The intrigues that sank Kenya Today, which hit the newsstands 3 years ago, can now be revealed.
The paper was shut down last December by the Minister of Information and Communication, Samuel Poghisio. By that time, things had become so bad at the paper’s offices on the eight floor of Postbank House in downtown Nairobi that staff had not been paid for months. They were actually on a go-slow.
The brains behind the project, Mr. Ezekiel Mutua, was already home licking his wounds after the ministry interdicted him as the Director of Information and Public Communication and launched investigations into his conduct.
But Mutua’s interdiction and the paper’s demise had wider implications for the ministry. Other ambitious communications initiatives at the Department of Information stalled, like the ongoing revamping of Kenya News Agency, which Mutua had embarked on with zeal, as well as the Kenya Today TV, which would probably have been on air by now.
The Kenya Today story begins in 2005 after the government lost to the opposition in the September 21 referendum on a new constitution. Rejection of the draft supreme law not only thoroughly embarrassed the government but also sent alarm bells pealing throughout officialdom. The vulnerability of the Kibaki administration had been exposed to the whole world. The defeat may have been due to Kenyans’ rejection of the content of the draft constitution, but it was as much a reflection of the politics of the day which he had worked for, for its preoccupation with petty politics.
The popularly elected government of President Mwai Kibaki had slid into turmoil following the break-up of the National Rainbow Coalition that had won the 2002 election by a landslide. A section of the coalition, led by Raila Odinga, had alleged that the Kibaki side had reneged on a pre-election power-sharing agreement.
Wrangles inside the government ensued. Raila and several other Cabinet ministers were sacked thereafter. In a desperate effort to steady the rocking ship of state, President Kibaki did what would have been unthinkable only a few months back: He invited the former ruling party Kanu, which NARC had walloped at the 2002 polls, to join a government of national unity.
Some observers have characterised that move as one of the saddest betrayals of the ‘Second Liberation’. Blood and tears had been shed for decades to wrest power from the muscular and thoroughly stained hands of Kanu and to restore freedom and dignity to the people of Kenya. And yet the man entrusted with leading the ‘liberated’ nation had bent over backwards to cut deals with Kanu!
But Kibaki’s inner circle was not worried about history. They were more concerned with Kibaki’s survival – and, by extension, their own. Keen students of Kenya’s political scene would agree that some of the seeds of the post-election violence of 2007/8 were sowed at that time. The NARC fallout, principally precipitated by the intransigence of the President’s men from Mount Kenya region, polarised the country.
Around the same time, new mega-corruption scandals had emerged in the government that had come to power on the platform of “zero tolerance to corruption.” Erstwhile reformist voices who now enjoyed state power had become implicated in sleaze and abuse of office. The language of reform had been replaced by arrogant chest thumping and profiteering from state coffers.
The Kibaki government looked terrible and the people of Kenya began to sink into deep disappointment. Rejection of the government-backed draft constitution was the clearest indication of popular displeasure with the Kibaki regime.
To shrewd strategists around Kibaki, the most alarming signal from the referendum result was this: Kibaki would not be re-elected as president come 2007, just two years down. Panic set in. It was at this time that one little known Ezekiel Mutua, Secretary-General of the moribund Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ), appeared on the scene. Reading the signs of the times, Mutua, a man said to have the instincts of a lion on the prowl, saw his chance. He activated his network of contacts and soon enough he was talking to then Minister of Information, Mutahi Kagwe, himself a man of considerable media experience in the private sector.
Mutua offered Kagwe free advise: The government was running around like a headless chicken, decapitated by the new opposition. As things stood, Kibaki would lose the upcoming election.
For one, the government had no effective communications strategy. It could not rely on KBC because the state corporation was no professional outfit. Moreover, the NARC administration itself had made some efforts – as part of the long-demanded reform of state institutions – to ensure was no longer a government mouthpiece.
The government was the top ad spender in the private media, but all it got was bad press. The media, which initially supported Kibaki when he came to power, had become his most implacable critic. Its coverage was hugely about the mounting opposition to Kibaki and the new corruption scandals burying his regime in muck. Nothing the government did received any positive mention.
So, what to do? Mutua reportedly advised that the Department of Information, being an organ within the Civil Service (and not a semi-autonomous, politically charged entity as KBC) could be used as the hub for powerful government communications to win over the hearts and minds of the Kenyan people.
