Ms Matilda Sakwa got an interesting question from her superior when she expressed fears of being made the National Youth Service acting director general.
“Are you choosing career progression or fear?” Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho asked.
She had been a government administrator for 27 years and was dreaming of something higher than being a county commissioner.
However, being the NYS head, a title whose two previous holders left acrimoniously, was not her dream.
Somehow, Ms Sakwa convinced herself to take up the job. She was not ready to remain in a comfort zone.
CUP OF SUFFERING
As she awaited for the final communication on whether she would be picked up for the position, she prayed hard. Ms Sakwa says she felt like she was being handed a cup of suffering.
“I have never prayed so much,” she said. “Others also prayed for me. It was scary.”
Some friends even told her she was being set up.
By the time she was selected to get into the shoes of suspended director-general Richard Ndubai, Ms Sakwa had already accepted her fate.
During this interview with the Nation in her office last week, she cut the figure of a person determined to change the image of an institution dogged by an image crisis, thanks to corruption scandals.
When NTV’s Jane Ngoiri asked if Kenyans would hear of an “NYS Season Three” scam, Ms Sakwa was philosophical.
“As long as I’m here, there will be no scandal,” she said.
APPETITE TO STEAL
“If it happens, you’ll ask me that day. You’ll find me at Lang’ata Women’s Prison. Nobody is ready to go to Lang’ata.”
At some point, Ms Sakwa said she is satisfied with her pay and does not see a reason to steal from the organisation.
“My salary is enough. In fact, it is more than I need. My children are old enough. The only thing I can do is to assist my brother’s children,” she said.
“I don’t have the appetite to steal. And I don’t think it will come at this age,” she added, taking the interviewers back to the days she grew up as the daughter of a strict district officer.
The interview took place before she met an inter-ministerial team formed to oversee NYS, after the Cabinet early in the month passed a resolution to restructure the service and make it a parastatal.
Even before Ms Sakwa would know the direction the 54-year-old organisation would take, she still has a lot on her mind.
For instance, there is the issue of the Sh1.1 billion that is yet to be paid to young people who took part in NYS programmes.
Some contractors are also demanding their dues. The service is recruiting new suppliers. And the image crisis still lingers.
She said Parliament should pass a supplementary budget and ensure the young men and women who worked for NYS are paid.
The National Assembly drastically reduced the NYS budget months ago, citing the endless financial scandals.
“That is the money that was slashed from the budget. The Sh8 billion was going to pay the cohorts and continue with the youth empowerment programme,” she said.
“We were hoping to pay them this financial year.”
She added that the organisation requires money to run its programmes.
“The budget only looks big to a person who does not understand it. According to data, NYS has about 59,000 servicemen and women who are fed and clothed daily,” she said.
“They consume Sh15 million food per day. That translates to about Sh450,000 a month. They must get medication and we have to pay their lecturers.”
On the matter of unpaid contractors, she called for patience. All NYS bills, she said, are being analysed.
“We must pay for contracts that are genuine,” Ms Sakwa said.
She added that plans are being put in place to weed out suppliers of air — blamed for the scandals that rocked the organisation.
“Once they come, we check their resumes, background, tax history and if they are registered,” she said.
When she assumed office, Ms Sakwa found new accountants and auditors. A finance officer was also brought in, and she later instituted an anti-corruption team.
Among the first decisions she made was decentralising NYS payments so that the 22 stations take care of their budgets.
“Why should payment for food taken to Balambala or Gilgil be made in Nairobi?” she asked.
It is two months since Ms Sakwa took her position on the fifth floor office building at the NYS headquarters in Ruaraka, Nairobi.
She is almost getting used to the uniform, one that has attracted glances at every turn she takes, as the organisation is now synonymous with corruption.
She visited many NYS departments and installations, and was shocked at first by how little she knew of the giant organisation.
“There is potential here, which if tapped, NYS can meet its expenses without necessarily going to the Treasury,” she said.
“I have also found out that our priorities were wrong. NYS has a good side. We have shifted the attention of the original NYS to other things.”
Ms Sakwa has held meetings with NYS employees, “some of whom are still shaken with the arrest and court appearance of their colleagues”.
“I’ve told them that they will sink before I do. There is nothing like making mistakes on orders from above,” she said.
She says the fact that NYS used to be a department in the Youth Affairs Ministry was a problem as officials elsewhere could access the organisation’s accounts.
Ms Sakwa says there were weak checks, planning systems and spending modules that allowed cartels to thrive.
“Goods were being delivered without local purchase orders,” she said. “We are still in the process of getting a framework contract so that suppliers have about two years to continue giving us their products and services.”
By Daily Nation