During his 11th and most recent public address regarding the status of Covid-19 in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered that the investigations into the alleged loss of public funds meant to fight Covid-19 be concluded in 21 days. While pressure is mounting on the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to produce names, prosecute and convict the guilty, Parliament is under pressure to live up to their oversight expectations.
A bulk of the oversight conducted by both Houses of Parliament is undertaken through committees that are established under Article 124 of the Constitution. These committees, according to the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act, 2017, have the powers to invite or summon any person to appear before them for the purpose of giving evidence or providing any information they may have. It is also under this Act and Article 125 of the Constitution that parliamentary committees have the power of a High Court and with all powers, privileges and immunities to act as such which is fundamental in ensuring that Parliament executes the quasi-judicial functions assigned to it under the Constitution.
Committees are also important because they allow for the division of labour on different issues. This is especially where having a full House session would cause more delays and lengthy timelines. They allow for deeper investigations into matters in question and hearing of evidence before finally reporting to the entire House.
On Friday, August 28th 2020, the suspended Kemsa CEO, Mr Jonah Manjari appeared before a joint sitting of the Senate Health Committee and Senate ad-hoc Committee on Covid-19 in Kenya alongside the Kemsa board Chairman, Mr Kembi Gitura to answer to questions regarding the alleged misappropriation of billions at the agency. The heated session between the committee members and the two would end in fingers pointing at the top two officials at the Ministry of Health after the embattled CEO admitted to receiving instructions regarding the procurement of medical equipment tenders. This would lead to the Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe and his Principal Secretary Susan Mochache being summoned by committees from both the Senate and National Assembly to answer to these questions.
Should the two fail to appear before the committees, legislators will have the power to impose a fine not exceeding five hundred thousand shillings and/or order their arrest as is stated in the Parliamentary Privileges Act, 2017. The question, however, is whether these committee hearings will yield favourable results for Kenyans as many question the effectiveness of various instruments of justice in Kenya.
Parliamentary committees have previously been condemned for not giving Kenyans value for money especially considering the kind of allowances that committee sittings attract. A great example would be the NYS saga that was probed by the Public Accounts Committee that was at the time chaired by former Rarieda MP Nicholas Gumbo. Despite the attention the scandal attracted and the weeks of sittings that were aired on TV, no convictions have been made to date. A fate that Kenyans fear will befall the Covid-millionaires scandal.
But does the fault really only fall on committees? Committees continue to face a number of challenges in undertaking their mandate.
A common one is the insubordination by government officials who have on several occasions ignored the invitations by committees. The Cabinet Secretary for Interior, Fred Matiang’i has been put on the spot for failing to appear before the ad-hoc committee on Covid-19 on a number of occasions where he was meant to answer to questions on violations of human rights by police officers while enforcing the dusk-to-dawn curfew. Instead, Dr Matiang’i has been represented by his juniors against the displeasure of the committee members.
Another challenge we are likely to see in the coming weeks is the duplication of roles. The Kemsa scandal has attracted the attention of three committees from the National Assembly and two from the Senate namely; Public Accounts Committee, Public Investments Committee, National Assembly’s Health Committee, Senate’s Health Committee and Senate’s ad-hoc Committee on Covid-19 in Kenya. For the next few weeks, health officials will be required to appear before these committees, answer to the same questions and present the same evidence. Perhaps the Senate and National Assembly leadership should consider bringing together their efforts since the common goal is to trace the stolen Covid-19 monies.
Access to information and time constraints have proven to be crucial impediments to committees concluding their business. The Select committee formed in September 2019 to probe the Sh 63 billion Medical Equipment Scheme (MES) has on several occasions requested an extension of the term limit to conclude their investigation and table a comprehensive report. The committee chaired by Isiolo Senator Fatuma Dullo cited complexities in their investigations that involved high profile players who by omission or commission, bungled the ambitious healthcare programme. As Senate resumes sittings this September, will the Dullo-led committee finally give Kenyans answers on MES a year after the Senate voted to establish this committee?
Will public trust in Parliament and its oversight role be restored in the coming weeks or will Kenyans again feel like they got the shorter end of the stick after millions have been spent on sittings that didn’t come to a favourable conclusion?