What do Fred Matiang’i and Alfred Mutua have in common?
They dominate media coverage and social media feeds with one “achievement” after another as if they work miracles or have superpowers while their colleagues appear like lesser mortals incapable of getting anything right.
It was no surprise that Dr Matiang’i was among the first crop of Cabinet secretaries to be retained by President Uhuru Kenyatta in his new Cabinet. He is, after all, the darling of the public with his quick turnaround of the national exams results and other populist, headline-grabbing stunts that have endeared him to the common man.
Had the former university lecturer not been reappointed, there would have been a mini mutiny in some quarters, and with good reason.
A relatively unknown before his nomination to the information, communication and technology post in government, he quickly gained notoriety by taking on the “cartel” of media owners and ramming digital migration down their throats, their concerns notwithstanding.
When he was moved to the education docket, unannounced school visits became the order of the day, complete with a televised dressing down of any head teacher he could find. For a society that loves spectacle over substance, he earned widespread praise for his hands-on approach to education management.
Then he got into the habit of releasing the end of primary and secondary school exams results earlier than usual and he was practically a saint in the eyes of many Kenyans. He is also credited with eliminating cheating in the examinations and restoring order to the sector, often compared to John Michuki’s groundbreaking work in the matatu industry.
The godlike status Matiang’i has acquired in Kenya means that there is almost no serious scrutiny of his actions by the masses. This is a man who presided over a brutal crackdown of constitutionally protected rights to protest during last year’s two elections, yet any criticism of that shameful period is dismissed as partisan politics.
This is the same man who won’t submit himself to a critical interview, preferring instead to speak to friendly journalists who will not see beyond the halo over his head. Dr Matiang’i has told me in person and at least another of my colleagues that he would never be interviewed by a reporter from NTV because he believes we are biased against him.
His mind was tightly shut when we reported on claims that he refused to queue at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and had an employee fired for doing her job. He denies that any of this happened, of course, but refuses to give his side of the story on our station.
Dr Matiangi’s leadership style is problematic, partly because of its popular appeal. The godlike status that he has acquired in Kenya allows him to walk around with the arrogance of a colonial chief, answerable to no-one except President Uhuru Kenyatta.
He likes to focus on quick wins, like exam results or management by wandering around, but ignores the systemic issues in whichever department he’s working. How have learning outcomes improved since he came into the education sector? Are teachers better motivated or has absenteeism reduced or are there higher standards in general? What Dr Matiang’i has done is to airbrush the exterior of the building even as it falls apart inside with clogged toilets, broken furniture, poorly lit corridors and filthy floors.
If Dr Matiang’i were to carry his abrasive style and little regard for criticism to his new post at the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of Government, we will be applying his defective management philosophy at a scarily grand scale. In a government and society overrun with mediocrity everywhere you look, even minimal effort is glorified to the point of ridiculousness.
Kenyans celebrate when results are quickly rushed out, without worrying about the abnormally high failure rate. Some people applaud when security agencies use excessive force even on unarmed protesters, not realising that it normalises police brutality that will stay long after the current officers are gone. They cheer when another public official is fired in front of the cameras without considering the larger challenges that are not fixed by a symbolic dismissal.
There is little empirical evidence so far that all of Dr Matiang’i’s reforms are anything more than window-dressing. His seemingly superior performance might be blamed on a country so accustomed to low standards that even minimal effort is seen as monumental success. If anybody should be congratulated for doing an excellent job, it must be his public relations team that is always on hand to magnify every minor development, and a gullible media machine.
There are deep systemic issues in both the security and education sectors that Dr Matiang’i has not even remotely addressed. He has his undeniable successes in a limited sense but I wouldn’t canonise him just yet. Considering the top billing he gets, his actual tangible results are still rather slim and he is hopelessly overrated.
Will the media survive Jubilee again?
Shortly after President Uhuru Kenyatta took office for his first term, he invited editors to State House for a breakfast meeting and an awkward group photo.
Fun fact: one journalist who struggled to get a good spot near the president in the picture joined the administration soon after. The criticism that the media had been co-opted into government with that one tea was almost instantaneous and continues.
Despite paying lip service to media freedom, his government has been incredibly intolerant of critical coverage. So when I heard the audio of former Nation journalist and current Deputy President William Ruto spokesman David Mugonyi threatening Nation journalist Justus Wanga over a story, the irony was too rich.
“Do you want to get fired?” he asked the reporter, assuring him he could make that happen. They expect only flattering reporting and threaten or insult those who do not toe the line. I’ve been telling colleagues that our freedom in this second term will be harder to defend but I didn’t realise the assault would begin this soon. But we’re ready, bring it on!
‘Fire and Fury’ all over WhatsApp
Just hours after American journalist Michael Wolff’s explosive book on the chaos inside President Donald Trump’s White House, it was already doing the rounds on WhatsApp. Soft copies of the entire book were getting shared on almost every group I’m in so it was impossible to avoid it.
I saw several journalist friends publicly condemn the blatant theft of intellectual property but many people probably didn’t care. After all, we all went to schools where we had to photocopy the single book for everyone in the class. Some of us even had situations where we photocopied an entire book because it was cheaper than buying the original.
We aren’t really big on respecting intellectual property as a society and I don’t think a wealthy writer half a world away will make us change that. The only successful Kenyan authors are those who write textbooks or set books that get adopted for use in schools countrywide. Sad!
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