The battle for the control of the Sh20 billion Athi Water Works Development Agency has taken a dramatic turn and threatens to expose rifts within the upper echelons of the ruling United Democratic Alliance, after Head of Public Service Felix Koskei joined forces with Water Principal Secretary Kipronoh Ronoh to push for the ouster of the agency’s CEO Michael Thuita.
The duo has accused Mr Thuita of being protected by President William Ruto’s loyalist Alice Wahome, the Water Cabinet Secretary.
Mr Thuita has faced a barrage of accusations in recent days, including corruption allegations and a law suit that seeks his ouster on the suggestion that he is in office illegally.
Last evening, Mr Koskei, in a statement to newsrooms from State House, asked the board of governors of Athi Water to suspend Mr Thuita pending investigations into the allegations, noting that the besieged CEO and his counterpart at Central Rift Valley Water Works Mr Samuel Oruma, remain in office illegally despite a barrage of accusations against them.
Hours earlier, detectives from the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission had raided the office and home of Mr Thuita in search of evidence against him. It was unclear what evidence they collected or whether they plan to charge Mr Thuita in the coming days, but Mr Koskei’s statement is understood to have sent shock waves within the Water ministry.
Sources told the Nation last evening that Ms Wahome had not been briefed of the raid and neither was she aware of the decision requiring the Athi Water Works board to kick out Mr Thuita. Ms Wahome was in New York last week before travelling to Oxford in the United Kingdom, where a poster indicated she gave a talk on sustainable water solutions yesterday (Friday, September 22, 2023)
Should that be the case, it would be the greatest indicator yet of the rift within the upper echelons of the ruling coalition over the management of major government facilities. It would also suggest that, in the battle for the control of lucrative dockets within the Water ministry, Ms Wahome stands no chance against her PS, Dr Ronoh.
The two have been engaged in a fierce war of words for months now over the management of Athi Water Works that have seen Ms Wahome accuse Dr Ronoh of insubordination. Mr Ronoh has, in return, accused his boss of shielding Mr Thuita from investigations into graft allegations.
The matter at hand relates to the award of multi-billion-shilling contracts to three firms for the construction of dams in the Athi water basin. The dams are Karimeru, Ruiru II and the Kitui-Matuu water project. Dr Ronoh has written to the EACC to push for the prosecution of Mr Thuita over these contracts, and to Ms Wahome to demand the CEO’s suspension. However, Ms Wahome has stood her ground over the matter and accused Dr Ronoh of a sinister plot to kick out Mr Thuita for personal gains.
She has also accused Dr Ronoh of instigating a complaint against Mr Thuita to be filed anonymously at the EACC without bringing the matter to her attention or seeking her concurrence and consultation. In response to a suggestion that Ms Wahome kicks out Mr Thuita, the Cabinet Secretary in a September letter accused Dr Ronoh of trying to undermine her authority as the minister “for a calculated and expected outcome” and noted that while the PS was recommending the suspension of Mr Thuita, he had not found it prudent to sit with her to brief her on such heavy matters.
She also accused Dr Ronoh of being part of governance and leadership challenges at Athi Water Works and warned him to “cease the persistent harassment of senior officers in the ministry”.
Mr Koskei’s letter to the boards of the two water companies suggests a power coup against the appointing authority, Ms Wahome, and is likely to escalate the battle for the running of the ministry. This is the second time that Dr Ronoh is instructing the board to kick out Mr Thuita, after an earlier attempt was nipped in the bud by Ms Wahome.
The first attempt against Mr Thuita’s tenure came early this year when Dr Ronoh wrote to the then chairman of the Athi Water Works board, Mr Patrick Mbangula, and directed him to institute investigations and take appropriate action against the CEO for mismanaging the agency.
On June 14 this year, Mr Mbangula, wrote to Dr Ronoh to request a special board meeting to discuss leadership of the agency. Dr Ronoh granted the request on the same day. However, two days later, on June 16, as board members prepared a special session to kick out Mr Thuita, Ms Wahome wrote to the chairman of the board and instructed him to cancel the special sitting.
