Grand Corruption: The Lessons Kenya Never Learns

Previous Kenyan governments announced unsuccessful anti-graft campaigns with great pomp, can president Uhuru Kenyatta wield the big stick to break the mold? Photo credit: AFP/Simon Maina

In Brief

  • Grand corruption continues to hurt Kenya’s economy, with key projects costing more and taking longer to complete
  • Sebastian Gatimu, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies says the rot has compromised government’s capability to deliver essential services and also fueled insecurity, including terrorism
  • He says the private sector is culpable and needs stronger mechanisms to deter bribery and punish offenders
  • Gatimu says Kenya needs to change tack in fighting corruption, citing citizens’ lack of trust in existing anti-graft institutions   

That Transparency International, the global anti-corruption group, owes its existence to Kenya’s corruption culture is nothing to be proud of. Founded by former World Bank director for East Africa, Peter Eigen, Ti is best known for its Corruption Perceptions Index.

During a 2009 TED Talk Eigen said he noticed that grand and systematic corruption was undermining the bank’s work. “I began to not only try to protect the work of the World Bank, our own projects, our own programs against corruption, but in general, I thought, we need a system to protect the people in this part of the world from the ravages of corruption”. In 1993, he met with a few colleagues in Germany and Transparency International was born.

Grand corruption is still thriving in Kenya. It is so rampant that each administration – led by Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki, and Uhuru Kenyatta – is associated with its own mega scandals. Think Goldenberg Scam under Moi and Anglo Leasing scandal under Kibaki. Under President Kenyatta, civil society groups noted 20 cases of mega corruption in two years of the coalition government’s rule.

The scandals include flawed procurement for the Standard Rail Gauge, the school laptop project and “Chickengate” scandal, which involved irregular award of printing contracts by two public entities to a UK firm. The firm’s directors referred to the bribe payments as “chicken”.

The Kenyan media has tirelessly reported on corruption in the public sector, but not so much in private sector where companies get off scot-free. Yet all indications are that more executives are paying bribes to win contracts, as noted in a recent survey by professional services firm, EY. The survey ranked Kenya’s private sector among the world’s most corrupt.

In March 2015 President Kenyatta released an Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission (EACC) report that named 175 individuals that he wanted probed for corruption. The list, dubbed the ‘List of shame’ by local media, includes high-ranking government officials, politicians, civil servants and directors of private companies. 117 individuals and three private companies have been prosecuted so far. The EACC and parliamentary Public Accounts Committee are under scrutiny for corrupt practices. This week members of parliament voted to get rid of top officials at EACC.

In the interview below, Sebastian Gatimu, Researcher at Institute for Security Studies’ Governance, Crime and Justice Division, speaks on wide-ranging issues on corruption in Kenya.

Can this government finally tackle corruption in Kenya?

Corruption is deeply entrenched in Kenya. To some extent the vice is now the way of life, even as citizens suffer the consequences. For President Uhuru Kenyatta’s development agenda to succeed, corruption must be tackled decisively. However, the approach that the administration is taking to address the problem is not clear as it brings more questions than answers.

Sebastian Gatimu, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, Institute for Security Studies, Nairobi

As we speak some commissioners at the Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission (EACC), the public corruption watchdog, are suspended after a standoff with parliament. The office of the Director of Public Prosecutions has also been targeted. Some members of parliament threatened to impeach its leadership, citing bias in handling of corruption cases. Kenyans are worried the immense power their representatives are showing in parliament might erode the little gains made so far in fighting corruption.

President Kenyatta might have strong will to fight corruption, but those around him seem to have a different agenda. The people named in the infamous ‘list of shame’ are being cleared of the alleged impropriety one by one, especially Cabinet Secretaries. Kenyans have long suffered this game and are now demanding genuine action. We may need to adopt the approach being used to stop trade in illicit liquor - citizens got involved in the crackdown on outlets selling of illicit brews.

Is the government acknowledging the link between corruption and security, more so with the growing threat of terrorism?

Kenya’s insecurity has been largely fueled by corruption. Corruption in the security sector starts with police recruitment. In 2014, recruitment of 10,000 officers was cut short amidst bribery allegations. The second round of recruitment happened in April, and there are murmurings it wasn’t above board. The selection criterion, which focuses on physical appearance and ability, is outdated and should be scrapped. Perhaps there’s need to involve citizens in the recruitment process since they would know who can be trusted to safeguard their communities.

There is a very strong linkage between terrorism, insecurity and corruption in Kenya. However, the government has a habit of shifting blame and refuses to acknowledge the fact. Despite the growing threat of terrorism, the government has opted for some inadequate tactics to fight terrorists, for example, building a wall along the Kenya and Somalia border despite the fact that al-Shabaab is on Kenyan soil. It is high time the government acknowledges the mess in its institutions and more so the management of security and immigration.