Mutahi Kagwe probably ignored Mutua’s punditry, or, more likely, the government bureaucracy took its time, as it is wont, to digest the suggestions.
But eventually, with clear signs that Kibaki would indeed be a one-term president, a big insult anywhere, the government announced the appointment on October 1, 2007 of Mr. Ezekiel Mutua as the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya.
There was no time to do much for the beleaguered Kibaki administration, with the elections expected in December. The rejection of the draft constitution in September 2005 had morphed into a massive political juggernaut called the Orange Democratic Movement. There were wrangles and splits within the movement, but still the removal of failed President Kibaki remained the sole objective of all opposition mobilization.
It was so obvious Kibaki would lose the 2007 election that sources close to Mutua say that just before the polls, the Director of Information had ordered for the official portrait of a new president which would have been distributed to government offices around the country upon his swearing-in.
But then, as we all know, things changed dramatically – and tragically. The presidential result was bitterly contested and the country erupted into its worst political conflagration since independence. In the run-up to the election, Mutua is said to have been an underground strategist for ODM-Kenya, the party of presidential candidate Kalonzo Musyoka,which had broken away from ODM.
In a way, the 2007 election debacle was a boon for Mutua. It saved his job for him. If a new administration wanted to reorganise state offices, it would have wondered how Mutua got the job and whether he was the best man the government could get in the market. In addition, his links with the Kalonzo campaign would have done him in.
As the whole world held its collective breath about the fate of Kenya following a bungled presidential election, Mutua is believed to have been among a small knot of loyalists who prevailed upon Kalonzo Musyoka to go to the rescue of Kibaki by agreeing to cobble a coalition with him.
While the blood of Kenyans soaked the land, Kalonzo accepted the position of Vice President and some of his allieswere appointed to the Cabinet, among them Samuel Poghisio, the ODM-K chairman, as the Minister of Information and Communication.
Ezekiel Mutua’s job was safe. His profile soared during the search for peace in Kenya following the PEV. Mutua was there with the Kofi Annan team visiting the worst hit areas and sometimes offering to translate for the eminent persons the woeful tales of the victims they encountered.
Through Kalonzo, Mutua is said to have been introduced to the powerful Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, Mr. Francis Muthaura. Mutua became very confident, knowing he had the backing of the highest holders of power in the land.
The country stabilized after the Grand Coalition Government of President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga was inaugurated on February 28, 2008. Mutua could now resume his grand communications plans for the government with ease.
The man can display extraordinary drive when he puts his heart to a task, those close to him say. Immediately he settled at Jogoo House, Mutua saw at once the huge opportunities his office offered. At the same time he realized that people in government just sat back and enjoyed their perks. Little got done. He would show them.
There was, for example, the fossilized KNA, which did little more than report about the activities of government officers. Yet KNA is the only media outfit in Kenya with links to every part of the country. It could do a whole lot more.
There was also the defunct government rural press in the 1970s and 1980s. Those 11 regional papers (Sauti ya Pwani, Nyota ya Magharibi, Nuru, etc) could be revived. In fact, the government could start its own national newspapers, as was the case in several other countries.
Mutua’s thoughts were not entirely crazy. He had visited the successful Xinhua government media agency and others in China and seen for himself how things worked. The Kibaki administration was a great admirer of the East, and so Mutua was not alone in thinking about learning lessons from there.
At the same time, internationally, there was a plenty of talk about something called communication for development (C4D), especially pushed by multinational development agencies such as UNDP and UNESCO. The contention was that there was too much meaningless political reporting in the private commercial media at the expense of development.
Mutua sought assistance from Xinhua to turn around KNA. Soon enough, money and facilities were pouring in from other sources as well to modernise the state news agency. Cobwebbed information officers from around the country who had stuck on their desks for decades were got a new lease of life. There were workshops to attend and new equipment to work with. Everyone was hopeful.
Mutua also set about reviving the rural press, but changed course midstream. He would launch a government weekly as a Private Public Partnership initiative. The government would pump some money into the project mainly by advertising in the paper. Mutua would hire top journalists to run the publication and complement the content supplied by the revived KNA.
Kenya Today weekly hit the streets on August 24, 2009. There were plans for a grand launch in Nairobi, but somehow things did not work.There was great excitement within government about the new paper. Ministers and senior bureaucrats were happy to see themselves on the pages of Kenya Today.
