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What does it take for a Kenyan leader to resign?

Mar 30, 2008 Leadership, Sunday Nation

In 2005, I asked in this column whether the Kenyan National Examinations Council knew how to spell U-N-F-O-R-G-I-V-A-B-L-E. No-one took the hint. The Council was forgiven its sins, and it proceeded to keep on sinning.

What happened in 2005? The students who were sitting the KCSE Mathematics paper that year were subjected to something unforgivable. Two tables were in the wrong places in the paper; a third was missing altogether.

A minor matter? Not at all. I wrote then: “Most of us have sat through public examinations at some stage in our lives; most of us remember the stress and tension that accompanies those events. It is surely bad enough that a child has to sit and prove herself to the world in the space of just two or three hours, knowing that a second chance may never come and that failure could lead to a blighted life; but to have to deal with all that, and cope with blundering nincompoops who fail to check the paper?”

I pleaded that we all learn two lessons: the first about accuracy and quality control; the second about reputation and crisis management. It is evident that KNEC learnt neither. The 2006 and 2007 examinations were tainted by widespread allegations of paper leakage. The most recent story you all know: 4,000-plus students who sat the 2007 exams have had to have their mean marks recalled after a “computer error”, leading to a “correction”of national tallies that has resulted in significant changes to student and school rankings.

No-one in any serious position of authority resigned or was fired after the 2005, 2006 and 2007 fiascos. In 2005, KNEC blamed the printers. In 2006, it was the media’s fault. In 2007, a new culprit has been found: the computer! These are excuses that would shame an illiterate, let alone the high-powered eminences who oversee education in the country.

And so we will carry on. There will be outrages every year, as sure as night follows day. For we remain unwilling to take our duties seriously, and to take responsibility for our mistakes. When a debacle occurs, we usually observe the following sequence of events: the people in charge will first claim that there is no crisis at all, that the matter is “inconsequential” (to quote from a recent utterance); next, when the consequentiality of the matter is confirmed, officials will rush to blame “political enemies” for their tribulations.

When that is found to be not credible, the media will emerge as a convenient scapegoat, for exaggerating “a small matter”. When the matter is confirmed not to be small at all, the blame will go to technology: printers, computers, whatever. When the world laughs at that, a couple of frightened junior officers will be unearthed and fingered. Even those unfortunates will not be fired; they will be transferred quietly until the furore dies down.

No one, absolutely no one, will do the honourable thing and resign. Whether we are discussing the Examinations Council, the Electoral Commission of Kenya or other important body, outright incompetents will hang shamelessly onto their seats and their allowances until death do them part.

People in charge of bodies that concern public examinations or national elections have only one real asset: their credibility. If credibility goes, there is nothing else. It does not matter a damn how many important personages sit in the institution. Once your reputation is shot, it’s all over.

Can we please learn how to handle crises and manage reputation? Here’s what should be done. First, you accept that your negligence has caused panic and confusion in a matter of national importance. You accept that your actions may affect the lives and livelihoods of many. With that acceptance, you apologise with sincerity and contrition to all those affected. You do not just express regret – you say sorry. You make sure that someone who matters takes responsibility and resigns with dignity, without waiting to be pushed. Then you say what you will do to alleviate the damage you have done. Finally, you use the unfortunate event to overhaul your processes from scratch, and ensure that you take your institution to a new level.

Here, we are following a different template of late: wait until the pressure builds up to boiling point, and then name a commission of inquiry! And indeed, one has duly been constituted to investigate the 2007 exam results snafu. Fifteen luminaries, properly balanced to take account of ethnicity, religion, age, sex and political affiliation have been asked to sit down and report on the matter. Complete with allowances and perks, no doubt.

The old question springs to mind: how many people does it take to change a lightbulb? What are fifteen people needed for? It would take one competent person one day to conclude on this matter. That is all. But no, we do things our way. See you next year, same time, same issue…

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