Getting the job of Kenya’s chief taxman has been a tumultuous journey for James Githii Mburu, a man who insiders say benefited from a chaotic recruitment process carefully engineered to get him the job.
The 47-year-old accountant, who has survived a recruitment process that attracted several court cases and a failed boardroom coup, will now replace Mr John Njiraini at the corner office in Times Tower.
Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich Thursday handed Mr Mburu his first three-year term as the next Kenya Revenue Authority Commissioner General (CG) from July 1, bringing an end to a fierce succession battle at Times Tower.
Mr Mburu, a graduate of Kenyatta University and a trusted confidant of the outgoing KRA boss, swiftly rose through the ranks to become deputy commissioner in charge of audit at KRA.
From this position, he appeared to do all the right things to worm his way to his current position as the Commissioner of Intelligence and Strategic Operations. But the process of his elevation to the intelligence docket was found to be flawed by Auditor-General Edward Ouko, who said it contravened KRA’s regulations, and this has put him in the crosshairs of activists.
“The position was not advertised both internally and externally and therefore disadvantaged other would-be applicants,” Mr Ouko said in his recent report on the agency. KRA had simply gone out of its way to create a position for him, in a move seen as calculated to set him up to replace Mr Njiraini.
But this position has earned him both friend and foe. Those who have opposed his rise say the recruitment process was rigged to suit him while those rooting for him say he has won enemies by fighting tax evasion cartels that had turned the agency into their playground. His docket is responsible for intelligence management, corruption investigations, cyber surveillance, and local and international tax information exchange.
As chief of intelligence, Mr Mburu is the man behind the intelligence gathering machinery that has become a nightmare for many tax cheats and closed corruption taps.
Some of the high-profile tax matters that have been credited to his department are the duty-free sugar imports saga that saw Darasa Investments Limited listed among companies that would have seen Kenya lose Sh3 billion in taxes.
KRA also bust a tax evasion scheme by Chinese building materials retailer Housemart. A resultant case is still in court. It has also been on the warpath with prominent personalities, among them former Nairobi governor Evans Kidero and his lawyer Tom Ojienda.
Other cases that his department has investigated include the case against billionaire Humphrey Kariuki’s Thika-based Africa Spirits Ltd and investigations into fraudulent activities that led to the arrest last month of over 80 KRA staff.
“KRA’S biggest challenge has been failure to meet revenue targets. Currently, we are at around 19 per cent revenue-to-GDP ratio, among the highest in Africa, and that means we need very innovative ways in terms of policy analysis to grow collection. I am sure Mr Mburu is the guy to lead KRA into that regime,” said Mr Tony Watima, an economist. “Aside from that, his appointment can also be looked at as entrenchment of ethnic hegemony at KRA.”
Prior to joining KRA, Mr Mburu worked as a technical standards officer at the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya (ICPAK). He also had a short stint at CFC Bank. He has beaten 30 other applicants to the position that only attracted two women who never made it to the shortlist of five.
The other four front-runners were Mr Julius Waita Mwatu, an MBA holder and current chairman of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya (ICPAK); Mr Richard Boro Ndung’u, a former KPMG partner; Mr Duncan Otieno Onduru, the Executive Director of the Commonwealth Association of Tax Administrators; and Mr Andrew Kazora Okello, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) regional adviser in charge of East and Central Africa on tax matters.
The hiring of a new commissioner-general brings to an end the controversial term of Mr Njiraini, who attained the mandatory retirement age of 60 on December 19, 2017.
A lawsuit by activist Okiya Omtatah against his tenure was defeated when the government scrapped the retirement age of chief executive officers of state corporations. A second suit to push him out failed, too. Mr Njiraini’s impending exit fuelled a boardroom war at KRA that had a dramatic end after President Uhuru Kenyatta sent nearly the entire board packing.
As the board plotted to send him home in May 2018, President Kenyatta replaced five of the nine KRA board members, among them the chairman, Dr Edward Sambili, through a Special Gazette notice. The notice sacking them was also backdated, which made the decisions they had made during the conflicts null and void.
Besides Dr Sambili, others who were kicked out were Mr Evans Kakai, Ms Constance Kandie, Mr Rashid Ali, and Mr Abdi Barre Duale, who was given a soft landing as chairman of the Kenya Leather Development Council.
Mr Sambili was replaced by former Head of Public Service Francis Muthaura, whose first main job was to steady the ship and set in motion plans to find Mr Njiraini’s successor.
The change of guard comes at a time when staff have written a protest memo to the agency’s board chairman, accusing top management of shielding fat cats involved in various tax scams and sacrificing junior tax officers.