Kenya Wildlife Service rangers

Kenya Wildlife Service rangers outside the agency’s headquarters in Lang’ata, Nairobi, in 2018. 

| File | Nation Media Group

The war at the heart of Kenya Wildlife Service

Power struggles and in-fighting have struck at the heart of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), pitting Director-General Erastus Kanga against a section of senior managers.

At least six senior managers have been suspended in the last 11 months following disputes with Dr Kanga, internal documents and court filings seen by this writer show.

Finance director Japheth Kilonzo, his Partnerships counterpart Edwin Wanyonyi, senior assistant director Bernard Omware and former company secretary Doreen Mutung’a were all interdicted between January and July.

Ms Mutung’a has since resigned and sued KWS for constructive dismissal, a legal principle in which an employee is forced to quit on account of a hostile working environment.

Another official, Godwin Leslie Muhati, also quit the State agency and indicated frustration by the KWS top brass in his resignation letter.

Nancy Muthoni Kabete, now a deputy director, has been demoted after Dr Kanga irregularly transferred her to the Ministry of Tourism, under the State Department for Wildlife. Ms Kabete has filed a formal complaint with the KWS Board of Trustees, claiming that her woes are tied to refusal to bend procurement rules on Dr Kanga’s instruction.

The interdicted officers we reached out to declined to comment.

A KWS administrator said that Dr Kanga is out of the country and will be back next week. She, however, denied that there is in-fighting at the State agency.

Instead, she said that some unnamed corrupt individuals are fighting his occupation of the corner office along Langata road.

“…to shed light into this false allegation, we shall present to you documentary evidence to prove that corruption is fighting back. We assure you that there is no infighting at Kenya Wildlife Service,” the administrator said in an email response.

In her complaint, Ms Kabete said that the locks to her former office had all been changed shortly after receiving the transfer letter.

She claimed that Dr Kanga ordered for her work email to be deleted, despite still being a KWS employee seconded to the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. She further claimed that senior officers were reprimanded for communicating with her.

“Profiling of officers who are believed to be free with me (Example: reprimanding of Mr Chonga in a security meeting for having responded to my email communication to senior management and other officers of Security Directorate on my new deployment…

“Reprimanding of Acting Director Human Resource and Administration (Mr Kanani) for the simple reason that he had been spotted talking with me at the main parking bay after I had been served with the (deployment) letter,” Ms Kabete said in her complaint filed with the KWS Board of Trustees.

Mass transfers of both uniformed and non-uniformed staff has also seen the State agency haemorrhage taxpayer funds it received for its operations in the current and past financial year.

Between December 2022 and October this year, KWS has spent at least Sh75 million on catering for relocation fees and other related costs for transferred staff, sources at the State agency who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals said.

On the KWS website, 11 individuals are listed as the agency’s senior management. Only Dr Kanga and Deputy Director, Partnerships Simon Gitau are substantive office holders. All nine others are in acting capacity, painting a picture of an organisation on the brink of a staffing crisis.

Court papers show that in early January, MsMutung’a walked into a meeting with Dr Kanga seeking to establish how they could foster a healthy working relationship. Ms Mutung’a was at the time the KWS head of legal services and corporation secretary. Dr Kanga had been Acting Director-General for just over one month.

In that time, Ms Mutung’a had received a notice to show cause why disciplinary action should not be taken against her for alleged violation of the KWS code of conduct.

After responding to the two notices, the files were closed.

Dr Kanga had also removed her from the State agency’s executive management committee on January 6, but returned her through a backdated memo. Her request to travel to Tanzania during the Christmas holiday was also denied.

Ms Mutung’a felt that the turn of events stemmed from a salty working relationship, which she sought to sweeten through the meeting.

In the January meeting, Dr Kanga allegedly claimed that Ms Mutung’a was among individuals that orchestrated his removal from the KWS Board of Trustees a few years earlier.

He also alleged that while on an official trip to Panama, Ms Mutung’a had spoken ill of him to former Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, Ms Mutung’a adds in court filings. He allegedly added that Ms Mutung’a held meetings with unnamed individuals to block the KWS Director-General from taking over the office.

In the court papers, Ms Mutung’a’s alleges that the KWS boss threatened to call her mother to rant.

Earlier, Dr Kanga’s administrative assistant had called Ms Mutung’a’s mother on instructions from Dr Kanga, documents Ms Mutung’a filed in court through Okweh Achiando & Company Advocates show.

