Why tycoon Ephraim Maina prefers to fly—and boils githeri using paper money as fuel

Why tycoon Ephraim Maina prefers to fly—and boils githeri using paper money as fuel

His firm was awarded a contract to pave the 57-km Sagana-Karatina Road in 30 months. Ten years on, the road is still incomplete, and the bill has quadrupled

Ephraim Maina

One of the bones of contention in the 2007 General Election, in which many legislators were overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate, was poor infrastructure. A case in point is the 57-km Sagana-Karatina Road, which was almost impassable during rainy seasons. The bad condition of the road occasioned delays and breakdown of vehicles that plied the route. What’s more, produce that was transported along the road could not reach target markets in time.

In spite of their years of suffering, Nyeri County taxpayers rewarded the man behind the ruin by voting him in as Mathira MP. In 2000, Kirinyaga Construction Company, owned by one of Nyeri’s most illustrious sons, Ephraim Maina, had been awarded the contract to repair the road at a cost of Sh486.8 million. According to the contract, the project would be completed in 30 months.

However, this was never to be: the terms of the contract were revised, leading to escalation of the cost fourfold, to a staggering Sh1.6 billion. When the Narc Government took over, the Sagana-Karatina Road project was among the first to be visited by then Roads minister, Raila Odinga, in 2003. During the trip, Raila warned cowboy contractors that their days were numbered.

At that time, Maina, the owner of the construction company, had no political office. But he was reputed to be fabulously rich and powerful. So influential was Maina that when President Mwai Kibaki made his homecoming trip to Nyeri, the contractor hosted MPs and cabinet ministers to his home in Chaka. Oddly, after the feast the Government stopped threatening not to pay pending bills. Local leaders too stopped organising demonstrations against the slow pace of constructing the road.

Twelve years after the award of the controversial contract, the project has not been completed, although the taxpayer has forked out millions. The contract has also been the subject of lengthy legal tussles as the contractor-turned-politician has now turned the heat on the government. In 2010, Kirinyaga Construction Company sued the government, demanding to be paid Sh2.4 billion for alleged breach of contract.

Curiously, during the hearing, then Attorney General Amos Wako—who was supposed to defend the Government—intimated that he was looking for an out-of-court settlement and never contested the amount demanded. According to documents lodged in court, Maina’s company claimed that the government had reneged on its responsibilities after awarding it a contract. The company would move to the Milimani Commercial Court, before Justice Muga Apodi, seeking Sh4.5 million as outstanding retention money, Sh166 million as VAT deduction in breach of the contract, Sh36.1 million as income tax deducted in breach of the contract, and Sh2.2 billion being loss of returns for the breach of contract.

Even as Maina was suing the government, he was busy campaigning to be elected as Mathira MP on a Safina party ticket. He campaigned in such style that voters momentarily forgot that his company had been contracted to construct the road that had made transport in the area a nightmare. During his campaigns, Maina would use his top-of-the-range sports utility vehicles. Of course, when he was not in the mood for driving, he would overfly Mathira in his Bell 206B (4638) helicopter. He used the 2006 chopper reportedly to avoid hiring one, which aviation experts estimate would cost between Sh40,000 and Sh150,000 per hour to keep in the air.

The voters were ecstatic when Maina declared that, to him, money was not a problem and that he possessed so much of it that he could comfortably use paper money as fuel to cook githeri. The politician was ultimately elected in 2007, trouncing Nderitu Gachagua, who had edged out Matu Wamae in 2002.

Maina, however, landed in problems with his party on October 11, 2012, when Safina expelled him, apparently for acting against the Political Parties Act by campaigning for candidates from other parties. The MP has been accused of campaigning for Uhuru Kenyatta for presidency, yet his sponsoring party’s leader, Paul Muite, was vying for presidency. The MP nonetheless defended himself, saying he had not abandoned the party. He accused the party’s top brass of witch-hunt, arguing that he continued to pay party membership dues.

His election to Parliament did not earn him reprieve. In 2008, when the late John Njoroge Michuki was appointed Public Works minister, he confronted Maina over the way he had handled the road project. Angered by the slow pace, the minister gave the company ultimatum to be constructing at least half a kilometre per day. During a site visit, Michuki told Maina: “The purpose of roads is to promote economic activities for the taxpayers and they must get value for their money.”

Maina, however, pleaded that his company was experiencing cash flow problems, ostensibly because the government had introduced a new policy requiring that construction material be charged 16 percent VAT. Michuki responded by stressing that no favours would be extended to anyone who failed Kenyans, and said he would blacklist construction companies notorious for dishonouring contractual pledges. During the exchange, Maina pleaded for an additional one-and-a-half years, which Michuki termed a joke. Said the minister: “There is no way a road heading to the President’s backyard can take a century to be completed. Someone must be joking.”

Today, four years later, Michuki is no more and Kibaki’s tenure has expired. Sadly, the road is far from over. In the recent General Election, Maina lost the Nyeri senatorial seat to Mutahi Kagwe. This could mean one of two things: One, that he now has more time to work on this road, whose decrepit condition has contributed to Nyeri’s economic ruin. Two, that with his loss of political clout and possibly resources, he may have trouble securing resources to honour his contractual duty of completing the project.