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Don't shoot the messenger: no matter what it does, it seems Kenya just cannot shed off the sticky stigma of corruption--this time in the form of a major diplomatic row with Britain's representative in the country. Neil Ford looks behind the war of words.

President Mwai Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government swept to power at the end of 2002 on an anti-corruption agenda.


Many bilateral and multilateral donors had cut financial support to Kenya because of the extent of financial irregularities during the government of Daniel arap Moi, but resumed support when Kibaki took over. However, allegations of corruption within the new government have become steadily louder, as divisions within NARC have become more pronounced.

Speaking at Kenya's Annual Journalists of the Year Awards dinner, the British high commissioner to Kenya, Edward Clay, condemned "massive looting" of the public purse.

He said: "Recent events and almost daily news stories reveal new and emerging scams involving most forms of corruption: abuse of office, conflict of interest, patronage, favouritism, clientism, grand and petty corruption, and, above all, questionable procurements. The media are, however, short on substantive answers to the questions posed by revelations about earlier government deals."


The speech followed Clay's 2004 claims that corrupt government officials were "eating like gluttons" and "vomiting on the shoes of foreign donors."

The government demanded that Clay "give facts and figures and to name names" and he responded by presenting them with a dossier containing details of 20 contracts plagued with alleged severe financial irregularities. The British government seems to have backed Clay and has announced a travel ban on Kenyan officials implicated in corruption cases.

Clay's claims were followed by the resignation of John Githongo, the head of the government's anti-corruption campaign and the former executive director of Transparency International in Kenya. He said that he could no longer serve the government but declined to expand upon his reasons for standing down.

During the Moi years, Githongo was the government's chief critic on corruption and his appointment was seen as proof of Kibaki's commitment to tackling the problem.

Clay in the firing line

Bilateral donors including Germany and the US have suspended financial support for Kenya's anti-corruption campaign. US ambassador William Bellamy said: "We are eager to work with Kenya to improve governance and we are in a position to be generous in this regard. But we cannot be helpful when that government isn't serious or, worse, that government is the source of the problem."

An EU spokesperson said: "We share the deep concern evidently felt by the Kenyan people about the lack of good governance within the government of Kenya and the damage it causes to the nation's welfare and the effective operation of its institutions."

Clay's somewhat direct and unorthodox style has won him many friends in Kenya but also some enemies. Kenyan ministers have lined up to attack the high commissioner and he has been accused of interfering in internal NARC politics, while some politicians have reacted angrily at being lectured to by a representative of the former colonial power.

Vice-President Moody Awori said: "We are going to use our own homegrown methods, not anybody else's."

However, four ministers backed the corruption allegations and appealed to Kibaki to dismiss those implicated while investigations were carried out; two even threatened to resign.

Charity Ngilu, the minister of health, said that the entire cabinet should be sacked if corrupt ministers were not rooted out, and was backed up by Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, the first planning minister. A cabinet reshuffle in February was designed to take the pressure off some ministries and six former officials have been charged with corruption, but it seems unlikely that any ministers will actually be charged.

Kibaki responded to the growing allegations of corruption by saying: "There should be no doubt in anybody's mind about our commitment to winning the fight against graft. We recognise that this fight is vital for the performance of the economy and improvement of the welfare of Kenyans. It is therefore a war we are determined to win."

He has asked the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate allegations of corruption in the Ministry of National Security and asked the Commission "to move with speed and act appropriately ... to ensure there is no loss of government funds".

In many ways, Nairobi has been very keen to be seen to be doing the right thing and it was one of the first four countries to sign up for the New Partnership for Africa's Development's (Nepad) peer review mechanism.

The review was originally planned for October last year, but the government postponed it until this year, arguing that ongoing negotiations over changes to the country's constitution would have to be completed before the review could begin.

The chief executive of the Nepad secretariat in Nairobi, Pete Ondeng, said that he felt it would be better if Kenyan politicians could focus more fully on the review before its launch. He said: "The Africa peer review process is such a high profile aspect of Nepad right now, so the first country that begins this process sets the stage. Kenya, being among the first, felt we should enter in it with better awareness than is currently the case."

Sharp splits over constitution

It was originally hoped that the four volunteer states would undergo assessment at the same time, but it is not yet known what effect the Kenyan delay will have upon the process as a whole.

However, there are sharp differences within the government over the content of the new constitution and these splits almost led to the collapse of the Kibaki administration.

Many members of parliament were eager to see more limitations placed on presidential powers and so the government has opted to shelve the issue of constitutional reform. This also presumably means that Kenya's participation in the peer review mechanism has been indefinitely postponed.

When it came to power, NARC was such a broad church with no tradition of political cooperation that it seemed to have just a single aim--getting rid of Moi. Once in power, it would have taken a very strong leader to forge the disparate elements in the coalition into a cohesive party.

Kibaki's 'hands off' approach has allowed the splits to widen and it would be surprising if the coalition remained intact in its present form for the next election. Clay's critics cite two main arguments: that the British government is upset that British companies have lost out on recent government contracts and that he was wrong to gain unauthorised access to classified information.

It is difficult either to confirm or counter the former but it is unlikely to be the central motivating factor given that at least one British company is believed to have been involved in some of the questionable deals.

Attacking the messenger rather than the veracity of the message surely weakens the case of those who deny the allegations.

Moreover, turning attention towards Clay ignores the fact that he is just one of many critics. For instance, Ahmednassir Abdullahi, the chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, resigned from the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission last year and argues that "the government is not committed to the fight against corruption."

It is impossible to verify the claims without full access to both the dossier and government documents, but no-one denies that corruption is a major problem in Kenya. Tenders for contracts to supply cranes to the port of Mombasa have already had to be re-run after complaints about the original tender process.

Surely what is most important is that corruption is being strongly challenged. It would be unrealistic to expect the financial irregularities of the past to have been swept away in the two and a half years since Kibaki came to power, but it is realistic to expect the government's approach to be clear and to hope that things are heading in the right direction.

Any attempt to suppress information gainsays the government's seriousness in tackling corruption, so if Kibaki is genuinely serious about addressing the problem then he should make it as easy as possible for whistle blowers to come forward, not least by introducing a freedom of information act.
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Title Annotation:KENYA
Author:Ford, Neil
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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