Saturday, October 12, 2013


Former Mandera Central MP Abdikadir Mohammed surprised many Kenyans when he opted not seek re-election at the end of five colourful years in Parliament. The youthful Harvard-educated lawyer from Mandera had been chairman of the powerful House Committee on Constitutional Review, the Legal Affairs team as well as the committee that would provide oversight for implementation of the Constitution.
Now operating from the ‘West Wing,’ the father of four told us that he hoped to be Speaker of the National Assembly but he settled for a different role. 
He chaired the task forces that came up with recommendations which, if implemented, will radically change parastatals as we know them. Having played a critical role in the writing of the 2010 Constitution, Mr Mohammed thinks that the implementation is on the right track.
“The fact that the people of Machakos and elsewhere are not worried that they will not receive money because they did not elect a Jubilee governor tells you how far we have come. Those realities were not possible in the times past,” he says.
The exaggeratedly diplomatic lawyer, told us why he’d rather run a bank than go to court and how the Uhuru State House has changed. 
Q: You earned yourself respect as an MP in the last Parliament where you chaired critical committees. Why didn’t you seek re-election? 
A: I didn’t want a municipal role. I thought having served as MP, I wanted a more national role, probably as a Speaker, but I am comfortable with what I am doing now. Mandera Central constituency, which I was representing, is also very far from Nairobi. I am more of a Nairobi person. My wife, Amina, and our four sons live in Nairobi.
Q: Why do you think the Musalia Mudavadi campaign, which you supported, failed to attract majority of Kenyans?
A: It is the nature of our politics. We thought that what we were pushing was the right thing but the people disagreed with us. But I had an excellent rapport with the President and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. That is how I ended up where I am. 
Q: You operate from the “West Wing” of the Uhuru State House. What do you exactly do there? 
 A: I am a senior adviser to the President and Head of Legislation and Constitutional Affairs. You know the 2010 Constitution changed and the role of the President also changed. Kenya adopted a pure presidential system from the quasi-parliamentary one, and this comes with a lot of changes in the way the President works. There is no room for roadside declarations. Now the Constitution demands that the President signs the decisions he makes. The President needs support to ensure he complies with this requirement. State House was previously a ceremonial seat of power but that has changed. It is now a serious working place.One of the first things that the President did was to request the Public Service Commission to approve the creation of positions that would help him operate under the new circumstances as happens, and forgive for the cliché, at the Obama White House. The PSC approved the posts of Economic, Political and Constitutional Affairs advisers. One is headed by Joseph Kinyua, the other by Nancy Gitau and there are others. My job is to support the President to ensure that as much as possible his actions are anchored in our laws and the Constitution. 
Q: How are you managing the transition from MP to your new role?
A: As an MP I interacted closely with members of the Executive and the Judiciary. I am also a lawyer. I am comfortable with the political and technical stuff. I suggest that running for a political office is the one thing somebody must do before he dies. It is such a serious education.
The past five years gave me insight into government operations and helped me build good networks. The feeling has been that there are considerable reforms in the Judiciary and Parliament but the Executive is lagging behind. I am now helping the Executive.
Q: You work closely with the President. What kind of boss is he?
A: He is a workaholic and extremely sharp. He reports to his office early enough for 7am for meetings and stays late. He likes documents and is keen to understand the inner workings of stuff. He is extremely hands-on and absolutely determined to improve conditions. The President wants things done and fast. People forget that he has been in government for a considerable time. He was a Local Government minister, Trade, Finance and Deputy Prime Minister. He was also chief opposition leader between 2002 and 2007. Whenever we sit, he is the most experienced around the table. The President is also very good with people and he is willing to listen to any good idea regardless of whom it comes from. You are a young Kenyan, a father of four sons who would be concerned about the future of this country. Would you tell Kenyans to place the hope of their future in Uhuru in the prevailing circumstances? 
I have a lot of hope. I think Kenyans are too cynical. We should be more forgiving and celebrate ourselves whenever we do good. If the athletes who recently won medals were Americans, every American child would know them. The scenario here is different. 
I work for the President. He works very hard. I am glad that he is running this country at this particular time. First, he is not the kind of guy who would want to obtain something from a government tender. I know where his heart is about the future of this country. 
Q: Yours is a very busy job. When do get time to read?
A: I read many books at the same time while at home, over lunch hour and at the weekend. I read while travelling... even the washroom.. ha ha ha… I buy my books at airport lounges and Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi. I buy books every month.

Q:What body of literature most excites you?
A: Books on business. I am a lawyer but I am more at home in business. I also enjoy reading books on politics, history and biographies. I also read on media. I picked up Behind the Front Page by David S Broder in which he explores the decisions that inform the newspaper headlines and framing of news and opinions. Ahmednasir Abdullahi suggested to me The Murdoch Achipelago by Bruce Page and it is quite interesting. A lawyer who doesn’t read books on law Only for work. I am more into business than law. 
Q: And what books do you buy for your sons?
A: My wife Amina does. She is stocking the family library.

