Francis Kimemia: The astute pitfalls evader

Francis Thuita Kimemia was the Secretary to the Cabinet during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s first term. He was literally positioned for the job by President Mwai Kibaki’s administration when he was strategically confirmed as Head Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet on 22 December 2012 after acting for almost a year.

Ambassador Francis Muthaura stepped down in January 2012 after the International Criminal Court (ICC) judges ruled that he had a case to answer arising from the violence triggered by the disputed 2007 General Election. Muthaura’s exit paved the way for Kimemia who was confirmed just three months to the 4 March 2013 transitional elections.

Previously, Kimemia worked as Permanent Secretary for Internal Security. The designation of Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet was a compounded powerful post that put whoever held it just a heartbeat away from the President. After the elections in March 2013, Kimemia was retained by the President as Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet. The position of Secretary to the Cabinet is anchored in the 2010 Constitution.

The Secretary to the Cabinet arranges the business of the Cabinet and keeps minutes of its meetings. The holder of the office conveys Cabinet decisions to the appropriate persons or authorities. The position is responsible to the President for ensuring that the appropriate authority concerned with a Cabinet decision takes action and for this purpose, he/she maintains a register of all Cabinet decisions made and action(s) taken.

Kenya’s Cabinet is made up of the President, Deputy President, Attorney General and Cabinet secretaries. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution allows a maximum of 22 ministries. As opposed to the pre-2010 constitutional regimen, a Cabinet Secretary (CS) is no longer a Member of Parliament (MP) and has to be vetted by a Parliamentary committee before being appointed.

The 2013 elections ushered in Uhuru’s first term and a new order at the Cabinet office. In May, Parliament’s Administration and National Security committee approved Kimemia’s appointment as Cabinet Secretary after disregarding recommendations by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission against his appointment, arguing that they were based on suspicions. Under the new Constitution, the Cabinet Secretary is an autonomous position with its own secretariat and functions. For the first time in Kenya’s history the nominee to the position of Cabinet Secretary was vetted by Parliament.

The anti-corruption commission had accused Kimemia of blocking the suspension of a former Kenya Airports Authority Managing Director and a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their mishandling of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport Greenfield Terminal Project, and the purchase of the Tokyo Embassy property respectively.

The Parliamentary team ruled that the decisions made by the Cabinet on the matter were beyond Kimemia’s control. In its findings, the Committee said Kimemia had the necessary qualifications and vast experience in the public service that qualified him for the position of Secretary to the Cabinet.

Indeed, Kimemia had risen through the ranks, having started as District Officer and rising to Permanent Secretary and now to his current position as Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet. “Mr Kimemia has never been implicated in any known scandal during his official capacity,” the report said in the findings.

During the vetting, the Committee said, Kimemia, who would later become the Governor of Nyandarua County, exhibited impressive knowledge on issues touching on Public Service and was keen on making positive proposals on how to move the country forward. The Committee further said he had been involved in major reforms in the Civil Service, including police reforms and performance contracting.

A shy-looking and reserved government bureaucrat-cum-administrator, Kimemia started off serving in the Uhuru government as Head of Public Service and Cabinet Secretary until Joseph Kinyua was appointed to take over the role of Head of Public Service in September 2013.

The Presidency and Cabinet Affairs Office, as previously constituted, was charged with the organisation and coordination of government business, initiating policy and organising activities of the Cabinet and its committees. It provided policy advisories to public agencies and other stakeholders and served as a secretariat to the Cabinet.

Following the signing of the National Accord of 2008, after the disputed 2007 General Election, supervision and coordination of government business was assigned to the newly-created Office of the Prime Minister while the Presidency continued to provide the overall strategic leadership and policy direction to the entire government. Since independence, up to and during the National Accord era, the Permanent Secretary to the President, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of Public Service (PSSC/HOPS) headed the office. The Head of the Public Service in the capacity as Secretary to the Cabinet headed a secretariat that directly supported the President in the execution of Cabinet mandate and other functions.

Under the new Constitution, the Cabinet Secretary is an autonomous position with its own secretariat and functions. For the first time in Kenya’s history the nominee to this position was vetted by Parliament.

Kimemia was the first holder of the Cabinet Secretary position after it was separated from the Public Service arm, and was retained by the Uhuru administration mainly for “continuity”. In April 2013 while unveiling his first Cabinet, the President said: “In order to ensure a smooth transition, we have nominated Francis Kimemia as the Secretary to Cabinet.”

Kimemia said in an interview that one of his main roles was following up the implementation of the government agenda. “You have to isolate issues and issue progress reports on what has been implemented,” he said.

Managing the Cabinet agenda is crucial for a new government and with the experience from the Kibaki administration, Kimemia became a key cog in the transition and setting up of the new government. “There were new people in government and most of them came from the private sector, and therefore needed induction on how government works. They needed to understand that the Cabinet is guided by collective responsibility. That’s how we began to form a culture in the new administration.”

He says the transition was smooth and ideological alignment was easily achieved among Principal secretaries (PSs) and Cabinet secretaries (CSs), most of them drawn from the private sector. The challenge was fitting the now 18 CSs in government down from 45 ministers in the previous administration.

Kimemia came in handy since he understood how government works and helped the President and Deputy President William Ruto put together the right structures for the new government. He was the chairman of both the transition committee and handover process and so quickly became the nerve centre of Uhuru’s government.
During the first days of Uhuru’s Presidency Kimemia said he would sit with the President to set up the government agenda. “The government must continue operating even during transition and must work even without a Cabinet,” Kimemia said. “The President says what he wants and as Cabinet Secretary you see how that should be implemented.”

