Anti-corruption war stalls in Kenya

More than a month has passed since authorities in Kenya pledged a fresh drive against high-level graft in the corruption-riddled East African country, but no assets have been seized, as promised.

On February 14, Justice Minister Martha Karua said the government would freeze bank accounts to repossess cash and recover assets purchased with the proceeds of corruption.

The first group of high-profile Kenyans suspected of looting public coffers recently appeared in court on related charges.

Kenyan Attorney General Amos Wako is prosecuting five people and two companies in connection with the so-called Goldenberg scam: in the early 1990s, more than $600-million was looted from the economy through fake diamond and gold exports.

The alleged mastermind of the scheme, Kenyan businessman Kamlesh Pattni, and four other individuals—including former president Daniel arap Moi’s chief of intelligence and confidant, James Kanyotu—have been charged with a variety of offences linked to the alleged theft of about $100-million.

Kenya has suffered scandal after scandal since attaining independence from Britain in 1963.

Kenya’s former anti-corruption chief, John Githongo, also claims that leading members of President Mwai Kibaki’s three-and-a-half-year-old government cooperated with local and international businessmen in an attempt to steal $700-million through inflated security contracts awarded to “fictitious” firms.

Although Kibaki has forced ministers implicated in corruption to resign, none have been arrested and charged with an offence.

A report by Kenya’s parliamentary accounts committee, which recently interviewed Githongo in London, said Kibaki and his Vice-President, Moody Awori, were aware of high-level graft, but did nothing to stop it.

Other Cabinet ministers, the report stated, were either directly involved in corrupt deals, or attempted to cover them up.

Asset seizure

As predicted by legal experts, it appears as if efforts at asset seizure in Kenya have been stymied by the law as it stands in the country.

“It’s against the law here to simply take possession of private property just on the assumption that an individual is corrupt,” said Albert Mumma, a respected Kenyan legal expert.

Wako has promised amendments to legislation that protects allegedly corrupt individuals, to facilitate a more aggressive pursuit of lost funds and property acquired with “dirty money”.

But until the changes to the law are affected, those implicated in economic crimes remain insulated, said Mumma.

In other countries, authorities are legally permitted to confiscate money and other possessions in order to compensate for losses suffered through a proven crime. But Kenyan law doesn’t allow for asset recovery until a plethora of legal conditions have been satisfied.

Former justice minister Kiraitu Murungi, himself recently dismissed from Kibaki’s Cabinet after he was linked to graft, described attempts to prosecute past corruption as a “futile and expensive exercise”.

“The corrupt people are very powerful and rich and they will use very good lawyers to make it impossible to convict them,” he said.

Murungi maintained that the state should instead encourage suspects to “voluntarily” surrender assets they had bought through corruption by promising “selective amnesty”.

He revealed that investigators appointed by him in 2003 had traced more than $400-million he suspected had been “plundered” by members of the previous regime to overseas bank accounts. But the authorities had failed to repossess the cash because, admitted Murungi: “We could not prove that the money was stolen.”

Various legal experts are of the view that Kenya’s judiciary lacks the skill and manpower to enable it to launch a successful assault on corrupt individuals and their ill-gotten gains.

But according to the director of Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Commission, Aaron Ringera, the war has already started. He urged Kenyans—including former and current Cabinet ministers—named in a report on illegally acquired land to surrender their property within the next 30 days, or face prosecution.

An investigation by Nairobi lawyer Paul Ndungu in 2004 revealed that prominent officials in the former and current regimes, including former president Moi, had benefited from illegal land deals.

Timing

One of the government’s fiercest critics, Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga, questioned the timing of Ringera’s threat.

“Ndungu’s report was released two years ago. Why didn’t the government act on it then? Why are they only acting on it now when all these corruption allegations are being made against them? It is so that attention will be diverted from their present misdeeds.”

Odinga himself is named in the report as being the recipient of land that was acquired “fraudulently” in western Kenya, a charge he denies.

Property lawyer Isaac Ngaruthi slammed both Murungi’s proposal of amnesty for corrupt individuals and Ringera’s offer.

“It’s naive to expect these people, who clearly have the law behind them, to give up their wealth and in so doing admit to the world, ‘Yes, we are stinking corrupt,’ and willingly hang themselves on a cross for public crucifixion and ridicule,” Ngaruthi said.

In the meantime, donors continue to freeze aid to Kenya. The World Bank is now withholding $265-million in aid pending “reforms”. In January, it suspended a donation of more than $300-million in protest against Kibaki’s failure to act against graft.

The International Monetary Fund has also refused to release $330-million in support to Kenya. Most of the funds had been earmarked to fight Aids and to relieve poverty in the famine-ravaged country.—Sapa-IPS

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