/ 21 February 2006

Graft scandals rock Kenya

The fallout from a growing list of corruption scandals in Kenya is intensifying by the week as national and international outrage at the apparent rot at the heart of President Mwai Kibaki’s regime swells.

Recently, education minister George Saitoti, Kibaki’s personal assistant Alfred Getonga and the president’s close ally, energy minister Kiraitu Murungi, joined finance minister David Mwiraria — who left office on February 1 — in exiting the corridors of power.

They all insisted they had resigned. But a source close to Kibaki told the Mail & Guardian: “They had to be pushed. They didn’t jump.”

Saitoti has been implicated in the so-called “Goldenberg Affair”. A commission of inquiry recently found that a local businessperson, Kamlesh Pattni, through his Goldenberg International firm, colluded with prominent government officers to claim “massive” sums of money as compensation for fictitious exports of gold and diamonds in the early 1990s.

Accountants estimate that Kenya lost at least $600-million as a result of the scam. The money has yet to be traced. The commission has recommended that Kenyan president at the time Daniel arap Moi’s role in the fraud be probed and advises that Saitoti face criminal prosecution.

Saitoti’s dismissed colleagues, though, are implicated in present-day financial misconduct.

Kenya’s former anti-corruption chief, John Githongo, claims that top members of Kibaki’s government, acting with local and international business, have in recent years attempted to defraud the state of $700-million. The money had been allocated to various “security contracts”, including the supply of “terrorist-proof” passports and forensic laboratories for the police. A probe by Githongo found that international firms contracted to deliver the services did not exist. He went into exile in London last year, after he received death threats.

On a tape broadcast worldwide by the BBC last week, Murungi, Kenya’s justice minister at the time of the secret recording in 2004, is heard to ask Githongo to “go slow” with his inquiries in exchange for the authorities going “slow on your matter” — a reference to a bank debt owed by Githongo’s father.

The joy that has greeted Kibaki’s “new” war on graft has, however, been tempered with the knowledge that it only arrived after immense pressure was applied upon him for more than two years.

Donors have since 2004 been pulling the plug on funding to Kenya, whose economy is heavily reliant on aid.

Also diluting the optimism surrounding the president’s sudden action is the fact that Vice President Moody Awori has so far survived Kibaki’s purge — despite his admission that he approved a tender worth 2,7-billion Kenyan shillings ($37,5-million) to a non-existent company. Githongo also alleges that the vice-president chaired a meeting where Cabinet ministers tried to “block” corruption investigations.

On the streets, Kibaki’s sidelining of officials mired in graft has done little to assuage the widespread disenchantment with his rule.

Geoffrey Birundu, coordinator of the Name and Shame Network, a collection of almost 80 NGOs opposed to corruption in Kenya, said mass action would “soon” be launched against the government.

“We still plan to protest, because the tragedy of Kenya is that these corrupt people, even when they’re fired from office, always bounce back.

“We’ve had inquiry upon inquiry — even during the time of Moi — but they’ve always resulted in nothing! We want international experts to investigate corruption because we don’t trust our authorities … They’re in the pockets of the politicians,” he asserted.

In his report, Githongo writes that Kibaki asked him in late 2004 to reveal who was “behind” corruption in government. Githongo says he provided names … but the president did “nothing”.

East Africa’s largest economy has been plagued by high-level graft ever since it gained independence from Britain in 1963. Leading Kenyans who railed against the vice have over the decades been imprisoned and forced into exile; some have been assassinated.

Kibaki himself may yet be the highest-profile victim of the rejuvenated onslaught on corruption.