Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kenya minister steps aside over saga

Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang'ula during a news conference at his office October 27, 2010 where he said he was stepping aside to allow investigations into the embassy deal saga. PETERSON GITHAIGA

Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang'ula during a news conference at his office October 27, 2010 where he said he was stepping aside to allow investigations into the embassy deal saga. PETERSON GITHAIGA  

By JOHN NGIRACHU

Kenya Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang'ula has stepped aside to pave way for probe into the Sh1.1bn Tokyo embassy scandal.

“I want to tell Kenyans with a clear conscience that I have this afternoon made the decision to step aside from my responsibility and appointment as the Minister of Foreign Affairs to give room and pleasure to those who have been tormenting and haunting me for three four weeks and give room to the very able arms of investigations to carry out their investigations,” he said during a news conference at the Ministry's office in Nairobi.

He, however, maintained his innocence over the mega scandal that had threatened to end his career.

Mr Wetang'ula move comes just hours before Parliament was set to conclude debate on a report by the Defence and Foreign Relations Committee, which recommended that the minister and his permanent secretary step aside to facilitate investigations.

He attributed his troubles over the past four weeks to the Parliamentary committee, whose report he said was laced with malice, rumours, innuendo, conjecture and was crafted “in the most unprofessional character".

But he vowed to come back after the investigations now being conducted by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission are complete, quoting a Luhya saying.

“Where I come from they say, a bedbug told his kids, whatever is hot will always cool down. I have no doubt this will. When am vindicated I’ll be back,” he said.

“Those who carry daggers against others should know that the forces of evil will never last. In God we trust,” he added grimly, and looking genuinely angry.

The minister cast a sarcastic tone as he thanked the journalists for the adverse publicity he has had over the past four weeks as the debate on the committee’s report raged.

“I want to thank you because you’ve given me the publicity I have never had in my whole life, perhaps I will never have… the publicity that every politician desires to have. Even those who didn’t know me do so now,” he said.

He said he had given in to the “court of public opinion and the court of the Fourth Estate which have found the minister of Foreign Affairs culpable".

President Kibaki was reported to have held a long meeting with Mr Wetang’ula, who is also the Sirisia MP, before he announced his decision.

“The only thing I must do is to step aside and give my appointing authority, the President... an opportunity to have a free hand to address this issue. I’m sure he does not want to have a corrupt minister in his fold.”

Earlier, PS Thuita Mwangi had communicated to President Kibaki his decision to leave office temporarily.

"I have consciously taken this decision as an expression of my confidence that at the conclusion of the on-going investigations by the Kenya Anti Corruption Commission, the appropriateness of my engagement with all aspects of the operations pertaining to this matter will undoubtedly be established," he said in a statement.

"I step aside purely as a matter of personal dignity and professional integrity – indeed, the very same dignity and integrity I have upheld in the performance of my duties for more than twenty-two years of public service at various levels in the Government."

A host of leaders reacted to the news.

Foreign Affairs assistant minister Richard Onyonka termed Wednesday “a sad day for the ministry”.

“It’s a matter that should never have happened. But, in a way, it is something that was inevitable. When accusations are made against a leader, it’s time that they come out and step aside, so that if investigations are done and you’re innocent, you come in better and people respect you,” Mr Onyonka told journalists at Kenya’s Parliament, within half-an-hour of the minister’s resignation..

He said that Kenyans now wanted leaders to change their leadership style and take responsibility in the way the manage public affairs.

“At any time when you are a leader and there are doubts and questions about you, then people are very uncomfortable with you," he said. “For me, Thuita Mwangi (the permanent secretary) and the minister were my friends and I’ll miss them when they’ll be away.”

Nairobi Metropolitan minister Njeru Githae said the political culture with regard to accountability of public officers had to change.

“The problem of our culture is that when you step aside, people deem you to be guilty. Even when an investigation has been done and you’re found to be innocent, people say, there’s been a cover-up.

"In view of the high threshold required under Chapter Six on Leadership and Integrity, then that’s something we have to adopt,” said Mr Githae.

Mr Mithika Linturi, the chairman of Parliament’s Public Investment Committee, said Mr Wetang’ula’s resignation was “the most honourable thing” to do in the light of the new Constitution.

He said the minister will now have to wait for the investigations to clear his name or to be convicted because those were the requirements under the new Constitution.

Youth and Sports assistant minister Kabando wa Kabando scoffed at the Mr Wetang'ula and Mr Mwangi's move saying they should not be viewed as “heroism or a difficult act".

“Their resignations are funny. Resigning should be simply called an act of decency and grace,” Mr Kabando said.

On Wednesday, the minister denied responsibility for the scandal in Parliament and instead shifted blame to civil servants in his Ministry.

"The long and short of it is this; ministers don’t deal with transactions. We deal with what we are given; ministers only deal with policies,” Mr Wetang’ula said.

“The minister does not procure, the minister does not sign cheques, the minister does not sign vouchers, the minister does not chair committees, the minister does not deal with budgets…” he said during his presentation to the House.

The report reveals that Foreign Affairs Ministry officials ignored recommendations from civil servants and independent valuers to saddle the public with huge bills that could have been avoided.

The Kenya Anti Corruption Commission (Kacc) is now also investigating embassies in Islamabad (Pakistan), Brussels (Belgium), Lagos (Nigeria) and Cairo in Egypt.

In Lagos, the ministry sold two plots said to have been in “one of the choicest areas” of the former political capital of West Africa’s largest country.

The plots were next to the homes of former Nigerian president Ibrahim Babangida, the residence of the British High Commissioner and the residence of the governor of Lagos, among others.

A government team had recommended that Kenya retains the properties but the ministry sold them, claiming they wanted to build a new embassy in Abuja. In the end no embassy was built in Abuja; the government rents premises in Lagos for the embassy.

Over Sh80 million from the sale is not satisfactorily accounted for and a lawyer who acted for the ministry in the transaction is still demanding millions of shillings as legal fees.

In Brussels, the ministry lost an estimated Sh84 million by asking the owner of a building, more than 90 years old, to include the cost of valueless furniture in the price.

Additional reporting by Alphonce Shiundu

advertisement