By Oscar Obonyo
You probably have seen it displayed in almost every government office.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s official portrait is a common feature in both private and public entities. But have you ever paid attention to the caption below it? The president’s title is not unmistakable, but the ambiguous caption creates confusion about his official designation.
Worded as “His Excellency. Hon Uhuru Kenyatta C.G.H, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces of the Republic of Kenya”, the caption gives the impression that Uhuru is President of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) instead of the Republic of Kenya.
Chief of Staff and Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua concurs that semantically, the portrait’s caption could be misconstrued to mean the Head of State is President and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces.
“The President is first and foremost the President of the Republic of Kenya. It is in this capacity that he derives his mandate as Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces of the Republic,” says Kinyua.
The import of Kinyua’s remarks is that over the last seven years, Uhuru may as well have served merely as President of KDF and not of the Republic of Kenya — at least on paper as proclaimed in the official portrait. Concerned about erroneous impression, Kinyua in 2015 sent out a circular to all Cabinet Secretaries directing them to immediately make a correction.
“We have noted that all official portraits of His Excellency the President, inscriptions in commemorative plaques, titles in official documents refer to the President incorrectly. You are asked to make this correction and fully comply with this guidance forthwith,” reads the letter dated April 9, 2015.
The correct title of the President, Kinyua further directed, is “His Excellency Hon Uhuru Kenyatta, C.G.H. President of the Republic of Kenya, and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces.”
But four years later, the error in the portrait inscription remains, including in government ministries’ and parastatals.
A countrywide spot check by the People Daily revealed that most county and National government offices have the wrong portrait displayed at reception areas and official working places.
In Nairobi, portraits with the wrong captions are visible in several State offices, banking halls, restaurants and even in offices of some media houses. Officials in the Information, Communications and Technology ministry, tasked with printing and supplying the portraits, concede that there are a lot of impediments in executing Kinyua’s circular.
Deputy Director of Information, Esther Wanjau, could not hide her frustrations: “We have done our bit in making the relevant corrections as instructed. The same have been printed and distributed to our offices countrywide.
But some ministries – including here in Nairobi – still display images of our President with the wrong writings, yet all Cabinet Secretaries and Permanent Secretaries have been clearly communicated to and instructed on where to get the new portraits.”
Traders have taken advantage of the apparent non-compliance to sell the right portraits. Christopher Mwaniki accidentally landed a copy of Kinyua’s circular through a relative who is a civil servant and has been moving from office to another seeking contracts to replace the old wrong portraits.
Armed with the circular, it is easy to trust his mission, which has gone a long way in correcting the glaring error.
“I have been printing the portraits downtown Nairobi with the prescribed changes and selling the portraits as per orders from individual businessmen or institutions,” says Munyiri, a retired employee at the Ministry of Public Works.
In his small way, Mwaniki’s “one-man-army” has helped to correct the erroneous impression, especially in Nairobi. To date, he says, he has replaced about 3,700 portraits, including at the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol Drug Abuse (Nacada), National Industrial Training Authority (Nita), National Drought Management Authority, Kenya Institute of Highways and Building Technology and a few branch offices of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
While appreciating Mwaniki’s personal initiative, Wanjau regrets lack of policies, allowing anyone, other than the ICT Ministry, to print the President’s portrait.
“We can neither collaborate with the private artists and hawkers nor share the standard specifications of the President’s portraits. We must stop this private enterprise which in some cases distorts set standards and specifications,” she said.
Indeed, some presidential portraits have over time been designed and printed privately, as personal enterprise, without direction from government authorities. In certain instances, for like in 2007, some portraits were quickly crafted from the National Rainbow Alliance (Narc) candidate, Mwai Kibaki’s, campaign posters.
Political commentator Herman Manyora attributes the problem to the commercialisation of politics — a trait where political leaders give their supporters a free hand to craft logos, mug-shots and slogans, to aide their campaigns.
“Some of the messages, in very poor grammar, end up on crucial items like presidential portraits. The one that the Head of Public Service is trying to address, for instance, suffers from structural ambiguity,” observes Manyora, who teaches Linguistics and Languages at the University of Nairobi.
Reached for comment, Government Spokesman, Col (Rtd) Cyrus Oguna, acknowledged existence of an “anomaly on the President’s portrait” but quickly added, “to err is human.”
Asked about the origin of the problem, he said finger-pointing was unimportant.
“That is not useful to us at this moment. What is important is that this particular error has been identified and steps are ongoing to have it addressed.”
Manyora, however, traces the semantic challenge in the caption to what he terms the “hunger to pile up all manner of tiytles to the presidency”.
Poses the linguistics specialist: “What is the wisdom of using the titles of Hon, C.G.H, His Excellency, and Commander-in-Chief, all in one sentence, in reference to one man? Chances are high that one will make a grammatical error or alternatively sound ambiguous.”