Leadership wrangles at the troubled Kenya Wildlife Service escalated last week as Director General Kitili Mbathi finally bowed to pressure and tendered his resignation on Wednesday.
The embattled former banker conservationist had two weeks ago defied a directive by the board of trustees to resign or be fired, instead opting to proceed on annual leave, apparently to buy time and seek political support to save his job. However, pressure for him to leave mounted, forcing him to bow out.
Deputy director in charge of parks and reserves, Mr Julius Kimani, has been appointed acting director general. Mr Mbathi declined to comment on the latest development, instead referring the Nation to the Director of Communications Paul Gathitu who could not be reached.
“I am sorry I cannot comment. I would advise you to contact the Director of Communications,” Mr Mbathi said.
KWS Board of Trustees chairman Dr Richard Leakey could also not be reached as his phone was switched off.
Mr Mbathi’s resignation came as the national government waded into the leadership wars at the wildlife body and stopped a series of meetings which the KWS Board of Trustees had planned with staff.
Dr Leakey had issued a circular announcing the planned meetings which were to take place during field visits by the board, before the Environment and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary, Prof Judi Wakhungu, intervened through a circular stating that the Board had overstepped its mandate by seeking to have direct interaction with KWS staff while by-passing management.
Undeterred, Dr Leakey went ahead and held meetings with the eight regional conservation assistant directors at the KWS headquarters last Thursday.
Sources at the KWS headquarters along Langata Road disclosed that each of the eight field assistant directors met the Board separately.
Also shunted out alongside Mr Mbathi is the deputy director in charge of security operations, Mr William Sing’oei, who has gone back to the General Service Unit, where he was from before joining KWS.
The changes of top management at KWS signal the latest escalation of vicious battles for leadership and control of the premier wildlife conservation agency between local and international axis of financial and political powers in the wildlife conservation sector.
Although the exact reasons for Mr Mbathi’s fallout with the board are yet to come to light, latest moves by the board chair, Dr Leakey, point to a determined effort to shuffle the institution’s management.
The list of those who were to take part in the cancelled field visits seen by the Nation included names of some non–board members, among them former KWS Director Nehemiah Rotich.
The other is the former warden in charge of Meru National Park, Mr Mark Jenkins, who has since returned to KWS as an adviser.
Mr Rotich is a respected conservationist and former Kenya representative to the United Nations Environmental Programme.
Mr Jenkins, a Kenyan of British extraction, is a scion of a family of conservationists with many decades of service in the country since colonial times. His father, the late Peter Jenkins, was a wildlife warden in the 50s up to 70s when he retired.
Two years ago, Mr Rotich was hired as a consultant by the government to conduct an audit of the state of affairs at the KWS following an outcry over runaway poaching and unprecedented security breaches in KWS protected facilities that led to the fall of Dr Julius Kipng’etich and his deputy director for security, Mr Peter Leitoro.
Among Mr Rotich’s recommendations was to devolve functions and confer more decision making authority to the regions where implementation happens in order to reduce the centralisation of functions and reduce the time taken for decisions to be taken.
A circular from the acting director general calling off the planned field visits by the board reads in part: “Kindly be informed that due to unavoidable circumstances the above visit has been called off until further notice. We will however have a meeting with the Field Assistant Directors at the headquarters on Thursday 13/7/2017 … kindly attend in person without fail …” wrote Mr Kimani.
The cancelled board and staff meetings had been scheduled for Wednesday last week at the KWS headquarters for the Southern Conservation Area, the Air Wing, central workshops and the headquarters staff.
The second group was to meet the following day, Thursday, in Voi. It was to comprise staff from the Tsavo Conservation Area, Coast Conservation Area and KWS LEA Manyani.
The other cluster comprising staff from Western, Nakuru, Central Rift and Mountain conservation area was to meet at Naishi. Staff from northern and Meru conservation areas had been scheduled to converge at the Kinna conservation headquarters.
But calling off the meetings, Prof Wakhungu argued that Dr Leakey’s entry into direct interaction with staff would raise questions why he had not done it with previous administrations. The CS is reported to have advised that if the board had any issues with staff, the board should involve the management in resolving them instead of doing so directly.
Sources told the Nation the organisation was going through a rough patch, with the bulk of vehicles and aircraft grounded and staff morale at an all-time low.
Emergency security operations were currently dependent on well-wishers to donate aircraft and fuel, said a senior staff member who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals.