Manjari: Kemsa CEO in the eye of a Covid-19 tender storm

Friday, September 4th, 2020 00:00 |
Suspended KEMSA CEO Jonah Manjari with Board chair Kembi Gitura when they appeared before national assembly health committee. Photo/PD/SAMUEL KARIUKI

Dr Jonah Mwangi Manjari, the man at the centre of the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) scandal, is not new to controversy since taking over the coveted position.

The parastatal controls a staggering Sh30 billion budget and is responsible for the procurement, storage and distribution of drugs and medical supplies for prescribed public health programmes, the national strategic stock reserve and national referral hospitals.

County governments, too, have to procure their medical supplies through the agency.

Manjari, who is the first medical doctor to serve in the role of chief executive since Kemsa was established in 2005, has put a brave fight, avoiding obstacles along the way until recently when he was suspended over alleged misuse of funds at the agency.

Indeed, as he fights the multi-million-shilling Covid-19 procurement scandal that is also becoming a political hot potato, another controversy about the construction of a multi-billion-shilling warehouse is hanging over his head.

When he joined Kemsa on July 1, 2018, Manjari was hailed as an experienced hand in the health industry who was uniquely suited to lead the agency in its next phase of transformation and spur desired growth.

“We have selected a strong leader at a time when Kemsa is expected to effectively support the Ministry of Health in implementing Universal Health Care coverage by providing quality medical supplies,” explained Fred Onyach, then board chairman.

Assumed position

Prior to his appointment Dr Manjari was the Nakuru County Executive Committee Member for Health Services, a position he assumed after the 2017 General Election.

He had served in a similar position in Kiambu County under Governor William Kabogo.

Not much was known about the man until Covid-19 pandemic hit the world and swiftly found its way to Kenya, thrusting the Ministry of Health to the centre of emergency efforts to fight and contain the killer virus.

That emergency medical supplies were required urgently in case the infection rates grew was not in question.

Suddenly, Kemsa was literally swimming in money as funds started rolling in from every direction to help the Health ministry acquire the much-needed Personal Protection Equipment and drugs.

Soon, reports of alleged corruption and misappropriation of funds started filtering out of Kemsa headquarters in Industrial Area, prompting anti-corruption investigators to pay Manjari a dreaded visit.

It did not take long before the Kemsa boss was suspended last month following allegations that the authority had flouted procurement regulations, amid loud protests over lack of PPEs for medical personnel, among other shortcomings.

Yesterday, the man who friends and colleagues describe as “shrewd, cunning and a smooth operator who rarely speaks his mind” looked at a group of MPs investigating the unfolding Kemsa scandal in the eye and said: 

“Under my watch, no money was lost and I did not oversee any loss of funds. All commodities supplied have been utilised and those that have not been used are still intact.” 

Innocent man

Appearing before the Health Committee of the National Assembly, Manjari cut the image of an innocent man who had conducted his duties diligently.

The man, whom his bosses Health minister Mutahi Kagwe and Principal Secretary Susan Mochache, had only hours earlier described as “an incompetent manager who blames his failings on others” came out fighting, denying all allegations thrown his way.

For instance, yesterday, he changed his earlier position on procurement malpractices at Kemsa and explained that he was not coerced to award tenders to specific companies or individuals.

“We were not instructed to procure those items from those suppliers as had been alluded to earlier,” he told the committee in an about-turn from his earlier claims of being pressured by his bosses to award tenders to particular entities.

“As CEO, I did not work under any pressure; I did my work with my eyes open,” he proclaimed.

He told an attentive chamber that his 23 years a medic were that of a distinguished professional who has had a clear career path.

Manjari’s statement seemed to be a direct response to his boss, Health CS Kagwe who had during his appearance before the committee on Wednesday described the Kemsa boss as a poor manager who was trying to run away from his responsibilities.

“…It is, however, not my job to tell anybody to commit any crime...... And in the event that I told a CEO to do something that is against the law, the normal thing to do in government is to say - give me what you’re telling me in writing,” said Kagwe

Yesterday, Manjari defended questionable procurement at the agency, saying the process was done in the best interest of the country.

Suspended procurement director Charles Juma said Manjari issued nine tenders without the knowledge of the board and his office (Juma’s).

According to Juma, Manjari issued a commitment letter to Kilig Limited for a Sh4 billion contract even after the procurement director advised against the move.

“I advised the CEO not to award the tender since there were no funds in our coffers.

We had exhausted the coffers and, therefore, awarding such a huge tender made no sense,” Juma told MPs.

Joshua Kuttuny asked Juma what action he took after Manjari ignored him and went ahead to award the tender.

“If they ignored, what action did you take. When your actions were being ignored why didn’t you report to the chairman?,” posed Kutuny.

“Director of procurement is being mischievous  why did you sign award letters while the other hand you are raising overspending, that is double-speak,” said Mbeere North MP Charles Njagagua 

But while denying the claim, Manjari said he signed the tender documents since Juma was unwell and out of office.

However, a stunned Juma hit back, saying at no one time had he been out of office during the issuing of tenders for Covid-19 supplies as alleged by the CEO.

He went on to inform the committee that Manjari disregarded all his written objections and went on to over-commit the agency to a tune of Sh7.6 billion.

But a calm demeanour Manjari, said he had heard that Juma was indisposed and found it wise to sign the tender in the interest of time.  

Manjari said the agency was faced with difficult choices at a time the country was threatened by the fast-spreading pandemic and a number of global suppliers, including China and India, had locked down.

The CEO said Kemsa had to make a tough decision as there was a serious threat to health workers who were the frontline soldiers. 

“It is for the passion that I have for this health industry and health care workers, I really needed to protect them and not have a situation witnessed in other countries,” he told MPs yesterday.

“At the time, Kemsa had already passed the 2019/20 budget and by March 2020 when the pandemic was declared, there was no budget in Kemsa for Covid, so we rode on the assumption that being a pandemic we will be able to get funds from an emergency fund, donors and MoH and reserves at Kemsa.”

Manjari holds a Bachelor of Medicine degree from the University of Nairobi and a Masters degree in ENT Surgery from the same university.

Manjari was suspended last month alongside procurement director Juma and Eliud Mureithi (commercial director) to allow anti-corruption officials complete investigations into graft allegations.

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