Kicking corruption in Kenya

Steven Gruzd
eAfrica: The Electronic Journal of Governance and Innovation
August 3, 2003

Finding a Kenyan who will admit to having backed ex-President Daniel Arap Moi is a bit like looking for white South Africans who voted for the apartheid government, East Europeans who believed in communism, or anyone who enjoys watching Liverpool play football.

While in Nairobi in May 2003, I found a nation reawakening from 24 years of Moi’s corrupt rule, and trying to set things right under the new National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government of President Mwai Kibaki.

My taxi driver from Jomo Kenyatta airport eagerly chatted about post-KANU Kenya. ‘You see these lampposts?’ he said, ‘President Kibaki is putting lights on this road from the airport to the city centre. Moi promised this for years, but it never happened.’ Indeed, I saw workers connecting streetlights on the Kenyan savannah against a backdrop of billboards selling mobile phones.

My taxi driver assured me that corruption had fallen, saying that under Moi, we’d have had to slip the chap manning the airport exit ‘an extra little something.’

Moi’s reluctance to crack down on graft led to the suspension of World Bank loans totalling $150 million in 2001. Corruption reportedly costs Kenya almost $1 billion a year. It is considered largely responsible for the country’s disappointing economic growth rate of 1.1% in 2002. In the same year, Kenya was ranked 96th out of 102 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. One study found citizens paid about 16 bribes a month just to secure everyday services.

Tackling corruption was a NARC election promise, and already significant steps are being taken to fulfil it. The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission has been reestablished; ordinary people are refusing to pay bribes to crooked cops and the Chief Justice resigned after an investigation was launched against him.

A public inquiry has finally been launched into the notorious Goldenberg scandal, in which the Moi regime stole hundreds of millions of dollars using fictitious gold and diamond exports in the 1980s and 1990s. In May, the finance minister fired every single government procurement chief. Most procurement officers owned companies adept at winning government contracts and getting paid, but rather less so when it came to actually delivering the goods. In July, World Bank President James Wolfensohn announced a resumption of lending to Kenya. Kibaki has launched a five-year national campaign against corruption, and said he would be the first politician to declare his wealth under the Public Officer Ethics Act.

While having dinner with Kenyan friends, my jaw almost dropped into my ugali (East Africa’s cornmeal staple) as the television showed more tough NARC treatment being administered. The Minister of Local Government, Emmanuel Maitha, had made a surprise visit to Nairobi City Hall that afternoon, with cameras in tow. He sternly castigated two cowering messengers for playing solitaire on a computer.

I half expected the minister, in his natty cream suit, to snap on a white glove and wipe his finger over the top of the mushrooming piles of paperwork. Those city employees who hadn’t already knocked off for the day were seen scurrying from their offices. When Maitha asked where everyone was, he was greeted with blank stares and bowed heads. The thrilling climax came in the swampy basement, replete with leaking ceilings and mouldy walls. He collared the building’s caretaker and sacked him on the spot for mismanagement.

My hosts grinned and said that Kenyans enjoyed this butt-kicking attitude. They called Moi’s ministers ‘handshakers,’ guest stars who did cameo appearances for the president’s propaganda show.

They liked how Kibaki let his ministers get on with their jobs, and noted that the new ministers were prepared to face the public on radio and television talk shows. They felt Kibaki was right on the money.

Or, in fact, not on the money at all, as it turned out. Kibaki had said in his inauguration speech that he was not interested in having his countenance on the currency, or naming things after himself.

‘It is ridiculous to have every street, every building, every school and every bar bearing your name,’ he said. In May, the Kenyan Central Bank released old but unused 100 shilling notes from 1978, bearing founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s face, into circulation. Moi had stashed the cash in a dusty vault, in a deliberate ploy to entrench his, er, profile.

Driving to the airport, my friend pointed out some of Nairobi’s infamous potholes. He said Moi had insisted that the roads be paved with water-soluble asphalt so that his cronies could get resurfacing contracts every time it rains. I wasn’t entirely sure he was joking.

There seems to be a lot of patience for the new government, although it may not be able to meet everyone’s great expectations. These things can quickly change, but I’m heartened by a country that has rediscovered hope and is trying to kick corruption where it hurts.


Kenya election payments row

by Muliro Telewa, BBC, Nairobi, December 18, 2002

Kenyan presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki accused the government of paying out billions to suspicious contractors. Mr. Kibaki warned his government, if elected, would not honour contracts to repay debts that had not been approved.

Categories: Africa, Kenya, Odious Debts

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