Government Communications Kibisu Kabatesi's exit exposes simmering rows in government around Mudavadi’s powers and roles in relation to a tight coterie at State House, as well as turf wars between the PCS and DP Gachagua.

| John Nyaga | Nation Media Group

Mudavadi vs Gachagua: From the hub of hope to a tug of war

Back in 1993 when then Vice President George Saitoti was stripped off the Ministry of Finance, he refused to move out of his imposing office space at the Treasury Building to the offices reserved for his remaining Planning and National Development docket a few floors down within the same building.

Saitoti argued that the office he was using was purpose-built for the VP, which then left his successor at Finance, Musalia Mudavadi, to occupy a less grand office at the Treasury Building despite the fact that he was technically the landlord.

History repeats itself, as with the brouhaha around President William Ruto’s recent cabinet reshuffle. Mudavadi, now the Prime Cabinet Secretary, refused to move out of his office at the Kenya Railways headquarters on getting an added portfolio of Foreign Affairs, but losing elements of the Public Service docket to Moses Kuria.

Mudavadi was supposed to have moved to the Foreign Ministry offices on Harambee Avenue, but argued, like Saitoti 30 years earlier, that the Railways offices off Haile Selassie office had been purpose-built for his bigger designation of Prime Cabinet Secretary.

Saitoti’s argument in 1993 never held water, for Kenya in that period had never had a specific office location for a Vice President. The Number two always also had a ministerial portfolio from where he worked, so previous Vice Presidents such as Oginga Odinga (1964 to 1966) and Daniel arap Moi (1967 to 1978) were based at the Jogoo House headquarters of the Home Affairs docket.

When VP Mwai Kibaki (1978 to 1988) lost the Ministry of Finance docket in 1982, he left the Treasury Building and crossed the road to Jogoo House, also on Harambee Avenue, as Vice President and Minister for Home Affairs. 

Karen suburbs

Things have changed a great deal since then, for Kenya now has office, still on Harambee Avenue in the Nairobi city centre, specific to the Deputy President in addition to official residence in the prestigious Karen suburbs, presently occupied by Mr Rigathi Gachagua.

Back to the Mudavadi office affair. It came with consequences with the sudden resignation of the Secretary for Strategic Government Communications Kibisu Kabatesi.

The exit was more than just about an individual falling out with his superiors, but an indication of power struggles at the highest echelons of government. The drama shows simmering rows in government around Mudavadi’s powers and functions in relation to a tight coterie in Ruto’s State House, as well as overlapping mandates and turf wars between the Prime CS and the Deputy President. 

Kabatesi has been a long-serving Mudavadi aide in and out of government, and was the one who had penned a strongly worded protest letter to head of civil service Felix Koskei following the Cabinet reshuffle announced on October 4.

The changes saw Mudavadi added the Foreign Affairs docket, replacing Dr Alfred Mutua who moved to tourism. But the Prime CS also lost the State Department of Performance Management to the new CS for Public Service Moses Kuria, who had crossed over from the Trade ministry.

Mudavadi, however, retained the departments responsible for Delivery, Inspectorate of State Corporations and the State Corporations’ Advisory Committee, all of which form part of the Prime CS’s broad supervisory powers within the government.

Strong language

The letter from Kabatesi to Koskei was unprecedented in the strong language directed to a superior in the government hierarchy and one of the most powerful men in Ruto’s Kitchen Cabinet. He contested Koskei’s powers to announce a cabinet reshuffle or to shift ministerial office locations, terming it a usurpation of powers reserved for the President. “Any public servant purporting to allocate Ministerial locations or portfolios is misguided to the extent that they are attempting to usurp a function that belongs to the President,” he wrote, terming the reshuffle a “misadventure (designed) to sow disorder and discord among members of the Cabinet”.

He insisted that the reshuffle and shift of offices was null and void, leaving intact Mudavadi’s functions of “Coordination and Supervision of Government Ministries and State Departments” and to “Oversee Implementation of National Government policies, programmes and projects”; at least until it was announced through an official Executive Order signed by the President, which rescinded the earlier Executive Order on which the present government was shaped.

That, actually, is the law. Under the 2010 Constitution, presidential orders and decisions must be written, signed and officially published, a devise intended to curb the menace of the notorious ‘roadside policy pronouncements’ and cabinet reshuffles through radio news bulletins from President Moi’s era. But still, it has been the policy for a large number of presidential decisions to be announced through circulars and press releases issued by the Head of Public Service, or even the State House spokesman Hussein Mohammed.

Kabatesi, in conversations with friends, insists that he was only pointing out to a government colleague the right and proper way of pronouncing decisions in line with his mandate as Secretary for Strategic Government Communications.

 He also insists that he acted purely on his own volition without reference to Mudavadi. He has always been a combative figure ready to pick a fight at every opportunity, especially in defense of his long-time patron. However, it is hard to believe that Kabatesi could have penned such a rebuke to the Head of Public Service and Chief of Staff without his boss in the know.

Koskei was not taking it lying down. On October 19, he wrote his own strongly-worded response demanding that Kabatesi withdraw his offensive letter, issue a public apology and ensure the same scale of media coverage that his protest had generated.

Editorial decisions

That last demand is odd because Kabatesi does not control the media or determine editorial decisions, but what make it even more interesting is that Koskei’s demand was addressed to Mudavadi rather than to the underling. He was demanding that the Prime CS, technically his superior in government, ensure that Kabatesi complies.

Sources in Mudavadi’s office indicate he then had a conversation with Kabatesi, who resolutely stood his ground and insisted that he would neither withdraw nor apologise. To avoid a situation where Mudavadi would be placed in an awkward position and at loggerheads with Koskei, and possibly Ruto, Kabatesi opted to resign, which he did on October 25. But then on November 2, the Executive Order he had demanded to effect the reorganisation of government was published. Mudavadi officially took over the Foreign Affairs, but did not need to shift relocate to the ministry headquarters as he retained his office space at Railway Headquarters.

But he also lost more, for in addition to the Performance Management Unit, he also lost the departments responsible for delivery on government projects and programmes, the Inspectorate of State Corporations and the State Corporations Advisory Committee. It means that his powers as Prime CS have been whittled down, while Kuria who was seen to have been demoted on shift from Trade, wins big.

It also indicates that he has been shorn some of the duties which saw the Prime CS have overlapping and competing functions with the Deputy President, which could have an impact on the ongoing duel for power and influence between Mudavadi and Gachagua. A side story to the issue is that Kuria is seen as part of a group of Mt Kenya region politicians close to Ruto, and possibly being deployed to counter Gachagua’s aggressive efforts to assume political supremacy in the region as prelude to his own bid for power in coming years.  

Kabatesi, meanwhile, has not been completely shown the door or thrown under the bus contrary to some reportage. He will take up duties as a Special Advisor in Mudavadi’s private office, from where he will presumably have the freedom to wage war on behalf of his boss without the restraints of an official public service job. Another issue the whole saga brings to the fore is the confused hierarchy, duplication of roles and rivalries within the government communications structures.

Kabatesi was formally appointed Secretary of Strategic Communications in March, but worked under Mudavadi at the Office of Prime CS, independent of the existing government communications structure.

Key figures within the network include Hussein at State House, Head of Government Communications David Mugonyi, and the newly-appointed Government spokesman, former MP Isaac Mwaura. The latter office was initially domiciled at the Ministry of Information, but now moves to Office of the President.