STEALING FROM THE SICK

Going by experience, probe into Covid-19 cash will come to naught

We’ll be luckily enthralled by surprise if those stealing Covid-19 billions are nabbed

In Summary

• Corruption at Afya House is unique as it usually touches on the highest echelons in government.

• In the current billion tender alleged heists at Kemsa, popular perception has isolated names of beneficiaries allegedly linked to senior and power individuals in government.

The Ministry of Health Headquarters at Afya House.
The Ministry of Health Headquarters at Afya House.
Image: FILE

Even with the twin special probes ordered by Parliament into the Covid-19 funds use, going with past cases, no one will be held accountable for the theft of billions at Afya House. This is despite the seriousness of the scandals and probes.

Afya or ‘Mafia” House has a reputation for some of the major scandals, whose originators and beneficiaries always walk away scot-free, whistling to the bank.

At the heart of this and the reason why historically no one is brought to book is the fact that those who participate in tender heists are rumoured — with reasonable credibility — to be kin or well-connected individuals to high-ups in government. So, to Kenyans whose reaction to new scandals and government routine investigations has taken to fatalism, the new probes are clean-up jobs to sanitise the theft by buying time for public interest to wane. 

Corruption at Afya House is unique, too, as it usually touches on the highest echelons in government. In the current billion tender alleged heists at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority, popular perception has isolated names of beneficiaries that are allegedly linked to senior and power individuals in government.

Anxiety awaits how the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission acquits itself in a case where a company registered only in January was single-sourced for Sh4 billion tender. It’s obvious the registration was motivated by insider trading of the impending Covid-19 windfall.

It’s also a grim reminder of the rebuttal that greeted a similar case in the early days of the Jubilee regime involving diversion of Sh5 billion meant for maternity support and ultra-viral drugs to other suspect supplies. 

The public felt it was unethical. But kin to President Uhuru Kenyatta, who were handed a juicy tender, fought allegation of favouritism, arguing that like other Kenyans, they too deserve and are free to do business with government.  

In what became the Mafya House scandal, the last we heard of it was that instead of the whistle-blower auditor being decorated with a national award, he was recalled in a move seen to tame him. 

The expectation is that heads would roll, particularly in such an open case of fraud when the ministry threw away nearly a billion on a tender for mobile clinics that turned out to be painted containers.

No investigations were carried out despite public outcry and the tender beneficiaries being known. The containers that’ve been rotting at Miritini NYS camp in Mombasa, have gained notoriety for morphing into nicknames like containerised clinics, maternity units and even mobile hospitals.

The National Assembly made itself a laughing stock when its health committee at one time gave the containers a clean bill of health as worthy of the cash spent while on an “inspection tour” at Miritini. The most current binge is that the containers were being distributed — upon unconfirmed request — to the counties.

Somehow, it seems the government has written off the theft.  And the masterminds at Afya House sat pretty to plot other robberies because no one has recently been prosecuted. Some top government officials such as Cabinet secretaries and principal secretaries who were in office when the theft happened have been rewarded with other appointments, not jail. 

That’s how the Afya House cartels gained invincibility and were left to plot the Sh63 billion leased Medical Equipment Service, single-sourced and forced on the counties. The MES is an on-going saga of escalating costs  for unused, undelivered equipment and lack of service. This seven-year heist is in its fifth year and the 47 counties annually fork out Sh200 million each at source — the National Treasury. The Senate has been investigating it.

MES, however,  remains mind-boggling and a complex web of how international companies with their local brokers underhand business in the developing world. It’s a grim reminder of the case study in betrayal of public trust marooning Graham Hancock’s Lords of Poverty. In MES, power, privilege and corruption are triplets.

I’ve been on the trail of this scandal from its inception in 2015. It was single-sourced and ring-fenced for five preferred contractors and preferred local partner suppliers of expensive consumables at mark-up prices of their whim.  Suffice it that the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on MES may unravel the jinx, and at last bring justice to bear on public good when the Auditor General tables her report early September.  

We’ll also be luckily enthralled by surprise if those stealing Covid-19 billions are nabbed through the National Treasury-ordered audits by the Controller of Budget, whose report deadline is today (Friday 14).

It could be revealed that Covid-19 funds were stolen because government created the context and opportunity for corruption scavengers to thrive. It created an emergency in the Covid-19 response without a fiscal plan. The declaration of emergency created artificial absence of procurement alternatives thus inviting corruption troughs.

In normal times, government bureaucrats get into a stealing frenzy at the end of each financial year. Then, it’s a free-for-all feeding fever as government crooks commit unused funds through restricted tendering and direct procurement of goods and services.

Covid-19 “emergency” became the excuse for the opaque Request for Quotation procurement system to kick in. This meant savvy supply of substandard goods, inflated costs and kickbacks. RFQ is popular because it cancels procurement competition.

The national government committed to spend Sh40 billion at the onset of coronavirus in March, less Sh6.2 billion county governments directly put in. Between March and June, it secured additional Sh230 billion from international institutions, less local donations through Kenya Covid-19 Fund.

Most of the money went to the Ministry of Health and it’ll be interesting to know the breakdown of the funds, and the disbursements given the controversy of Sh4 million tea and snacks, and the alleged scam at Kemsa. 

Not to be left behind are  the counties. Will approved work and procurement plans, and budgets be genuine or fictitious?

All said, with such financial war chest in billions, questions may linger why the country has failed to carry out mass testing, supply enough PPE to health workers, and continues with contact tracing. For as long as we are stringing around with an average 4,000 backdated tests a day, we are only playing with optics. Failure to contain the pandemic as a result of theft amounts to terrorism against the republic and its people. Condoning it is treason.

But the Covid-19 imbroglio has a silver lining. The audits could help rethink whether it’s worth it to channel enormous resources to be stolen in a ministry whose functions ought to be devolved; and whether we shouldn’t stop the circumvention of share of revenue and Equalisation Fund due to counties through Treasury, as if is a token favour.

Isn’t there also an urgent need to have stringent legislation that all county monies be a direct charge on the Exchequer to avoid meddling ministry shenanigans? Shouldn’t we also unbundle the Ministry of Health and release overdue functions and resources to the counties?

Kabatesi is a communications consultant