Kimemia spent about two years guiding the transition process and helped structure what became the foundation of Uhuru’s government. “You must set structures and systems of administration such that the government runs even when the political environment is toxic. That’s why despite the President having issues with his deputy, government functions were barely affected.”

When Uhuru took over government, Kimemia says there was no major overhaul except in parastatals. He says the President picked “very good” ministers who hit the ground running. “Uhuru has a sixth sense in picking people to work with. He is gifted in spotting good people,” said Kimemia, who also sat on the committee that picked the CSs.
On 25 April 2013, President Kenyatta appointed an 18-member Cabinet to start off his first term. Most were new faces with a sprinkling of known people from the political class. The Cabinet comprised the following: Fred Matiang’i (Information, Communication and Technology (ICT); Henry K. Rotich (The National Treasury); James Wainaina Macharia (Health); Ambassador Amina Mohamed (Foreign Affairs); Adan Mohammed (Industrialisation); Anne Waiguru (Devolution and Planning); Davis Chirchir (Energy and Petroleum); Ambassador Raychelle Omamo (Defence); Engineer Michael Kamau (Transport and Infrastructure); and Phyllis Chepkosgey (East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism).

Others were Prof. Jacob Kaimenyi (Education); Felix Koskei (Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries); Prof. Judi Wakhungu (Environment Water and Natural Resources); Dr. Hassan Wario (Sports, Culture and Arts); Najib Balala (Mining); and Charity Ngilu (Lands, Housing and Urban Development.

The first Cabinet meeting was held on 6 June 2013, chaired by the President, where he set the agenda for his government. Uhuru asked CSs to work towards delivering on the promises made by the Jubilee Alliance during the campaigns.

“You must take charge of your ministries, work as a team and get down to the business of serving the Kenyan people who are anxious to see the government deliver on its promises,” the President told the meeting at State House Nairobi.

Uhuru listed key areas where more focus should be placed: government service delivery, economic empowerment, social cohesion, poverty alleviation, food security, better and enhanced national security, implementation of the Constitution, including support for devolution, improved access to health and education.

As the President spoke, Kimemia took notes although he was the author of the script the Cabinet chair was reading. “As Cabinet secretaries you must be accessible to the public. This also applies to staff who work under you. We are all accountable to the people. You are responsible for your docket and staff who work in your ministries must deliver services to the people,” the President said.

The Deputy President also attended the Cabinet meeting. It was agreed that 14 Bills would be republished, while ministries would come up with the needed Bills to enable the government legislative agenda to be anchored in new policies and interventions needed to transform the country.

Barely two years after being inaugurated, some CSs were implicated in corruption, marking the beginning of the end for a good number of them.

On 29 March 2015 Ngilu, the Lands CS, stepped aside following a directive by the Head of State that all officials of the county and national governments named by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) report on graft step down pending investigations.

Ngilu was under investigation for links to a cartel that was responsible for the fraudulent acquisition of land through her ministry. She was accused of receiving kickbacks after the overvaluation of pieces of land purchased by the national government.

Koskei (Agriculture), Chirchir (Energy), Kazungu Kambi (Labour) and Kamau (Transport and Infrastructure) were suspended in March 2015 as they were under investigation over graft. Waiguru, CS for Devolution and Planning, was subject to investigations in a scandal involving the loss of KES 790 million by the National Youth Service (NYS).
She resigned as CS on 21 November 2015, stating that the decision had nothing to do with charges against her but rather medical issues and a doctor’s recommendation.

On November 22, 2015, the President announced his first Cabinet reshuffle, dropping the five CSs linked to corruption. He appointed Dan Kazungu (Labour), Charles Keter (Energy) and Willy Bett (Agriculture). Mwangi Kiunjuri, a former MP, made a debut to Uhuru’s Cabinet, replacing Waiguru as Devolution and Planning CS. Macharia was moved to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, taking over from Kamau and was replaced by Cleopa Mailu as CS for Health. The appointments keenly respected the pre-election political agreement to share posts between Uhuru and Ruto.

Of the original 18, only 6 — Matiang’i, Macharia, Omamo, Mohamed, Mohammed and Balala — served to the end of the President’s second and last term in office.

Kimemia was loathed and respected in almost equal measure. He was as controversial as it gets. In February 2014, he accused the US development agency, USAID, of funding anti-government protests in Nairobi. Kimemia had then claimed the National Security Advisory Committee had evidence that USAID had given money to two activists who had organised demonstrations in the city, but US ambassador Robert Godec dismissed the claims.

As Uhuru firmed up his hold on government, and with Public Service part of the job gone to Kinyua, Kimemia’s public standing continued to wither under the Jubilee administration.

The sacking of Kimemia as Secretary to the Cabinet by the President on 17 April 2015 ended a long Civil Service career of one the most powerful personalities in both Kibaki’s and Uhuru’s administrations. Kimemia’s powerful Cabinet position went to Interior PS Monica Juma, a career ambassador and former university lecturer.

Two weeks before he left the Cabinet, Kimemia had stepped aside to allow for investigations after he was flagged by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission over alleged graft. His exit from government opened a new door in politics.

He is among former Cabinet insiders who stepped aside due to corruption but ended up being elected in the 2017 elections. Kimemia became the Nyandarua County Governor, Waiguru became Kirinyaga County Governor while Ngilu was elected Governor of Kitui County.

What may have seemed a bleak and abrupt ending to Kimemia’s splendid career in Public Service ended up with a coveted gubernatorial position.

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