Coronavirus in Kenya: Fearing ‘money heists’ amid pandemic

In our series of letters from African journalists, Waihiga Mwaura writes from Kenya about concerns that money set aside for the fight against coronavirus is being misspent.

The hashtag #Money Heist has been trending on Twitter in Kenya in recent days – not because of the Netflix series which featured a memorable character called Nairobi but because of a controversial report presented by Health Secretary Mutahi Kagwe to parliament.

The report was a breakdown of how 1.3bn Kenyan shillings ($12.2m; £9.8m), mostly donated by the World Bank, was used in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

What caught the attention of the parliamentary committee and Kenyans at large was the cost of some of the items procured or leased.

It showed that 42m shillings was used to lease ambulances, 4m shillings went on tea and snacks, and 70m shillings on communication.

Kenya’s vibrant online community immediately began to question some of the expenses.

Why lease 15 ambulances at that amount instead of just purchasing new ambulances or using the existing fleet?

Why allocate 2m shillings for mobile phone airtime when Telecommunications Company Safaricom had offered officials involved in the fight against the virus a free package?

Had the airtime previously allocated to the health ministry for the 2019/2020 financial year already been exhausted?

Why was 70m shillings allocated for communication, bearing in mind that media houses had already contributed to airtime for coronavirus-related news updates?

The questions became all the pertinent amid reports that the lockdown intended to curb the spread of the virus had worsened poverty, even forcing a mother to cook stones to make her eight children believe she was preparing food for them.

Granted there were a few Kenyans online, such as Ted Ed who, citing his finance background, justified the expenditure, saying he was confident that any audit would give the government “a clean bill of health”.

Nevertheless, the damage was done and the government was forced to defend itself. President Uhuru Kenyatta denied that any money had been misappropriated or stolen, while Mr Kagwe dismissed the allegations as “propaganda”.

Official’s tweet deleted

But shortly thereafter Mr Kagwe carried out a reshuffle in his ministry, transferring 30 senior procurement and accounting officers, according to Kenya’s leading Daily Nation newspaper.

Was this an already scheduled reshuffle or was it a reaction to the hue and cry over the expenditure?

Health services are under pressure to do more testing to curb the spread of Covid-19

What confused many was that the most senior civil servant in the ministry, Susan Mochache, tweeted a statement saying that they had not received the “complete amount of 1 billion kshs from the World Bank and no money had been spent at all”. The tweet with those details was hurriedly deleted.

So why did the ministry present a report to parliament with a column entitled “funds used”?

Auditor-general’s post left empty

It is possible that no money has been lost but at the least there is a lack of proper co-ordination within the ministry at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19.

Kenyans are worried because the ministry is no stranger to controversy – the auditor-general could not account for 10.9bn shillings allocated to the ministry in the 2017/18 financial year and a similar amount in the 2015/16 financial year.


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