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The lessons of Affair Wolfowitz

May 27, 2007 Leadership, Sunday Nation

The Paul Wolfowitz saga ran painfully long, but finally came to an end last week. Wolfowitz resigned as President of the World Bank, after digging in his heels and repeatedly stating that he would not step down in the middle of the huge storm involving his girlfriend.

Mr Wolfowitz is widely regarded as a ‘neo-conservative’, and the ‘architect of the Iraq war’. (His girlfriend Shaha Riza, a respected intellectual in her fifties, has unkindly been called ‘the neo-concubine’). When President Bush appointed Mr Wolfowitz to the job in 2005, there was widespread opposition from the Bank and from the world at large to so blatantly political an appointment. A survey showed that nearly 90 per cent of Bank staff opposed the selection at the time.

Upon arrival, Mr Wolfowitz made one key disclosure: that he was romantically involved with Ms Riza, who happened to be a Bank staffer. He initially hoped to be able to work alongside her, but the Bank has strict rules on these matters; Ms Riza was transferred to the State Department. So far, so good. The problem: she received two large pay hikes as compensation. This took her pay packet so high that it was greater than that of Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State.

Who authorised those pay rises? Initially, Mr Wolfowitz claimed it was all decided by the Bank’s board of directors. Subsequently, he has been forced to admit that he unwisely played a significant personal role in determining her new pay package. The board’s ethics committee, after much circumnavigation, eventually came down hard and condemned Mr Wolfowitz.

His position rapidly became untenable, despite supportive noises from the White House. Mr Wolfowitz had made a crusade of tackling corruption in beneficiary countries, and famously suspended aid to countries where the vice was deeply embedded in government – Kenya included. Now, the crusader’s clothes were shown to be soiled by the thing that he decried. He had to get off the horse.

But what was really going on here? “Man favours girlfriend” is hardly earth-shattering news, even if the man in question heads one of the world’s most powerful institutions. The first thing to note is that the revelations about the Riza transfer came from the Bank’s own staffers; the second that key European members of the Board appeared to make up their minds very early in the saga that Wolfowitz had to go. Clearly, it was payback time.

Mr Wolfowitz was appointed, as is traditional, by the US President. There appears to be an unspoken rule that the US appoints the head of the Bank, and the European nations choose the head of its sister organisation, the International Monetary Fund. He was appointed at a time of great disquiet about the Iraq war. President Bush appeared only too keen to thumb his nose at the world by picking such a divisive figure. In addition, the President and his appointee wilfully ignored the glaring lack of support from the Bank’s board and staff. The enormity of this blunder was revealed as the scandal unfolded: staff set an amazingly crude precedent by openly heckling Mr Wolfowitz as he attempted to address them.

We in Kenya have been quite strident ourselves in joining the ‘Wolfowitz must go!’ chorus. Perhaps we relish the fact that those who regularly tick us off about our lack of ‘good governance’ are also revealed to have human failings when it comes to personal ethics. Perhaps we like to see the USA brought down a notch or two.

Whatever our reasons, we would do well to learn two key lessons from this unseemly scandal. The first is this: whatever an individual did, an institution found him out and forced him to go. An organisation cannot possibly control the emotions and machinations of any one person; but it can ensure that checks and controls are effective, and force redress when rules are broken.

This is something we singularly lack here in Kenya. Girlfriends? Entire clans are appointed to positions when we assume power – and the organisation stays remarkably silent. When a person is known to have transgressed, do we act? If you can count for me the number of important persons punished for Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing – far greater crimes than the Riza affair – you will have answered that question.

The second lesson is even more important. You cannot take senior appointments lightly. President Bush went over the heads of critically important stakeholders when he appointed Mr Wolfowitz. Those stakeholders simply bided their time, and their revenge was cruel. In addition, he appointed a man with no real experience of running a large organisation, and one widely perceived to be a thinker rather than a doer.

Run your eye over the luminaries in our cabinet, current and past, and you will see that we are not in a position to mock. When it comes to the political appointment of incompetents, we take the blue ribbon. So, as we regard Affair Wolfowitz, let us take stock rather than delight.

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