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Where's the Starting Point? Kenya's Corruption Quagmire

By Isaac Otidi Amuke

While addressing the state house summit on governance, anti–corruption, and accountability on Oct. 18, 2016 in Nairobi, a visibly agitated President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed his frustration at the lack of progress in the fight against corruption in Kenya. Declaring that pressure was mounting on him to do something about rampant graft, which is reaching crisis levels, he lambasted the media, civil society, the judiciary, and myriad state officials, including the country’s auditor general, the director of public prosecutions, the chief executive of the ethics and anti–corruption commission, and the head of the criminal investigations department.

Kenyatta said that he’d given the various state agencies everything they’d asked for and needed to fight graft, including increasing their budgetary allocations, yet there was still no action taken. From his demeanor, language, and tone during the summit, Kenyatta made it seem as if he has always been willing to fight corruption, but has been continuously let down by the state institutions, particularly the investigative and prosecutorial agencies, charged with helping to end the practice. The jury is still out on whether the president is seriously willing to fight corruption, as he claims, or whether it’s all just hot air.

The president lashed out at anti–corruption crusader John Githongo for not attending the summit, which was streamed live on national TV, and asked in resignation at the end of his diatribe, ‘‘What do you want me to do?’’ No one had an answer. A few days later, economist and public intellectual Dr. David Ndii wrote an opinion piece explaining why he too gave the summit a wide berth, equating it to a gathering of thieves, look–outs, and court jesters.

While delivering his state of the nation address to a special sitting of parliament in March 2015, Kenyatta gave the country a glimmer of hope when he proclaimed, ‘‘Let it be known that today I draw the line. No one will stand between Kenyans and what is right in the fight against corruption and other monstrous economic crimes.’’ He instructed the country’s attorney general to liaise with the council on administrative justice and ensure corruption cases were heard swiftly and daily.

Kenyatta then went for the jugular, informing parliament that he had brought with him a confidential report from the ethics and anti–corruption commission containing names of alleged corrupt state officials. He issued a decree stating that anyone adversely mentioned in the report would have to vacate office and await further investigation. Five cabinet secretaries were axed, never to be reinstated. The government released no reports on the investigations and prosecuted no one, returning to business as usual.

While speaking in Nairobi in August 2015, former Kenyan minister for trade and current Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, pointed out that the disconnect between well-intentioned policies and the failure to properly implement them is a result of a lack of coherence in national behavior. Speaking as "a frustrated believer in the capacity of Kenya doing better than it’s currently doing,” the former minister said most African governments fail in the disjointed way they conduct business, where master plans and blueprints lie gathering dust while haphazard mediocrity reigns.

Perhaps a starting point for Kenyatta could be to listen to Kituyi and start creating a sense of coherence in the running of state affairs, ensuring that his actions converge with his supposed good intentions. For a long time there’s been a strong view that the most important factor for a country to successfully curb corruption is political will—the unfaltering support given to state institutions by the ruling elite to push through a politically costly agenda. If Kenyatta’s allusions are anything to go by, he seems to have the political will to fight corruption. Yet nothing is happening.

But an alternative to this age-old belief that political will is all it takes for a country to slay corruption has emerged elsewhere in the continent. South Africa has proven that it’s possible for a country to thrive in fighting corruption, even when there’s a bankruptcy of political will at the top levels of politics, as long as autonomous constitutional agencies robustly execute their mandates.

South Africa’s office of the public protector, which until recently was occupied by Advocate Thuli Madonsela, has released two groundbreaking investigations touching on President Jacob Zuma and his associates. The first investigated the amount of state resources irregularly used to make security upgrades to Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla. The second was an inquiry on state capture that investigated the amount of power and influence amassed and wielded by the Gupta family, a wealthy Indian-South African family with various business interests, suspected of having close ties to President Zuma and his associates. Both reports prove that even with palpable opposition from the ruling political elite, state institutions can still carry out their briefs. 

Therefore, aside from Kenyatta pursuing coherence within government, the other starting point for Kenya should be for agencies of the state to take their cues from South Africa’s office of the public protector. They should take Kenyatta at his word and go after anyone and everyone suspected of practicing or abetting corruption, including the president’s sister and cousin, who were adversely mentioned in the country’s latest corruption scandal. This is the only way to ascertain whether the head of state means what he says, or whether, like in South Africa, state agencies such as the office of the public protector can act independently and investigate and prosecute anyone—including the president, his family, and his associates—as long as they have sufficient evidence.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist published by Kwani?, Commonwealth Writers, Wasafiri, Adda, and the New African Magazine. He was a finalist for the 2016 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award.

[Photo Courtesy of Amanda Lucidon/White House]

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