Sarah Serem – Relentless custodian of taxpayers billions

Sarah Serem was the first chairperson of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission, an independent commission established by the Constitution of Kenya 2010 to regulate salaries in the public service. During her six-year term, she was on a mission to tame Kenya’s ballooning public wage bill, which gained her a reputation as a tough negotiator.

Warm, pleasant and down-to-earth – that is Sarah Serem, a woman many otherwise regard as tough, ruthless and perhaps even antagonistic. If true, this public persona would be necessary given the job she held for six years that required her to safeguard taxpayers’ hard-earned money while ensuring that public servants were reasonably compensated by way of salaries and allowances. This meant she was constantly walking a tightrope. When Serem took on the position of chairperson of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) in 2011, she found a public wage bill that was seriously bloated and vowed to stop at nothing until it was brought under control. For a start, she said no public servant should expect a salary increment until the wage bill was contained.

Her tenure straddled the central system of government and devolution, and the backlash she received from Members of Parliament, and later Members of the County Assembly, left her shocked to say the least. “They demonstrated greed beyond imagination. I did not anticipate how much people could personalise an issue of such great national importance,” she says of the reaction she received from the lawmakers following the proposals, which also included slashing their salaries and allowances. “But I can be tough, especially when I know that billions of shillings in taxpayers’ money is at stake,” says the holder of a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of
Nairobi. Serem says her appointment as SRC chairperson was a defining moment in her life. She knew it was a tough calling, but not quite as difficult as it turned out to be. However, she took it all in stride, learning to deal with it as best as she could.

“I’m very strong when I am on the battlefield,” she declares. “Every challenge is an opportunity to make me a better person. Even the gold we see has to undergo a lot of refining under fire for it to glitter,” she says, adding that she had confidence in knowing that the Constitution backed her and that the public wage bill was a Kenyan issue, not a Serem issue. Part of Serem’s resilience comes from widowhood. The death of her husband – a general in the military – in 2005 was a great challenge for the mother of four, coming at a time when the children were quite young. But she carefully avoids delving into her loss, only saying that it forced her to reorganise her thinking as she assumed the role of sole family manager.

Challenges notwithstanding, she has managed to raise her daughters in what she describes as a disciplined and God-fearing manner, consistent with her Seventh Day Adventist faith. In an era when children virtually call the shots in many homes due to the human rights latitude the Constitution provides, she banned her daughters from wearing mini-skirts at home. The senior civil servant is of the opinion that dressing well and modestly go hand in hand. She
laughs off a suggestion that women with short hair are bold, bright and successful, saying that for her, it is all about simplicity.

“I prefer to have a simple hairstyle and short hair does it for me. It does not take much of my time; it is simple, I can wash it without much fuss and that keeps me fresh,” she says of the short crop she adopted several years ago. One of Serem’s greatest moments was marrying off two of her daughters in church – a statement that she had done her part as a good parent. “My greatest joy was when I allowed them to enter into marriage; I felt a deep joy.” She has two grandchildren, whom she says give her a lot of comfort and contentment. “My joy was spiced up when my first grandson arrived. I was actually there when my daughter delivered. It was a life-changing experience.”

Her first-born is an architect, while her second daughter studied actuarial sciences. Her third- born is a communication specialist and her youngest graduated with a degree in medicine from the University of Nairobi.

Words of Wisdom

  •  “Every challenge is an opportunity to make one a better person. Even the gold we see has to undergo a lot of refining under fire for it to glitter.”
  •  “Don’t let your marital status define you. A man should come as a complement. He should make a woman better than he found her.”

Apart from dressing well but modestly, there are other rules her children have to observe. Potential suitors for her two remaining daughters must wait until the girls have earned their second degrees. “It is a rule in my house. My daughters must have a second degree before entering marriage, nothing less than that,” she asserts. This is because she would not want to put her daughters in a situation where they enter marriage before developing a strong mind. She argues that a second degree will enable them to raise their families with knowledge and wisdom.

Most of the rules she applies in her home are derived from her faith. Born into a Christian family in present-day Nandi County (formerly a district), Serem describes herself as a staunch Christian who holds various leadership positions in her church. She is an active member of the New Life SDA Church in Nairobi.

Her level of commitment to her church is such that she even gave part of her farm for the construction of a church. She is also engaged in various programmes to help the needy – she is a member of the board of the Adventist Relief and Development Agency – a humanitarian organisation that responds to the needs of the local community. She is also a trustee of the Adventist University of Africa. Serem also enjoys working with the women’s ministry in her church. In 2000, she started a rescue and rehabilitation centre for young girls in Maasailand, a home that currently has more than 200 girls, some of whom have since graduated from university and college. She says it gives her joy to see the girl-child overcome the obstacles in her life to excel.

She has a word for unmarried women: they should not let marital status define them. She actually termed “unfortunate” remarks by a Kiambu politician in 2014 that women should not seek elective positions if they are not married. “I usually tell women that a man should come as a complement. I actually know women who were great before they got married and lost their self-esteem after marriage. That should not be the case; a man should make a woman better than he found her,” she says.

Away from public office, the former SRC chairperson is also a farmer who rears cattle and grows maize on her father’s land. She also reveals that she is a shopaholic, naming the Nakumatt stores as the place she loved to shop before they faced financial problems and began closing down. Keeping fit is an important part of her routine – she goes to the gym at least three times a week and occasionally rides a bicycle. Interestingly, she is not a good athlete, contrary to the popular assumption that people from her Rift Valley background are born runners. Her husband on the other hand was an athlete in his high school days and even competed in athletics in the military. On her possible entry into politics, Serem does not seem to be interested at the moment. She says as things stand now, the definition of politics in Kenya does not interest her at all. “If that perception changes, maybe I will change my mind,” she says. Serem reveals that she was the first person in her village to go to university, where she studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Political Science at the University of Nairobi.

She went on to work at the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, a parastatal organisation, as a personnel officer for eight years before moving to the Kenya Post Office Savings Bank as deputy human resource officer. She eventually became the HR director and takes prides in contributing to the entrenchment of professionalism and growth in the state corporation. Serem has nearly 30 years’ experience in HR management and is a member of the Institute of Human Resource Management of Kenya. Together with a friend, she established Young Biz, a multi-national trading company in youth entrepreneurship skills, before she was appointed to head SRC.

Her greatest desire is to see Kenyans focus more on nation-building and commit their resources to that. “Kenyans should also share the little they have with the needy among them,” she adds. Even when insults were hurled at her over her work at the commission, Serem never allowed herself to be swayed. Instead, she says, she found a way to rise above the intimidation and do what needed to be done – pretty much the same way she has faced other challenges in her life.

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