On January 9 and 10, Ms Mutung’a received two more notices to show cause. After responding to the notices, the matters were both closed. She proceeded on leave afterwards.

On January 16, the KWS head of investigations asked Ms Mutung’a to report to his office to record a statement on an ongoing investigation into her.

A day later, Ms Mutung’a filed a harassment complaint with the KWS human resource advisory committee against Dr Kanga. In the complaint, she said Dr Kanga had sent two other directors—Mr Kilonzo and Mr Wanyonyi —to warn her about fighting the KWS Director-General.

The human resource advisory committee did not respond to Ms Mutung’a’s complaint.

While she was on leave, Ms Mutung’a’s father died. The human resource department called Ms Mutung’a, on instruction from Dr Kanga, to confirm whether the news was true. She sent a copy of the burial permit via email.

As the family was deep in burial preparations on January 30, Dr Kanga’s secretary called Ms Mutung’a and ordered her to report to work the following day to respond to an urgent memo from the KWS boss.

The memo sought to have Ms Mutung’a avail original contracts relating to KWS game park management systems. She reported to work on February 1, and the auditors allowed Ms Mutung’a to trace the documents upon returning from compassionate leave.

When she reported back to work on February 13, Ms Mutung’a filed a statement with the head of investigations. The following day, Dr Kanga interdicted her through a letter. On March 24, she resigned from the KWS.

In her suit papers, Ms Mutung’a argues that her employer, specifically through Dr Kanga, weaponised the human resource and investigations departments to harass her into resignation.

She adds that aside from being malicious, the February 14 interdiction was illegal as only the KWS Board of Trustees had authority to take action against staff in her pay grade, and not the Director-General.

Neither KWS nor Dr Kanga has responded to the court case.

In his first two months in charge, Dr Kanga interdicted four senior managers. On January 9, he interdicted senior assistant director Bernard Omware for allegedly using bonga points accrued from a KWS phone to purchase an iPhone 13 pro max, a copy of the letter to Mr Omware seen by this writer shows.

Mr Omware had instructed a junior officer to use the bonga points to acquire an iPad that would be used by KWS staffers for work. But the junior officer instead bought himself an iPhone.

On February 14, he interdicted Ms Mutung’a for allegedly failing to surrender unutilised travel allowances. He also accused Ms Mutung’a of failing to provide three contracts related to the game park management system.

Ms Mutung’a resigned midway through the investigation after responding to the allegations and supplying documents to show she surrendered the unused travel allowances.

The two directors that Dr Kanga allegedly sent to warn Ms Mutung’a—Kilonzo and Wanyonyi—were both interdicted on July 10 to pave way for an investigation into alleged procurement violations at KWS.

The interdicted officers are still away and on half salary pending completion of the investigation process.

Like Ms Mutung’a, Godwin Leslie Muhati resigned from the KWS citing frustration. Dr Muhati, one of the country’s top climate change experts, joined KWS in 2008 and was promoted to National Project Coordinator.

Following Dr Kanga’s appointment, he was transferred to Mt Elgon National Park as a senior warden. On September 22, he resigned from KWS, citing the agency’s failure to act on a study leave application for a prestigious fellowship he was invited to.

For Ms Kabete, all seemed well until she declined to approve the procurement of food and firefighting equipment whose prices she felt had been inflated, a complaint she filed with the KWS Board of Trustees against Dr Kanga indicates.

She joined KWS in 2001 as a graduate trainee, and rose through the ranks to become the Acting Director, Wildlife Security. In May KWS was purchasing firefighting equipment, which fell under her docket. In total, the agency was to spend Sh14 million.

Following a procurement process, a firm was picked to supply fork hoes. The firm supplied equipment that was different from the tender specifications and Ms Kabete declined to approve payment.

On June 7, Dr Kanga wrote to Ms Kabete, stating that she had been deployed to the State Department for Wildlife. A week later, she filed a harassment complaint against Dr Kanga with the KWS Board of Trustees.

Ms Kabete reported to the State Department of Wildlife, but the deployment letter had not stated what role she was to carry out in the new station.

On June 27, she wrote to the Public Service Commission (PSC) seeking clarity on the legality of the deployment, and arguing that the transfer was on account of refusal to approve payment for the firefighting equipment.

PSC rescinded the transfer and ordered Ms Kabete to return to KWS in August.