment in the sphere of infrastructure development has not been in vain. Indeed, the African Development Bank (AfDB), which funded the 13-km Outer Ring Road in Nairobi, has been impressed. “The projects have transformed the lives of the people while at the same time reduced accidents and vehicle repair time,” the AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina once said, praising Uhuru’s administration for satisfactorily managing projects funded by the bank. It has invested KES 4.6 trillion in development projects Kenya in the last 7 years, with infrastructure taking up 72 per cent of this investment.

In the 2020 reorganisation of the Cabinet, the ministry’s leadership included Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) Chris Obure and Permanent Secretaries Esther Koimet (Infrastructure), Solomon Kitungu (Transport), Nancy Karigithu (Shipping and Maritime), Gordon Kihalangwa (Public Works), Charles Hinga (Housing and Urban Development) and Paul Maringa (Infrastructure).

As it were, controversies always stoke success. Indeed, like in the case of Health docket noted earlier in this profile, Macharia’s tenure at Transcom House attracted questions about his management probity. His decision to hire three people from his own ethnic background to a key state agency — Nairobi Metropolitan Transport Authority (Namata) Board — raised questions about his fidelity to the Constitution. It took the authority of the Labour Court to revoke his decision.

“The interested parties subject of this suit … are all from one ethnic community and do not represent the diverse fabric that is the Kenyan nation. Their appointment therefore smacks on the evils of old which Kenyans opted to do away with in the Constitution we took on for ourselves in 2010,” Justice Nzioki wa Makau ruled in September 2021.
A further headache for Macharia was the pervasive corruption at Mombasa Port that defied the litany of personnel sackings, suspensions, transfers and convictions. In July 2022, the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) did not have a substantial chief executive following the resignation of Hezron Manduku over corruption. That apart, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) began joint operations with Interpol and British authorities to unravel cargo theft at Mombasa Port.

Although reluctant to plunge into politics, CS Macharia was well able to defend himself from political attacks. This was evident when he covertly beat back an attempt by a cabal of MPs led by Nyali Constituency’s Mohamed Ali to impeach him on accusation that he disregarded stakeholders’ views and failed to conduct public participation in the implementation of ministry projects. Ali was opposed to a government decision to order transport companies to use the SGR for cargo movement between Mombasa and Naivasha.

Instead, most MPs defied their partisan posturing to defend Macharia. Lawmaker Lillian Gogo claimed that MP Ali’s intent was to extort from Macharia. “Our work (as MPs) is oversight but not oversight that is related to extorting money from people. We are not going to allow you as a Member to come and malign the name of the CS,” she said.

The President, no doubt, had a high regard for CS Macharia. Indeed, Macharia was among the 14 individuals Uhuru named to oversee the hand-over of power after the 9 August 2022. This Committee was mandated to facilitate the handing over process by the outgoing President to the President-elect, the provision of the security detail and security briefings to the President-Elect among other key functions.

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