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Budget goofs of yesteryear

By Kamau Ngotho @PeopleDailyKe

When serving as Finance minister in 2008, Uhuru Kenyatta is best remembered for the “typing error” that saw a Supplementary Budget he presented to Parliament inflated by about Sh10 billion. Other Finance ministers, too, had their moments of drama and goofs.

Independent Kenya first Finance minister James Gichuru was better known for liking his tipple more than his job. He was rarely in office and on the few occasions he showed up, he would be as drunk as the old sailors.

At one time, he had to be forcefully dragged from the all-time notorious Karai bar down River Road in Nairobi to read the budget statement in Parliament. Hardly could he hold the written speech, let alone audibly read it.

All the same, President Jomo Kenyatta demanded that he must deliver the speech, forcing the House to sit for extra time as the minister staggered and stuttered at the dispatch box.

Mwai Kibaki, who took over from Gichuru as Finance minister is best remembered for his sharp mind and superb grasp of matters to do with his job. He was never one for written speeches and would eloquently speak for hours without reference to any notes.

At international gatherings, Finance ministers from Africa and the Third World, would unanimously pick him as their spokesperson. But he too had his foibles when it came to the bottle. He and a Cabinet colleague, Paul Ngei, had earned the nickname fagia dunia (sweep the world) because of their obsession for happy hours outside the office. Another Finance minister well known for his love for the bottle was Francis Masakhalia.

He would always have a companion in a Johnnie Walker whiskey wherever he was—in the office, his car and in his briefcase. Reading the Budget Speech, he would take up to 15 glasses of water to ease off accumulated hangover before he opened the next bottle. Eventually it cost him his job when he attended a Cabinet meeting smelling like a distillery.

Nothing would get then President Moi, a life-long teetotaller, hitting the roof faster than bombarding him with a beer breath. Finance minister Arthur Magugu had no issues with alcohol and loved fermented porridge which he actually carried it to the office in a gourd, yes a gourd, of fermented porridge.

Unfortunately, the porridge didn’t make him as efficient. He made history as the only Cabinet minister who never delivered the Budget Speech on schedule. Under his watch, the 1982/83 budget was read in the fourth, not second week of June. Amos Kimunya, a Finance minister in Kibaki presidency, may have been good in his job but had a problem with hubris and a tinge of arrogance.

He paid a price for it when he was forced to resign from his job by MPs even after he had sworn that he would rather die than quit. As Finance minister, George Saitoti was more known for his contempt and hostility towards media.

Once when asked by a journalist why he was not vacating the Treasury building offices of the ministry of Finance after the docket was taken away from him, he had shot back: “Kwani hii nyumba ni ya mama yako?” (Is it your mother’s house?) But once he had a bitter taste of the power of the Press while in Washington DC when the Washington Post ran a story about human rights abuses in Kenya at the time.

Suddenly, bureaucrats in the American capital cancelled all their scheduled meetings with him forcing him to abruptly return home his tail between his legs. Musalia Mudavadi had a good time as Finance minister, except for a latter-day testimony by Goldenberg scandal mastermind, Kamlesh Pattni, that Mudavadi was a regular guest in his house where he partook Chivas Regal on the rocks.

Mudavadi’s day of high drama was on the 1997 budget day when opposition MPs heckled and picketed inside the chamber to stop him from delivering the Budget Speech. He finally read it to a near-empty House after most MPs had been ordered out by the Speaker.

For Simeon Nyachae, his tenure as Finance minister was destined to be short as long as he couldn’t tame his volcanic temper. His first baptism of fire came when his trusted officers, Joseph Kinyua, then Finance Secretary and Njeru Kirira, the director of Customs, were arrested from office and locked in on orders from head of then Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority, Haron Mwau.

Seething in anger, Nyachae, who was in Kisii, telephoned President Moi to say he would resign the same day if the two officers weren’t set free and reinstated to their offices. Moi, not yet ready for a showdown, conceded to the Minister’s demands.

But it didn’t work next time when Nyachae travelled to Mombasa and announced the government was broke and the economy in ICU. An embarrassed Moi immediately transferred him to the ministry of Industry. He declined and opted to resign.

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