Wycliffe Muga: President can Make Good Appointments: The Star

About 10 or 15 years ago, as a Kenyan returning home from Europe, there was a small ritual you would be obliged to perform, if you happened to have struck a conversation with some European sitting next to you on the flight to Nairobi.

This ritual was that at some point after disembarking, you would have to evade your new friend, so that you did not have to go through the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport together.

The reason was that you knew there was every chance that as you entered the main buildings, you would be met by an awful smell which would indicate that the toilets had not been cleaned.

Then the automated luggage delivery system may or may not be working, and the staff meeting the disembarking passengers were likely to be rude and unhelpful.

In all, any Kenyan who in those days had some hours earlier boarded a plane at some gleaming and efficient airport in Europe would have much to be ashamed of on landing at JKIA.

This is no longer the case. By and large, the Kenya airport systems work. And though JKIA may still be more comparable to some mid-sized provincial airport in the developed world rather than the really large international air transport hubs like Heathrow or Schiphol, still it is nothing to be ashamed of.

And all this is in large part due to the current management of the Kenya Airports Authority under Managing Director George Muhoho. Any long-time user of the country's main airports will admit that Muhoho has transformed the operations of the airport.

Mind you, the widespread belief in Coast Province is that this minor miracle of management was not primarily the result of Muhoho's efforts, but rather due to the exertions of Naomi Cidi, his first deputy in the early days of the first Kibaki administration. Cidi had spent her entire career in airline and airport management before the appointment. And there is plenty of bitterness still over the manner of her exit from KAA in 2006.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that it is the CEO who usually gets credit for such success, and in this case it is Muhoho.

Now here is the odd thing: in a country like Kenya which is awash with MBAs, there is no chance whatsoever that Muhoho would have got this job through a competitive selection process. His background is not that of a professional manager. He came to the job from private business, and before that, from politics, having been an MP and even served briefly as a Cabinet minister in the Moi era. If you go yet further into his personal history, you find that he was a Catholic priest who voluntarily gave up service in the priesthood to get married.

Whichever way you look at it, there is simply no way that Muhoho would have had a chance against younger Kenyans with sterling academic qualifications and considerable management experience in various fields.

Nor is there any mystery about how he came to be appointed to this job: not only is Muhoho recognised as one of President Kibaki's personal friends, but he is also regarded as a key personal adviser.

In short, his appointment was pure political patronage. And yet he went on to be the best MD that the KAA ever had.

The case of Muhoho should be borne in mind in light of the recent Justice Aaron Ringera saga, and the temptation arising from this drama to assume that there is something inherently wrong in a President choosing top public servants without reference to Parliament or some other vetting authority.

The fact is, what should concern us is whether or not the appointee delivers. Not whether or not he was appointed solely by the President. So if we leave aside the debate on whether or not the President acted constitutionally in reappointing Justice Ringera as the Director-General of Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, the real issue is that the public had long lost confidence in him and as such the attempt to return him to this high office was a mistake.

The lesson to be drawn from the vastly improved management of Kenyan airports is that it is possible that a presidential appointee to high office, who happens to be a personal friend of the President, may feel obliged not to let his friend down.

And though the running of public institutions cannot be based solely on the appointment of personal friends to high office, such friendship is not always a barrier to managerial excellence either.

Wycliffe Muga comments on topical issues.

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