Traditionally, the notion of public security has long been considered preserve of the state, to ensure protection of its citizens, organisations and institutions against threats as well as to create secure environment for doing business and the prosperity of communities. However, this traditional perception on public security has in recent past undergone significant transformations owing to the changing nature and dynamics of public security threats. For instance, according to research one of the key areas of concern that has received significant attention in this new period of debate and effervescence is the idea of a more democratic public security in which multiple and disparate actors contribute directly to inclusive security for development.

With confidence levels so low regarding the regulatory and oversight mechanisms, how can citizens feel motivated to reject corruption?

The robust participation of the public in the fight against illicit brewers shows that people are ready to deal with serious issues where institutions have failed. The call to fight corruption will not start at the ballot. When institutions such as parliament are viewed with suspicion, it is time to change tack. The fight against corruption must begin with empowerment of citizens and good will of leaders. The presidency is best-positioned to offer this leadership. The day President Kenyatta will call upon citizens to own the fight against corruption, it will be the start of the end of this culture. Citizens can provide oversight if they are empowered to do so.

Corruption in private sector is rampant yet under-reported. Are there adequate mechanisms to hold companies accountable? How can business leaders improve risk management associated with corruption in their organisations?

The private sector has always been culpable because bribery is a two-way street. In every public sector corruption scandal there’s one or several private companies involved. A recent example is the procurement scandal at the Ministry of Devolution and Planning. Suppliers acted in cahoots with some department officials to defraud taxpayers of hundreds of millions of shillings.

The sector is unregulated, making it vulnerable to corruption. The situation is exacerbated by lack of mechanisms to make corporates accountable. The government is rather focused on tax compliance and licensing. There is overemphasis of corruption in the public sector, yet private companies are the perpetrators.

To mitigate corruption risk, companies need to have strong governance and anti-corruption policies that must be strictly adhered to by all employees. Also, when companies comply with relevant business laws, the risk of bribery is minimised.

Organisations such as the Kenya Private Sector Alliance can benefit from support to boost research and audit activities, which can assist to expose cartels and corrupt individuals.

How would you advice companies on avoiding corruption?

Just comply. Follow the laid rules and procedures and you will manage to keep the corrupt individuals away because they target non-complying companies.

But if your company is named in an investigation, the first thing to do is to ensure you have all your compliance documentation at hand. Secondly, through a lawyer or any authorised person, ensure that you get information over the allegations under investigation. Sometimes investigations can commence in an unfair manner due to unchecked competition practices that can be abused by competitors.

Compared to other EAC countries, has Kenya made significant progress in reducing corruption?

No. Kenya is prominent in the most corrupt countries’ listings globally. The 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index ranked Burundi, Kenya and Uganda at 159, 145 and 142 respectively out of 175 countries and territories sampled. Tanzania ranked 119 while Rwanda ranked 55. [Kenya’s visibility could be attributed to the robust reporting of suspected corruption by the country’s media, which is not the case in other East African countries – Editor]

Rwanda has made progress through roping citizens in anti-corruption efforts while Kenya choose using institutions, and with little success. Tanzania and Uganda are struggling with corruption, but not in the magnitude that we see in Kenya.

Kenya’s political and independent anti-corruption institutions appear entangled in their own web of corruption. This is evident in the recent call to investigate parliamentary committees on corruption, including Parliamentary Accounts Committee. Also under suspicion are the judiciary, civil service and the executive. The question is, who will save the masses?

We need a new way of doing things in this country. The first step would be to launch citizen-driven anti-corruption initiatives. Clearly, the fight against corruption cannot be left to partisan lawmakers and institutions.

What is your greatest worry regarding the fight against corruption in Kenya and the East African region?

I worry that there’s no political will. Some politicians, civil servants and the private sector have ganged up to swindle Kenyans. They have come up with powerful cartels and networks that cut across the East African Community (EAC) to facilitate their evil actions. Kenyans are trapped by these cartels and condemned to poor service delivery and other well-recorded consequences of corruption. The time to say no to corruption is now, but the strategy must change.

Despite gaining ground on economic cooperation, the EAC doesn’t seem to have corruption, conflict, bad governance, rule of law and constitutionalism high on its agenda. Consider the situation in Burundi, a member state of EAC. There’s no visible effort by EAC to help quell the political instability there. In South Sudan and Somalia (both neighbours but non-members of EAC), it would be in the community’s best interest to see stability and security; corruption thrives in conflict.