Board sued over ‘speedy’ return of besieged NTSA boss

NTSA director-general George Njao

NTSA director-general George Njao speaks at Mercure Hotel Nairobi, during the sector’s stakeholders’ meeting on May 12. A petitioner claimed Mr Njao’s first term was characterised by graft and incompetence.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Mr Njao is battling claims of impropriety in a separate case ongoing at the Employment and Labour Relations Court in Nairobi that is seeking to bar him from serving his second and final term.
  • Part of the evidence in that case is from a BBC investigation where a faulty write-off van was given an approval by the NTSA to operate as a matatu without being physically examined after a bribe was given.

The boss of a cash-rich State agency who was sent on a 30-day leave by the entity’s board to pave way for investigations returned to his office just days later, pleadings filed before a court say.

Mr George Njao, the director-general of the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), was ordered to apply for leave by the board on April 24.

The board even appointed an acting director-general — Mr Cosmas Ngeso. But according to a case filed at the High Court in Kiambu, Mr Njao was not out for long.

The case by the Road Safety Association of Kenya alleges that Mr Njao “utterly disregarded the board’s letter and forced himself to the office” without any court order or formal lifting of the initial command.

The association filed the suit on May 8, seeking orders to restrain Mr Njao from resuming his duties.

In his May 11 ruling, Kiambu High Court judge Peter Mulwa did not grant the restriction orders as requested. He, however, certified the case as urgent and ordered the association to serve Mr Njao and the NTSA board with the suit papers within seven days. Mr Njao and the board were ordered to file a response within seven days after being served.

Mr Njao is battling claims of impropriety in a separate case ongoing at the Employment and Labour Relations Court in Nairobi that is seeking to bar him from serving his second and final term. Part of the evidence in that case is from a BBC investigation where a faulty write-off van was given an approval by the NTSA to operate as a matatu without being physically examined after a bribe was given. The case was filed to seek orders halting the extension of Mr Njao’s term by a further three years.

The NTSA Act says: “The director-general shall be appointed for a term of three years and shall be eligible for reappointment for one further term.”

A petitioner, who is opposed to Mr Njao’s term extension, claimed that incompetence and graft were the hallmarks of Mr Njao’s first term that came to an end late last year as he tried to illustrate to the court why the NTSA boss does not deserve an extension.

The case took a dramatic twist earlier this year when a lawyer allegedly allowed a consent to be signed to indicate that the matter was settled. The petitioner, however, argues in court pleadings that he did not instruct the lawyer to enter that consent.

“The petitioner was previously being represented by the firm of [law firm name withheld] who, without consulting him, filed a consent dated January 16, 2023 purporting to settle the pertinent issues raised in the petition,” says a March 27 application by lawyer Danstan Omari. More on the Nairobi case later.

When you include weekends and public holidays, the 30-day leave that Mr Njao was ordered to take would have ended on May 24. Excluding weekends and public holidays, that date would fall on June 7.

But according to posts on NTSA’s Twitter account, he had publicised official engagements on May 5 and May 18. In the May 5 event, he was alongside Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen at the launch of Yego Mobility Kenya. Mr Njao also held a public event on Wednesday, when he announced plans to launch a digital platform that will detect accidents as they happen.

The board had instructed Mr Njao to proceed on leave immediately. The board’s letter, which is part of the evidence in the Kiambu case, reads: “Following deliberations, the board in its special board meeting held on April 24, 2023 directed that the director-general immediately apply and proceed for his annual leave days totalling 30 days.”

Mr Njao had not filed a response by last Thursday when the case was mentioned before Justice Mulwa. It will be mentioned again on June 14 for directions. In the case, the Road Safety Association of Kenya – suing through its chairman David Kiarie – says Mr Njao’s return is questionable.

“Mr Njao has utterly breached the provisions of Article 10 of the Constitution on national values and principles of governance, Article 73 on leadership and integrity; Article 75 on the conduct of State officers, and Article 232 on values and principles of public service by forcing himself back to the office despite not being cleared by the board or reinstated by court,” says Mr Kiarie in his affidavit.

Mr Kiarie further accuses Mr Njao of mismanaging NTSA.

“It is during Mr Njao’s tenure that the NTSA has performed so poorly. Most tragically, thousands of Kenyans’ lives were lost due to indolence and outright breach of the provisions of the law,” he states. “Throughout his tenure as the director-general, (he has) failed the mandatory target set for a director-general to achieve during his tenure.”

Mr Kiarie further notes in the court papers: “The conduct, actions, and commissions of Mr Njao being illegal, and contrary to the intended benefit of the Kenyan public, is only amenable … by an order of prohibition barring him from resuming his role as the director-general of the NTSA.”

NTSA, created by an Act that Parliament passed in 2012, is the patron of the country’s transport industry. Given that it levies fees for a number of its services, it is one of the most cash-rich agencies.

It is charged with registering, licensing, inspecting and certifying motor vehicles, regulating public transport, educating the public on road safety, compiling reports on traffic accidents formulating and reviewing driving school curricula, conducting research and audit on road safety among other roles.

According to the Nairobi case referred to earlier, the petitioner claims that NTSA’s execution of those roles under Mr Njao has deteriorated. The case was filed in December 2022 by one Edwin Oduor Were, a Kenyan citizen who wants orders barring the NTSA board from extending Mr Njao’s term.

“He has applied to have his contract extended for a further term of three years despite gross shortcomings and illegal conduct in the said position,” Mr Were told the court.

“Worse of all, Mr Njao has superintended the authority through deliberate mismanagement and delinquency that occasioned the deaths of thousands of Kenyans through road carnage which could have been avoided if he offered proper leadership and ensured the authority had working systems. The estimated deaths in the year 2021 alone stood at 4,000 persons per a World Health Organisation report, a number that clearly surpassed the [Covid-19] deaths in the two years it devastated the country,” added Mr Were in his affidavit.

Part of his evidence was the March 2022 BBC report about bribery in vehicle inspection. For Sh24,000, a van that mechanics said was at best a write-off was given a clean bill of health. An online article by a local website detailing the BBC report was one of the annexures Mr Were provided.

The petitioner also presented minutes of a March 3, 2022 meeting by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers where parties complained that system challenges had slowed down the allocation and issuance of number plates “negatively impacting industry production”.

“Mr Njao’s tenure has been marred by extreme incompetence, which compelled lobby groups to institute legal proceedings to compel the authority to do its work,” said Mr Were in his affidavit.

“Mr Njao has further been clogged with selfish interests during his tenure, which caused him to commandeer an award of the integration process of speed governors to the authority’s servers to a company with vested interests among its peers in the speed limiters business, which has enabled the said company to eliminate its competitors from the business,” he added.

He further noted: “Mr Njao has overseen the introduction of digitisation of inspection stickers in an irregular manner with an aim of evading enforcement of inspection by the traffic police. Introduction of digitised inspection stickers without causing them to be displayed on the vehicles’ windscreens only facilitates uninspected vehicles to fly under the traffic police radars.”