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Rise and tumble of the ‘mumbling moneyman’ Henry Rotich

Wednesday July 24 2019

DEVOLUTION

National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich speaks during the African fiscal forum at Radisson Blu Hotel in Nairobi on February 14, 2019. The ministry has indicated how funds will be apportioned to all counties. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

PAUL WAFULA
By PAUL WAFULA
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Until April 2013, Mr Henry Rotich, the ‘mumbling moneyman’, was a little-known economist operating behind the scenes in President Mwai Kibaki’s government.

He was an unlikely candidate for the top job at the National Treasury when the Jubilee government took power.

SH280 BILLION

But he had done enough when he was in charge of the macroeconomics department at the Treasury to win the admiration of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had a short stint as Finance minister.

His surprise appointment shocked even insiders at the time, since President Kenyatta had sidestepped other senior economists to settle on him.

There were also two senior bankers in the same Cabinet who qualified for the job. But they were assigned the health and industrialisation dockets.

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Before he rose to the top, Mr Rotich was one of the most prolific civil servants, a silent technocrat, who worked tirelessly and largely went unnoticed in putting together the national budget.

That was not the only reason that made him attractive. He had no corruption baggage from his past life, and he was not from the privileged class, having lived a humble life and attended ordinary schools in what is now Elgeyo-Marakwet County. He was the safest pair of hands that calmed the nerves on both sides of the ruling coalition.

It was impossible to see at the time that it would be dam projects, from his Elgeyo-Marakwet County, that would bring him down years later.

His first test came a year after he took over the lucrative 14th floor office at the Treasury when he led the country to its debut Eurobond loan — a staggering Sh280 billion — taken in two bites in 2014. But after the money came in, Mr Rotich fumbled to explain how it was spent.

If you pushed him to provide a list of all the projects the debt is going into, he would find the best way to mumble himself out of it. A list his ministry promised to publish on the projects is yet to come out of the Treasury.

But he has always had a problem with saying ‘No’. Insiders see in him a CS who has found it hard to stand his ground when push comes to shove. He cuts the image of a ‘Yes Man’, who is always too eager to please, and granting almost every item on the government wish lists even when he would least afford it.

DEBT APPETITE

But he will mostly be remembered for running a docket that has had an insatiable appetite for debt, earning himself the reputation of the master of debt.

Mr Rotich inherited a ministry that had worked hard to remove Kenya from the list of countries that would crush without budget support. In under six years, Kenya has borrowed so much that it cannot meet its expenditure needs without budget support.

He took charge when the public debt was at Sh1.7 trillion. He has grown this three times in the last five years to Sh5.1 trillion.

This is an increase of Sh3.4 trillion and translates to a borrowing of Sh600 billion a year or Sh50 billion a month, the fastest accumulation of debt in Kenya’s history.

Top student

His predecessors were also borrowing. But when he took charge, Mr Njeru Githae was borrowing about Sh115 billion a year. At Sh600 billion a year, Mr Rotich was borrowing at a rate that is five times more than his predecessors.

In academics, Mr Rotich was not an ordinary student. He never struggled to post good grades in school. His performance from primary showed a student destined for greatness.

He was always top of his class at Fluorspar Primary School in Keiyo South where he started his education.

He proceeded to St Joseph’s High School for his secondary education.

HAUNT HIM

Though being a ‘Yes Man’ has always worked for him, it appears it is also the one thing that is going to haunt him as he fights the ghosts of the Sh63 billion Kimwarer and Arror dams scandal.

He now faces charges of a conspiracy to defraud, engaging in a project without prior planning, abuse of office, wilful failure to comply with the public finance management law and committing an offence of financial misconduct.

Since the scandal broke, he retreated from the public, missing important foreign trips. He always knew this day would come.

Before he became the moneyman, Mr Rotich worked at the research department of the CBK and had a three-year stint at IMF’s local office in Nairobi, where he worked as an economist.

He has been a director on several boards of State corporations among them the Insurance Regulatory Board, the Industrial Development Bank, the Communications Authority of Kenya and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

His second master’s degree is in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School in the United States.

He also holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in economics from the University of Nairobi.

On Tuesday, Mr Rotich was released on a Sh15 million bail.