Bribes and Prejudice

Posted on September 24, 2009


Originally published in The National:

In Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, the Kenyan government doesn’t collect trash, provide electricity lines, or send police to patrol the streets. Children play next to the runoff from makeshift outhouses; they pick up the flotsam and jetsam they find in alleyways – old plastic bottles, worn shoes, tin cans – and turn them into musical instruments, pacifiers and tools for sport. Back in their tiny scrap metal-walled homes, they breathe the fumes of fires fuelled by coal. When they eat, their food – or their hands – are often dirty.

There are an abundance of so-called health clinics in Kibera, many of them run by individuals without the proper medical training to tackle the community health problems faced by these children and their families. Medical professionals, and well-run clinics, are in short supply. One morning in June, I left one such clinic, three tiny rooms run by a Kenyan nurse, and walked with her up a rutted dirt path to its new home: a brand new two-storey building. It had taken her two years to build, but it would allow her to see more patients, and to keep some of them overnight for observation. Inside, she pointed with pride to the running water, the overhead lighting, the toilets.

“How did you convince the government to give you electricity?” I asked.

“One of my patients knows someone on the City Council,” she told me. “I called him and paid a fee.”

“A bribe?” I asked. She smiled widely and unapologetically.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. According to Transparency International, the average Kenyan has to pay a bribe 54 per cent of the time he deals with a government institution. But in a country full of corrupt politicians, unsavory judges and sleazy policemen, I had thought a clinic for Kibera’s poor would be a bright spot, free from graft. If even do-gooders were part of Kenya’s culture of corruption, how would anything ever change?

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As the journalist Michela Wrong documents in the trenchant new book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower, Kenya has been fighting a losing battle with corruption for years. Parliament passed a Prevention of Corruption Act in 1956; since 2002, an anti-corruption commission has been charged with the investigation of corruption cases (prosecution is left to the attorney general’s office); in recent years, procurement laws have been revised to increase transparency.

Most of these efforts, however, have fallen prey to the overwhelming power of the executive branch. Since independence in 1963, Kenya’s parliament has passed 45 constitutional amendments strengthening the executive. The original constitution provided for regional assemblies that co-ordinated with the central government, a form of federalism that Kenyans called majimboism. But within his first year of taking office, President Jomo Kenyatta and his KANU party, which dominated the government, began to push through amendments that increased and consolidated his political power.

In 1969, an act was passed that placed the electoral commission and parliament under the president’s control. Majimboism was effectively dead. Today, the Kenyan president appoints most important public officers, from the chief justice and ministry heads to judges on the High Court and Court of Appeal. The attorney general is also a presidential appointee, which makes him unlikely to pursue corruption charges. Parliament, which the president can dissolve at his discretion, is expected to rubber-stamp whatever budget the executive branch proposes.

Ever since Kenya erupted into violence following its disputed 2007 presidential elections, in which President Mwai Kibaki claimed victory over the opposition candidate Raila Odinga, international observers have realised what the country’s citizens have long known: political office here isn’t about governing so much as enriching one’s self, family, friends and tribe. People believe that “what you gain from the state is what you’re able to extract”, says Stephen Ndegwa of the World Bank. Because the president appoints the provincial and district commissioners who oversee municipal services such as education, health and transportation, he effectively controls all service spending. If your district isn’t represented by the ruling party, or if it contains members of the political opposition, you receive less. As a result, Kikuyu in Central Province are among the richest people in Kenya, and Luo in Nyanza Province are among the poorest. After five years of “eating” the spoils of public office, Kibaki’s inner circle of ethnic Kikuyus was unwilling to relinquish power. Odinga’s supporters, many of whom were ethnically Luo, felt it was their turn to eat.

When Kibaki was declared the victor in the 2007 elections, Odinga accused him of fraud. Violence between Kikuyus and Luos broke out, spurring riots and attacks between ethnic groups in Nairobi’s ethnically mixed slums, the Rift Valley and western Kenya that caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. In February 2008, Kibaki and Odinga signed a power-sharing agreement under which Odinga became the prime minister; the two men were to form a cabinet that matched the political balance of parliament. Yet according to US embassy officials, corruption is now worse than ever, as both Kibaki and Odinga try to satisfy their constituencies, hoping to reclaim the pursestrings in the next national election, scheduled for 2012. The cabinet is twice as big as before, and within weeks parliamentarians were spotted driving new luxury cars around Nairobi.

Wrong’s book documents in chilling detail how difficult it is to eliminate structural corruption of this sort – even for the government’s anti-corruption czar. In 2004, John Githongo, the government’s permanent secretary in charge of governance and ethics, uncovered evidence that a nonexistent company called Anglo Leasing had been awarded several huge government contracts. The scandal reached the highest levels of the cabinet and involved the transfer of as much as $1 billion from the treasury’s coffers to the bank accounts of several cabinet ministers, the shadow companies behind Anglo Leasing, and the middlemen who helped engineer the entire shell game. After releasing preliminary information on the scandal, Githongo had to flee to London – Aaron Ringera, the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission had warned him that “If you wanted to go and resign today, that’s when they would kill you.”

