Anyone who watched The Trend on NTV featuring Denis Itumbi, the State House digital guru recently, must have been left with a paroxysm of unanswered questions about the real role of the office of Digital, News Media and Diaspora Affairs at Uhuru Kenyatta’s State House.
The fast talking former blogger and trouble-shooter was facing a barrage of questions from the host, Larry Madowo and four Diaspora Kenyans, connected to the studios via video links.
I was unsatisfied with the answers and disappointed by the short time allocated to the interesting discussion. It was obvious too that the interviewers were left with more questions than answers. By the time the programme ended, one could see they were still hungry and thirsty for answers to their burning questions.
The youthful Itumbi mumbled and fumbled, gave half-answers or no answers at all, ignored some questions, confused Virginia with Washington DC, couldn’t articulate his job description, couldn’t tell whether he was a “personal assistant” appointed by the President or a civil servant hired by the Public Service Commission and periodically when caught off guard, dived under the cover of “digitalese’. At one point he promised to answer some of the questions in future interviews, a complete no no!
Itumbi talked of a modern data centre but could not be drawn into committing himself to what he promised the Diaspora in August: that “within two months” the government would launch a website to enable Kenyans abroad apply and receive an array of government services online. Through the system, they would be able to apply for passports, register companies, apply for land registration and make contributions to the NHIF without leaving their stations abroad. Everything was to be done with a click of a mouse. The so-called revolutionary “interactive web portal” was to have been launched by the end of October. We have seen nothing so far.
When the Directorate of Communication, of which Itumbi is a senior official, was established at State House, I was among the first to congratulate the division. I was happy that we were moving from an old order to a new era of information dissemination characterised by openness and truthfulness.
So far its chief, Manoah Isipisu, has done a great job as a Spokesman of the State. We have seen changes in the way official State House information is conveyed to the public. Positive changes have also been made in the conduct of State functions.
I am also thrilled by Itumbi’s tweeting enthusiasm. Through his tweets we are now able to follow presidential events as they occur. But there is still a lot waiting to be done under the Diaspora docket.
When Itumbi was appointed, Kenyans living abroad complained that he lacked the right credentials and was unsuitable for the job. They argued he had never been a Diasporan and did not understand their challenges.
A few months ago, he went on the US-based, Kenyan-owned JamboBoston internet radio station to explain himself, but even after that, the Diasporans have remained unconvinced. When The Trend put him face to face with some of them, I expected him to rise to the occasion and dispel any perception out there that he was not up to kilter, but he blew up the opportunity.
The Diaspora is a very important constituency. An estimated two and half million Kenyans live abroad, bringing home about 100 billion shillings annually. They use their savings to invest in a variety of undertakings. Those who decide to return home for good bring with them crucial skills and expertise we need for development.
Next month, as a show of their solidarity with the country of their birth, hundreds of them will meet in Nairobi for their second Diaspora Homecoming Conference. The aim of the conference – which will also include returnees already settled in the country – is to “promote, nurture and sustain a mutually beneficial relationship…for national growth and development…”
A week before that there will be the Kenya Diaspora Conference in Arlington, Virginia, which will be graced by the Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Amina Mohamed, to discuss everything business.
Apart from those issues, I think the Diaspora should also bring to the table for discussion with government officials the pending matter of representation. With the kind of contribution they are making to our economy, it is only fair that everything must be done to allow them to vote and to be involved in the affairs of their mother country in a more direct, pragmatic way. This should include having a dedicated representative in the legislature to articulate their issues.
Before the elections last year, politicians and officials of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) made several trips abroad and promised Diasporans that they would vote. But later, excuses were given and they were shut out of the polls. That was a blatant injustice. That is why I feel representation must occupy a top place in the agenda of the forthcoming meetings.
In the meantime, Diasporans want to see more activity coming out of Itumbi’s office. As the interviewers put it, they want frequent “updates” and more aggressive engagements with officials in Nairobi on what concerns them. They also want clarification on the roles of Itumbi’s office vis a vis the Diaspora Desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Finally, Kenya may wish to emulate the way the Philippines treats its workers in foreign lands. Philippines has one of the highest numbers of workers abroad. In recognition of their role in the economy, Filippino workers abroad are feted as heroes at home and every year the Manila government gives out special awards to honour its most distinguished workers.
Kenya could do the same.
And that is my say.