From Hero to Villain: Why Kenyans Turned Against CS Kagwe

  • Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe addresses a press conference on Covid-19 in Nairobi in March 2020
    Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe addresses a press conference on Covid-19 in Nairobi in March 2020
    File
  • For weeks after he appeared at a government briefing on March 13, to confirm the first case of Covid-19 in Kenya, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe was praised across the board for his firm, effective communication and hands-on approach to dealing with the pandemic.

    A question many asked was why this man, whom the country was gaining a lot of confidence in, failed to clinch the Nyeri Gubernatorial seat in 2017. 

    Kagwe was eloquent, and offered a re-assuring voice to Kenyans at a time when panic and fear were creeping in as the virus spread across the world like wildfire.

    His high approval ratings even saw him featured in the Wall Street Journal, in a report highlighting deputies around the world who had stepped into the limelight during the pandemic. In recent weeks, however, the tides have shifted against Kagwe, thanks to a series of controversial events.

    Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe speaking during a presser outside Kenyatta National Hospital, April 2020.
    Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe speaking during a presser outside Kenyatta National Hospital, April 2020.
    File

    Key factors that have contributed to the shift in public perception include the demotion of the lead researcher at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), questionable expenditure of a Ksh1 billion donation from the World Bank to fight Covid-19 and the worrying state of quarantine facilities, where some have even attempted to commit suicide over the mandatory charges imposed by authorities.

    The situation was exemplified by the dramatic difference between a local daily's front-page splash of Kagwe's photo alongside the headline 'Man of the Moment' on March 30 and yet another front-page splash of the CS by the same paper on April 22, this time with the headline 'Broken Promises'.

    Demotion of Joel Lutomiah at KEMRI

    The demotion of Joel Lutomiah from his position as Director of the Center for Virus Research (CVR) at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) marked the beginning of a notable change in public perception on the CS.

    Kagwe reportedly fired Lutomiah for failing to deliver Covid-19 test results on time on Friday, April 17.

    The explanation, however, stoked anger from a section of Kenyans as they questioned if the alleged delay warranted a dismissal.

    It also emerged that on Friday, April 17, Kagwe gave a press conference from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in the morning as opposed to the usual 3 p.m. briefings at Afya House, a factor that might have explained the delay.

    In addition, it was revealed by Lutomiah's colleagues that, with KEMRI scientists having apparently only received white gumboots, Lutomiah had been pushing for the government to supply them with Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and had threatened to stop the tests if the same was not done.

    Dr Joel Lutomiah, who served as the Dirctor for Center for Virus Research at Kemri.
    Dr Joel Lutomiah, who served as the Director for Center for Virus Research at Kemri.
    Kemri

    "I am appalled by Mutahi Kagwe's sacking of the lead researcher at KEMRI for delaying to deliver Covid-19 test results.

    "It is time politicians appreciated the many years of study and the hard work our researchers do with very limited support. Brute force can't replace this. Shame!" wrote Professor Alfred Omenya, a former Dean at the Technical University of Kenya (TUK) in response.

    "On February 28, 2020, Mutahi Kagwe was ordered by the High Court to trace and detain 239 Chinese nationals who had landed at JKIA. He did not and is still in office.

    "How egregious is KEMRI Ag. Deputy Director, Center for Virus Research, Dr Joel Lutomiah’s misconduct to warrant summary dismissal?" posed Law Society of Kenya President Nelson Havi on Sunday, April 26.

    How Ksh1 Billion World Bank Donation Was Spent

    In a brief to the National Assembly following a virtual meeting on Tuesday, April 28, the Ministry of Health shared details of how a Ksh1 billion donation from the World Bank to fight Covid-19 had been put to use.

    Aside from raising eyebrows over the millions allocated to airtime as well as tea and snacks, it sparked an uproar over the leasing of ambulances and other items.

    Many observed the irony of Kenyan healthcare workers on the front-lines complaining over the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) while huge amounts were being spent on non-essential items.

    As of Thursday, April 29, the saga was among the top trends on Twitter in Kenya as people questioned the expenditures.

    "Ambulance lease at Ksh2.8m each? For how long? Ksh13.5m for 30 HCWs (Health Care Workers) “needing quarantine for 90 days.” 90 each or in total (3 each?). Neither makes sense.

    "Ksh15.5m for stationery (6.5m + 9m for quarantine documents), @ Sh5/sheet, its 6000+ reams! Scam. No wonder they are infecting people," economist David Ndii wrote on Thursday, April 29

    "Maybe each leased ambulance comes with a Covid-19 ventilator, N95 masks, an ICU bed & Dr. Fauci (Anthony - American physician, immunologist and infectious disease expert)," another economist, Wehliye Mohammed, wrote.

    LSK President Nelson Havi observed that the average price of an ambulance was Ksh4 million, questioning why the government would opt to lease 15 ambulances at a cost of Ksh42 million which could supposedly purchase ten ambulances.

    "Kshs 42 million is the average purchase price for 10 ambulances. Is there anybody who advises this government?" he posed.

    Economist David Ndii at the Sarova Stanley Hotel in Nairobi on December 8, 2015.
    Economist David Ndii at the Sarova Stanley Hotel in Nairobi on December 8, 2015.
    Daily Nation

    Quarantine Facilities

    Amateur videos have laid bare the worrying state of government-designated quarantine facilities in the country.

    They have also been responsible for all manner of shocking headlines, from 50 people escaping quarantine at the Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) in Nairobi to patients threatening to commit suicide at the Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital

    Samuel Osorewho threatened to commit suicide, for instance, tested negative for Covid-19 but was stopped from leaving the facility until he cleared unpaid bills.

    The issue of mandatory quarantine charges stoked anger and has also been stated as a possible reason for the escapes.

    Speaking to Kenyans.co.ke on Tuesday, April 28, Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir vowed to push in Parliament for the government to waive all mandatory charges in quarantine centers

    He spoke after paying a visit to the quarantine facility at KMTC Mombasa where, through the Shariff Nassir Foundation, he partnered with donors to provide 3 meals a day for all those being held at the facility for the following 45-60 days.

    "I think in this situation, if you're telling people they have to pay, it's very unfair, unfortunate and backward.

    "You're telling someone to pay because they came into contact with an infected person. They might have been at the supermarket or going about their usual activities when they were exposed, but you want them to pay, it's a bit disturbing.

    "And it's not little money, Ksh 2,000 a day is a lot of money. For 14 days that's Ksh 28,000. That is someone's entire salary and right now, people are not working due to the Coronavirus.

    "I will be pushing in Parliament for the government to withdraw these charges entirely, but you should note that this will not apply to those found breaking the law," he asserted.

    As the country continues to deal with Covid-19, it remains to be seen whether the tides of public perception will yet again shift in Kagwe's favour.