‘Everyone Is Corrupt in Kenya, Even Grandmothers’

Michela Wrong, Foreign Policy, May 6, 2014

When the African press reported last month that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, not a leader known for his austere spending habits, had warned his generals against allowing his country to become “like Nigeria and Kenya, where you have to reach into your pocket to get anything done,” the reaction in East Africa’s biggest economy was one of derision. Kenya’s collective scorn, however, was not aimed at Mugabe. It was directed inward. “The truth is bitter,” ran a typical comment on the Standard newspaper’s website. “You know you are in trouble when a fellow thief accuses you of stealing!” said another. “Everyone is corrupt in Kenya, even grandmothers,” lamented another.

As the Jubilee administration, which triumphed in Kenya’s 2013 elections, passes its one-year mark, public perceptions and media priorities appear to be undergoing a fundamental shift. The obsession with the cases brought by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, in connection with Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence, is subsiding as the likelihood of Kenyatta facing trial slowly fades. Taking its place in the public’s mind is a concern that was momentarily sidelined but that never, in truth, went away: burgeoning corruption.

Newspapers warn about it in editorials, columnists denounce it, beleaguered civil society groups lament it. Even foreign diplomats, bruised by the general drubbing they received after daring to express dismay at the imminent election of two ICC-charged politicians, have put their heads above the parapet to sound the alarm. “Corruption is undermining Kenya’s future,” 17 Nairobi-based ambassadors, along with the local International Monetary Fund (IMF) director, declared in mid-April. In an op-ed published in local papers, the ambassadors offered the government help putting in place the “systems, processes and procedures needed to make progress in the fight against corruption.”

They probably assumed the fact that donors cover nearly 27 percent of government expenses entitled them to an opinion. Yet the envoys’ tone was so emollient–“feeble slaps with gentle strokes,” the Daily Nationnewspaper termed it–many readers were left wondering why they had bothered publishing at all.

The government saw things differently. The head of public service summoned the envoys for a scolding, while Kenyatta’s press office accused them of libel, disrespect, and knee-jerk racism. “Who, but the most accomplished snake oil salesman can prescribe a nifty concoction for a non-existent ailment?” asked Eric Ng’eno, Kenyatta’s speechwriter,in his own op-ed.

Sadly, the ailment is a little more concrete than Ng’eno would have his audience believe.

The “I paid a bribe” website set up by Kenyan activist Anthony Ragui, which crowd-sources its data by inviting ordinary Kenyans to inform on sleazy officialdom, may offer a fascinating glimpse into the routine palm-greasing that characterizes daily encounters with the police, ministries, and municipal authorities. But it is grand corruption–the kind practiced by business cartels enjoying chummy relationships with top politicians and civil servants who control public tendering–that worries economists, newspaper editors, and anti-corruption campaigners.

That form of sleaze, they warn, is raging so unchecked that it threatens to render Kenya’s promised 6 percent growth rate irrelevant, sabotaging the “Africa Rising” narrative that decrees an expanding middle class, combined with increased investor confidence, Chinese-built infrastructure, and an educated work force, is set to trigger takeoff. It also makes Kenya, long seen in the West as a strategic bulwark against Islamic terrorism radiating from the Horn of Africa, an unreliable partner.

When the Supreme Court confirmed Kenyatta’s contested electoral win in March 2013, many Kenyans comforted themselves with the notion that the economy was safe in the hands of the same ethnic Kikuyu and Kalenjin elite that has dominated the economy since the days of Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, and his successor, Daniel arap Moi. Although the problem is in fact one of elites writ large, Kenyan corruption is traditionally viewed in terms of economic rivalry among the country’s main ethnic groups. A presidency under ethnic Luo contender Raila Odinga, the argument went back in 2013, carried the risk of unprecedented “eating” by a long-sidelined group, hungry for the perks of office. “There was definitely a narrative doing the rounds that the country couldn’t ‘afford’ a Raila election win, whereas these guys [Kenyatta and his allies] had already made their fortunes and their appetites would be smaller,” says one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It was an argument that mistook the nature of human greed, argues John Githongo, who resigned as Kenya’s anti-corruption czar in 2005 after stumbling upon a $1 billion procurement scam. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “When you have one million you want 10 million, and when you have 10 you want 20. It’s never enough.”

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