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‘Kitchen cabinet’ will be a thing of the past

Saturday August 7 2010

FILE | NATION President Kibaki chairs a Cabinet meeting at State House, Nairobi.

FILE | NATION President Kibaki chairs a past Cabinet meeting at State House, Nairobi.  


Whilst waiting to cast my vote in the referendum, I was reflecting on the implications of the changes that the new order will bring to the task of running the Cabinet office.

The job will, in my estimation, be a great deal more complex and the resources – both human and financial – will need to be significantly increased.

With the right tools, the next Secretary to the Cabinet will have a profound impact upon the reforms that our new constitution facilitates.

Without this additional support, the pivotal role of the office will be frustrated.

Although the new county government goes a long way to meet the demands for decentralisation and devolution of power, the Fourth Schedule of the Constitution makes clear the continued crucial role of the national government.  The intended phasing out of the provincial administration after five years will require the Secretary to the Cabinet to be very alert and sensitive to the task of guiding this fundamental step towards real decentralisation.

The problems that arise from divided or shared control were certainly at the root of many frustrations that I and my predecessors experienced while serving as Secretary to Cabinet. The provincial administration was always a sensitive issue and increasingly emphasised the impotence of local government authority.


The new constitution does not specify all the areas of responsibility specifically for the office but the incumbent in the Cabinet office has a very advantageous position of seeing and working with the big picture and using this perspective to influence policy formulation in critical areas.

The devolution of power and the long term strategic thinking that is needed in many areas will require a Cabinet office that is very much up to speed.

Under the new constitution, the Secretary to the Cabinet will have the benefit of working with colleagues who will have been through parliamentary scrutiny.

From my experience, this will be a significant and very positive change.  If the scrutiny results in appointment of people who have skills that are work-related rather than politically related, the Secretary to the Cabinet will have a professional Cabinet to work under.

The fact that a Cabinet Secretary will now not need to be concerned about how his/her actions play out in a political constituency can only be good for Kenya’s progress and governance. The concerns about “the next” election have not been helpful to the making of tough but necessary decisions for the national interest by Cabinet ministers.

Whilst I was in the Cabinet office, many decisions and actions were being determined by largely political considerations and the President would often disregard professional technocratic advice based on careful sound analysis. I might add that in addition to political judgement, down the road “money making” opportunities were often not too far from the surface when individual ministers contributed to discussions.

The Secretary to the Cabinet will hopefully be working alongside principal secretaries and Cabinet secretaries who, through the vetting process of Parliament, will be strictly professional and not entertain such motives in their deliberations.

The positive benefits arising from our new constitution will require that public employees at all levels get behind the reforms and enter into the spirit of the new order.  This is especially important in the higher levels of government and the Cabinet office needs to be the “clearing house” for all Cabinet business.  

In my time and certainly going back through the Moi years, the so- called “kitchen cabinet” met more often, perhaps daily. This second “informal” but very powerful group had far greater influence on the President’s decisions than the constitutional Cabinet.

The Cabinet Secretary cannot be a member of both and, in the new order, the reduced powers of the President should correct what has been a very unprofessional tradition at this level of government. During the transitional period, this particular issue will be of central importance and I hope that the “kitchen cabinet” can be a thing of the past.

The appointment by the President of persons who have been subjected to Parliamentary scrutiny will also impact the parastatal and State offices in so far as it should remove personal obligation to a person and replace it with a sense of obligation to the people of Kenya.

The Cabinet Office, as the clearing house, needs the security of knowing that short-cuts and parallel discussions that go to the President will not impact upon the administrative and due process that the Secretary to the Cabinet must adhere to.

It is not a matter of ‘‘loyalty’’ to the President or to the Secretary to the Cabinet, but rather a tried and tested process by which the people of our country can expect to see sound decisions on governance that have the best chance of moving our nation forward.

The Secretary to the Cabinet has always had this remit but the process and procedures were constantly frustrated by “personal” access by individuals to the President who often made decisions that had had no input from the clearing house or from accountable officials.

This perhaps can be illustrated by a personal recollection. When I was appointed by President Moi to be the Secretary to the Cabinet, my first action was to contact my predecessor and arrange for a formal handing over.

I anticipated that there would be a good deal on which I would need to be briefed about the matters pending for Cabinet action, follow up for decisions made, understanding issues that the office was handling, etc.

The announcement of my appointment was on the 1 p.m. news bulletin, a normal but unfortunate practice at that time, and I was anxious for the briefing to be done without delay. The earliest my predecessor agreed to was 10 a.m. the following day.

Handing over

This surprised me. The handing over took less than 10 minutes and I was told very clearly that all actions came as a result of instructions from State House and that it was there that I should go for “clarification” on the handing over. I was given some keys to various safes which had nothing of particular importance in them and I was warned of a “genie” that drove former Secretaries to the Cabinet to moments of insanity.

I got nothing else to help me except that I was told that I would find many files awaiting action that required discussion with the President.

That was the sum total of my briefing and I learnt that it well reflected the fact that the Cabinet office was not operating as a clearing house but rather as an extension to the President’s office for the large part, to implement his decisions. This will change, or perhaps I should say, must change if the new constitution is to be effectively used.

Having had the privilege of serving as the Secretary to the Cabinet under very different circumstances, I can but emphasise that the human and financial resources to effect reform and change will continue to be scarce commodities.

Cabinet will need to be guided by prudence on many issues.  If the capacity at the heart of the national government is weak, the expectations of Kenyans will continue to be frustrated.