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Monday, July 7, 2008

The cowboy who stopped a .45 slug with his head

By Mutuma Mathiu

The scene is from one of my favourite movies, a Western whose name I have forgotten. A gunslinger called Tuco is lounging in a tin bathtub in a room above a saloon of ill repute. The soapy water reaches his neck, around which is a gun belt. He scoops bath water into his mouth and uses a finger to clean his teeth. A cowboy bursts in, gun in hand.

His face is a comical study in suppressed fury and hatred. He has come to waste the gunslinger, he says, “coz you killed my ma and my pa.’’ He goes on and on, gloating about how he has been following the man, who has no idea he has been marked for death, “You know why? Coz I am careful man." The guy in the bath tub nods in solemn agreement. “Careful, careful; it’s OK, amigo...," upon which he whips the pistol out of the holster and fires at the cowboy, who expires with shocked surprise and ketchup spreading throughout his shirt front. “If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” the gunslinger says in disgust. He scoops more bathwater into his mouth and peacefully gets back to the business of cleaning his teeth.

For this week I had planned a flippant one about how I would have gone about stealing the Grand Regency, if I had had a chance. That is until the spectacle in the House earlier in the week, with the Grand Coalition looking like an old lion that had been rained on and the self-styled grand opposition walking all over it.

The spectacle of Finance minister Amos Kimunya being gored by Dr Bonny Khalwale, Mr Jakoyo Midiwo, Mr Ababu Namwamba, Gen Nkaissery and others and his stricken face on which there was such pain reminded me of that cowboy in the doorway: a man who thought he had carefully and meticulously figured everything out but suddenly found himself, to his horror, with a .45 slug in his brain. It would have been funny had it not been so tragic. He is a human being, after all.

But the soldiers of the Grand Coalition, the Cabinet, were glued to their seats in fear of their marauding opponents. Ms Martha Karua, a veteran of many skirmishes, was curiously seated on the back benches, a safe distance from the war front. Prof George Saitoti, a man of some courage as seen from his defiant address at Kasarani during the Kanu-NDP merger, was strangely quiet. They all looked like pupils who had not read up on a quiz and were anxious not to catch the teacher’s eye. The Prime Minister was in points unknown, and the Leader of Government Business was fighting a solitary, doomed battle. When he rose to sue for a delay, he could not raise support for his case. Yet he is the leader of all MPs, bar a few true opposition members. In this one-sided battle with a limp, disjointed government against a spirited, well-organised and generally young opposition, public outrage ruled the day.

I have been devouring Scott McClellan’s What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception which someone kindly gave me. Mr McClellan was the White House spokesman and Mr Bush’s press secretary. The book examines the fate of truth in a city in a permanent campaign mode. Mr McClellan concludes that in Washington, government is an extension of politics rather than politics being an extension of government.

In our own situation, the country has been on a campaign footing since 2004. And I will be the first to admit that our journalism is not what it used to be. Journalism is the search for truth, not for agreement, collusion or acquiescence. My contract with you, my reader, is not to agree with you. It is to find out the truth on your behalf and to tell it to you.

But these days we are too afraid of either being branded PNU, ODM or corrupt to go after the truth. It is much easier not to draw attention to ourselves by expressing views that are too radically different from the view of the majority. In this country we have politicians who have made a career out of lying to the media and to the country. I don’t think we have taken serious steps to challenge them and look for the facts. It is a fact that Mr Kimunya and the Central Bank of Kenya have handled the sale of the Grand Regency hotel disastrously in failing to make a complete, honest disclosure of the facts, particularly to Parliament.

My own evaluation of the accusations are based on three facts picked up from his accusers: That he sold a public asset below its value, that he failed to follow the proper transparent and legal procedure in its sale and that the whole thing was just fishy, given our history and Mr Pattni’s fraudulent ways. There is also the standard that was applied to ministers during the Anglo Leasing investigation by Parliament: the issue of ministerial responsibility. According to this principle, if a gnat breaks wind in a ministry, it is the minister’s fault. And it is a good accountability principle.

Was the Grand Regency a public asset? Did we owe that ugly monument to grand corruption?

I should hope not. It belonged to Mr Pattni but was held by the Central Bank as security for the Sh2.5 billion which he fraudulently obtained from the Central Bank through cheque-kiting, if I recall well. If a bank has your title deed for a debt, it does not own your property, I figure.

Did Mr Kimunya and the Central Bank fail to follow the proper procedures? I don’t know.

According to the Central Bank and the Commissioner of Public Procurement, the fact that the hotel was not a public asset but charged property means that CBK was free to sell it like any other bank. The Attorney-General’s probe committee concluded that the monument was ours and ought to have been sold according to the same rules as Safaricom. What about the alleged involvement of the security services and the whole question of the genesis of the deal?

Other than the fact that the government agreed to sell the hotel during a presidential visit to Libya last year, I haven’t the faintest clue.

So where is the truth? I am sitting in my office with that dead cowboy’s look on my face. Somebody please fire me.

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