From abroad, Githongo compiled an exhaustive dossier on the scandal, which he sent to Kibaki and key cabinet members in the hope that they would clean house. Despite clear evidence of graft, the attorney-general declined to prosecute the case, claiming the files he had were too incomplete to support a case. The United Kingdom wanted to investigate Anglo Leasing itself, but Kenya’s attorney-general prevented the UK fraud office from moving forward by failing to provide it with evidence. “The prosecutor’s job is to prevent prosecution of those who pay him,” one US embassy official told me.

Once it was clear the government would take no action, Githongo sent his evidence to Kenya’s Nation newspaper. A flurry of stories resulted, and three cabinet ministers resigned, but still no legal proceedings were initiated. This is typical: Kenya’s journalists brave death threats to break corruption stories, aided by sympathetic civil servants and brown envelopes of documents that appear on their desks with no return address. But the exposure of graft rarely results in prosecution. “You get the information by hook or by crook, but then nothing happens. It’s like talking to yourself,” says Catherine Gicheru, the managing editor of The Star, a Nairobi daily.

Kenyan lawyers and civil society members who advocate for good governance agree that judicial reform is imperative. “Rather than dreaming up sexy-sounding short cuts, donors should be pouring their money into the boring old institutions African regimes have deliberately starved of cash over the years: the police force, the judicial system and civil service,” writes Wrong. This step seems necessary but not sufficient; larger, better-funded law-and-order mechanisms would still be subject to the outsize influence of the executive. And if a Kenyan has to choose between being a cog in a corrupt scheme or losing his job, he’ll pick complicity. Daniel Kaufmann, the former director of the World Bank Institute’s work on governance and anti-corruption, thinks the goal should be “to create millions of auditors in the country”, all of whom are scrutinising the government as Kenya’s investigative journalists do. But it’s not clear how receptive the Kenyan public is to such plans. How can you be an auditor if you need to bribe someone to get electricity for your medical clinic – or house?

Many see hope in demographics. Those that are most optimistic about their country’s future are Kenya’s youth, who comprise 70 per cent of the population. In a meeting I had in June with a group of student leaders from the University of Nairobi, young men and women were bursting with ideas for reform, from encouraging inter-ethnic marriage to drafting a new constitution. I came away wanting to believe that the four young men who wanted to run for parliament in 2012 would win office and change the system. But what would stop them from bowing to the president, who sets the national budget, dictating how much money flows to their constituents and, as a result, whether they are reelected long enough to implement change?

I couldn’t shake the story of one young man, who had been able to attend college only because his entire community had pooled funds to pay for his education. He had grand ideas about transcending ethnic politics, but his neighbours already expect him to help them get jobs or to get their children into college. Another student put it more bluntly: “A student isn’t tribal until he goes out and tries to get a job.” Jobs are few and far between in Kenya, even for the college educated (the unemployment rate is 40 per cent). Unemployed young men, provided with machetes by politically connected old men, were the perpetrators of much of the post-election violence. The line between youthful hope and violence born of frustration is thin and easily crossed.

Some people in Kenya want a government free of corruption. Others want to get into government so they can pillage the state. Most people, however, are stuck somewhere in between. They want a government that isn’t stealing their money, but in the meantime, if they need to pay a bribe to get electricity, they’ll do it. And if they find themselves in a position of power, and everyone around them is skimming off the top, well, they probably will too.

When does the balance in a country – and inside its citizens – shift from complicity to opposition? Following Liberia’s civil war and Rwanda’s genocide, both countries implemented rigorous anti-corruption policies that seem to have facilitated cultural shifts. It’s unclear why the same hasn’t yet happened in Kenya. The newspaper headlines proclaim it, the politicians give lip service to ending it, but corruption in Kenya remains endemic. Gallup polling shows that only about 24 per cent of Kenyas had faith in the coalition government in April of this year. Is intense frustration and disappointment enough to galvanise a new relationship with the state? “Citizens must put their feet down and demand things from the government,” says Job Ogonda, executive director of Transparency International–Kenya.

Even if they do, their tools for negotiation are limited. Prime Minister Raila Odinga told me and a group of other journalists that “the institution of the presidency has emasculated all other institutions of governance”. Economists like Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian author of Dead Aid, argue that western donor nations have facilitated corruption in African countries by removing the government’s need to be accountable to its citizens. Instead, she says, African governments answer to western donors, whose efforts to encourage good governance are sporadic at best. Reducing non-humanitarian aid would force African governments to increase tax revenues, increasing accountability at the local level. But it’s awfully hard to imagine building a tax base in a place like Kibera, where government neglect means that most businesses operate in a shadowy informal economy.

The next presidential election is in 2012, and despite talk of youth organisations mobilising around the country, there are no nationally recognised figures who could launch a robust presidential bid. Jimmy Kibaki, the 46-year-old son of President Kibaki, recently launched his own “youth initiative” called Samama Kenya (“Stand Up Kenya”). “People will automatically assume this is all about succession,” he told the Guardian. “This is about ending tribalism and encouraging the emergence of a meritocracy and new young leaders.” Kibaki did not attend a National Youth Conference at the end of May, however, and given that the average life expectancy in Kenya is 52 years, he seems a bit old to represent his target demographic. The slogan for his organisation is Round Hii Si Mchezo – This Time It’s No Joke.

Posted in: The National