As days went by, Mutua let word out that his department would soon set up a TV station, separate from KBC and devoted entirely to C4D. People at KBC turned green with envy. His star was rising. He was all over the place with the high and mighty serving the nation.
But it was not all smooth sailing. Government procedures of all kinds are painfully slow. Many times Mutua felt frustrated that he couldn’t move on because some officer who was supposed to sign some document was unavailable or was taking his sweet time. Mutua is said to have used short-cuts to get things done at his frenetic speed. The result was that he stepped on many sensitive toes. There is some dispute about whether Mutua had the much-revered authority to incur expenses as a government official. It is crucial power. While people formerly inside Kenya Today said he exercised such authority to contract business entities in the private sector, Mutua himself has denied it.
Yet he is, for instance, said to have personally approached journalists and offered them jobs at Kenya Today. But how would they be paid when they were not government employees hired by the Public Service Commission?
Reliable sources say Mutua had to devise some ways around this bottleneck. Realising he needed more power to keep things going the way he wanted, Mutua embarked on a plan to eventually make Kenya Today a parastatal. That would give the media house considerable autonomy from state bureaucracy.
But before that could happen, Mutua knew that the only legitimate way to get taxpayers’ money for his projects was to invite tenders. Although he initially aimed at making KNA the main source of content for his paper, he abandoned that idea and decided to get a company to provide editorial services. Without bothering with the cumbersome government tendering procedures, Mutua struck a deal with one Andrew Sunkuli, the managing director of a briefcase company called Times Media Group, which had its ancestral roots in the defunct Kenya Times daily.
Under that deal, TMG reportedly got Sh6 million monthly from the government for services it provided to Kenya Today. TMG did not really have the capacity to provide editorial services. It did not have a pool of journalists for such a task. So the journalists who had been hired by Kenya Today were converted into TMG staff for the purposes of the contract.
Many more others were hired, mostly through the influence of powerful people looking for favours, and soon Kenya Today was bursting at the seams with excess staff.
Nothing to worry about, really. Money was flowing in from government advertising. Mutua had reportedly set an annual target of Sh56 million. He wanted Civil Service head Francis Muthaura to issue a circular directing all ministries to give advertising priority to Kenya Today.
Meanwhile, Mutua had become quite impressed by his own success and was starting to hear the call of his people to join politics. Nothing strange there. Didn’t Mutua have a background in the mucky waters of trade union politics at KUJ?
Soon, Mutua was said to be “pouring” money in his Mwala Constituency in Machakos County. He attended numerous harambees there and drove around the dusty paths in fancy cars promising the youth jobs. He was also mobilising some powerful churchmen in the area for support.
Insiders say Mutua set up a mini-press unit for himself at Kenya Today where a designated photographer covered the boss’s activities for publication in government paper.
Mutua was quickly growing too big for his coat. In one outstanding incident, he is said to have clashed with his minister, Samuel Poghisio, over the use of KNA cars whose purchase Mutua had arranged.
It was the flamboyant government information chief’s waterloo. Poghisio was so incense that he reportedly demanded action on the man. A plot was hatched to cut Mutua to size. Out of the blue, the Ministry of Information mid-last year created a senior post of Information Secretary. There was no explanation for the decision. Mutua was promoted to the new job. It was a rope for Mutua to hang himself. According to one media report, his job description included: organising Kalasha film awards, developing a code of conduct for the film industry, working with the Office of the President on licences for hiring, importation and use of firearms as props in filming, and working with the Immigration Ministry on work permits and fees for foreign film crews. More alarmingly, Mutua was required to vacate his large, tastefully furnished office at Jogoo House where he entertained dignitaries and move over to a tiny room at Teleposta Towers, the ministry headquarters. His cronies at Jogoo were redeployed as well.
Determined not to go down without a fight, he sought the help of the same media he had spent lots of time denigrating. Intending to pull a fast one on his minister, Mutua leaked word that he would be calling a press conference to announce his resignation.
The bosses must have smiled at the news. Resignation through the media is not the done thing in government. Mutua seemed to have even forgotten that his post had national security implications. He was sternly reprimanded for his decision and persuaded to cancel the press conference.
He did. And then Information and Communications PS Bitange Ndemo announced Mutua’s interdiction. Shortly after, Kenya Today newspaper was shut down.
It was a mean end to the brief public service career of a man of such energy who had even been acknowledged by President Kibaki through the award of an MBS.