Q: What are you reading now?
A. Richir’s Sharma’s Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles, which was recommended to me by my friend Nyamunga of the Treasury. The writer has been visiting economies across the world trying to interrogate why some systems work in some places but fail elsewhere.  I am also reading Why Nations Fail, the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. You realise that it is all about institutions. I am persuaded that Kenya will make great economic and political strides if it has strong institutions such as the Judiciary, security agencies, Parliament and a free market system. That is a book will recommend for President Kenyatta because I know he wants Kenya to succeed. 
Q: What are some of most transformative books you have read?
A: Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar on the tobacco firm RJR Nabisco. It is regarded as one of the business books of all time and I think it has been made into a movie. I found The Money Lenders by Antony Simpson inspirational. I have read it many times. It captures America’s financial difficulties in the in the mid 19th century. It looked to London for loans. But London found it was un-realiable when states such as Pennsylvania and Mississippi defaulted. Simpson says that even the poet William Wordsworth was angered by the defaults. The respected clergyman Sydney Smith wrote that America is a country with whom no contract can be made but none can be kept. ‘Unstable in the very foundations of social life, deficient in the elements of good faith, men who prefer any load of infamy, however great, to any pressure of taxation, however light.’ But America rose again. The lesson here is that countries have faced difficulties but they have managed to pull through. China, Japan, Singapore faced economic challenges but they have pulled their people out of poverty. Kenya can do the same. The ingredients are there. We only need to put our act together.

Q: What prevents us from reaching the Promised Land?
A: Kenya must fix its institutions and politics. We take one step forward and two backwards. Incentives should be aligned to those doing good and the corrupt punished. The overwhelming response to the Westgate attack shows that there is too much untapped good.
You chaired the team that came up with a fairly commendable report on the reform of parastatals. What ails the public sector? I told you I have been in politics but it is business that I enjoy most. The main challenge is a governance issue to fix the mali ya umma (public property) attitude. Unlike the private sector, the public sector lacks mechanisms to enforce accountability and integrity as well as push for achievement of clear targets.

A CEO can fail year-in year-out and be promoted, make losses and nothing happens, while another can make profit and be fired for not giving a kickback. The structures make organisations difficult to operate and the manner in which parastatals are formed is ad hoc. One of the proposals we have made is that the process of giving birth to a parastatal should be consultative to avoid duplicity, conflict and waste. Hard questions were not asked before some of the parastatals were formed. The process should be tightened. 

The other challenge is multiplicity of bosses.A parastatal chief answers to the line minister, board, state corporation advisory committee, the inspectorate of state corporations and office of the President. Some parastatals were designed to achieve a specific mandate and be wound up but there is no exit strategy. The privatisation process is designed to fail. Not a single institution has been privatised in Kenya for the past six years because of the convoluted process and self-preservation.

Q: What were some of the shocking findings?
A: I was shocked to learn that the government did not know the number of parastatals it had.
One parastatal bought two laptops for Sh600,000. I saw them and they were not worth more than Sh45,000 each. Another one had 25 board members and 36 employees. One board chairman attended 81 meetings of the same board in one year. Surely how possible is that?
You are one of the owners of the First Community Bank. What motivated you to start a bank?
I went to Harvard to study international business law, especially Islamic finance. I wanted to actualise it. I knew that there was a financial intermediary problem for Muslims. 
We teamed with Nathif Jama (now governor of Garissa), who had worked for several banks in the Gulf, and Ahmednasir Abdullahi. At first, Central Bank said it had no capacity to regulate our investment because most of its officials had no idea about it. Then we offered to take Central Bank staff to the UK, which is the regulator of the largest Islamic bank in Europe and United Emirates. 
It is after the tour that the CBK gave us a greenlight to start the First Community Bank. The other day, Tanzania sent its experts to learn from the Kenyan model of Islamic banking. Like M-Pesa, Islamic banking is a first in this region as an effort to deepen the financial market. That is something for Kenyans to celebrate. 
Q: You are fairly diplomatic but, Ahmednasir, your partner at the law firm, is seen as arrogant, abrasive and even obnoxious. How do you work with him?
A: Of course, the things he is interested in are completely different from mine. But I think he is misunderstood. For example, many people don’t know that he is a very shy man. And he cannot bring himself down to sack somebody. Away from the public eye, he is a very caring and nice person. But I have taken a back seat from the law firm. He is now managing the place. He is also into journalism. I have always told him that he is a great lawyer but a bad journalist…ha..ha..ha.