“Reference is made to a letter dated June 14, 2023 by Dr Paul Ronoh, Principal Secretary, Water and Sanitation,” the minister says is a short, terse letter to Mr Mbangula, chairman of the agency’s board. “This is to advise you that the PS for Water and Sanitation has no authority to approve a special board meeting. In this regard, no such meeting should be held.”
Dr Ronoh accuses Mr Thuita of giving misleading information regarding government policies on water projects, failure to deliver on key project commitments, procurement malpractices, and poor compensation mechanisms that have led to the stalling of various mega projects, including the Northern Water Collector project, the Ruiru II Dam, and the Ndarugu Dam in Gatundu.
“These allegations border on poor management and governance of strategic water programmes that are enablers of the development agenda of the current administration,” warned Dr Ronoh, adding that the same could be deemed as non-compliance with the values and principles of public service.
Mr Thuita has maintained his innocence over the award of the contracts and says he was not even in office when they were awarded. He notes, for instance, that while he is accused of illegally awarding the tender for the construction of Karimeru II dam, the contract was signed in 2014, way before he was appointed into office. The contract for the Ruiru dam was signed in May 2014 while that for the Kitui-Matuu project was signed in September 2019.
Mr Thuita was appointed CEO of Athi Water on May 23, 2018 by then Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation, Mr Simon Chelugui, for a period of three years. His term was renewed for another three years by Mr Chelugui’s successor, Ms Sicily Kariuki, on June 1, 2021.
This week’s escalation came after a Nation expose on the war between Ms Wahome and Dr Ronoh. The expose was based on a sting of scathing correspondence between the two, including an August 25 letter from the PS to Ms Wahome regarding the water agency, in which he referred to “various correspondences in circulation by different entities, including the EACC, regarding the leadership and governance” of the government entity.
“As an accounting officer and authorised officer at the State Department of Water and Sanitation,” he went on, “I am concerned by the heavy allegations put against the current Chief Executive Officer of Athi Water Works Development Agency. The allegations border on corruption malpractices and a request by Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission on the CEO to step aside to allow investigations to be conducted calls for cooperation and facilitation from the ministry leadership.”
Dr Ronoh appeared to be putting Ms Wahome on the spot for dragging her feet on the matter, and went on to advise his minister that President William Ruto has issued directives on zero tolerance to corruption, and therefore the minister should “consider appointing a new person in an acting capacity” to run Athi Water Works with immediate effect.
Dr Ronoh copied the letter to Mr Koskei, CEO of the anti-corruption commission Twalib Mbarak, and chairman of the Athi Water Works board, Mr Charles Kamau Karondo.
In response, Ms Wahome noted in a two-page letter to Dr Ronoh that “you have opted to copy the letter to other officers in a matter only known to yourself and designed by you without any consultation with me of any misconduct of leadership concern at the agency”.
On May 24, the anti-corruption commission wrote to Mr Thuita requesting for documents for various tenders. On the same day, the EACC also wrote to Ms Wahome recommending the suspension of the CEO from office, noting that he was under investigation and could interfere with the process if he was allowed to stay on. He also advised the CS to put Mr Thuita on half pay during the period of suspension. Folio numbers on the two letters suggest that the recommendation for the suspension of the CEO came before the letter to him asking for documents in the probe against him.
Six days later, on May 31, Ms Wahome wrote to Mr Mbarak to argue against the suspension of Mr Thuita, noting that “the subject matter” of his letter to her should have been “investigations into procurement illegalities in the award of tender of the projects… and not suspension”.
She further asked Mr Mbarak to forward to her the letter of complaint against Mr Thuita as the recommended decision was a very serious step, and that “the rules of justice in our Bill or Rights require that a person is entitled to fair treatment and hearing under the law”.