Kenya’s First Lady Tangled up in Healthcare Scandal

Kenya's First Lady Margaret Kenyatta (in white cap) waving. Photo source First Lady's Half Marathon Twitter page.

In politics, timing is everything.

On January 26, amidst an ongoing doctors’ strike, and on the same day that six officials from the union that represents all Kenyan doctors were facing possible jail sentences, organisers of an initiative begun by Kenya’s first lady launched a social media campaign encouraging Kenyans to sign up for a fundraising marathon.

The Beyond Zero initiative founded by First Lady Margaret Kenyatta aims at eradicating infant mortality and maternal deaths by providing every county with fully equipped mobile clinics for community engagement and outreach. The irony of the organisers calling for Kenyans to fundraise for healthcare in the middle of the strike that the six helped organise (and against the backdrop of massive corruption in the Ministry of Health) was not lost on Kenyans.

Kenyan doctors are protesting the failure of the Kenyan government to implement a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) which it had entered into with doctors in 2013. The CBA proposes the overhaul of the  public health care system by equipping all government hospitals, providing low cost universal healthcare and raising doctors’ salaries. Most doctors start off on a salary of US $400 per month.

As soon as the call for participation in the marathon began under the #BeyondZero hashtag, Kenyans online turned their frustrations and anger on the First Lady and the organisers, tagging their handles @beyondzeroKenya, @FirstLadyKenya and, in some instances, even the official Twitter handle of President Uhuru Kenyatta, @UKenyatta, in critical tweets.

Dr. Chao observed that it was illogical for the Beyond Zero Campaign to fundraise for the same resources that the doctors were agitating for in the strike that the government, in turn, was cracking down on:

“Wanjikũ Revolution” asked:

While Derick Ongeri wrote:

Elijah Tei Matolo, a medical doctor, said:

Kimani Mwangi remarked:

The effectiveness of the campaign in achieving its stated aim of equipping every county with a mobile clinic was also called into question. Users blasted inadequate personnel, sub-par drugs and a lack of financial transparency within the organization:

In January 2017, a Kenyan court handed down a one-month suspended jail sentence to seven officials of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union over the doctors’ strike. The court wants the officials to call off the strike.

The Beyond Zero call for a fundraising marathon appears to have been the last straw for many Kenyans, who could not hide their anger at the audacity of the First Family. In addition to the government continuing to ignore the doctors’ demands, pushing public healthcare towards collapse, Kenya is suffering from an ongoing drought that has put a strain on society and the economy.

In 2016, an expose by Kenya’s leading newspaper revealed that Kenyan taxpayers had lost US $48 million through a graft scandal at the Ministry of Health. Among the funds that were diverted from the ministry were funds slated for free maternity care.

The current director of Beyond Zero, Nyokabi Muthama, who also happens to be president Uhuru Kenyatta’s younger sister, was among the owners of companies suspected to have irregularly pocketed millions of shillings from the scandal involving the health ministry.

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