The Opportunity to Address Kenya’s Corruption Problem

With the Kenyan Presidential elections on the horizon in 2017, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, who hopes to continue his regime, has spoken out against corruption, emphasizing that combating this widespread problem requires effort on the part of every Kenyan. In his first term, President Kenyatta had shown promising signs of staying true to his philosophy of holding everyone accountable by actually getting rid of members of the Cabinet. Yet Kenya’s recent history makes many skeptical. For over a decade, Kenyan presidents have been pledging to get corruption under control. In 2003, newly-elected President Kibaki promised to stamp out corruption in Kenya. He proceeded to enact two important pieces of legislation in his first year: the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act, which established the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) to investigate corruption and educate the public, and the Public Officer Act, which required all public officers to declare their wealth. Yet at the end of President Kibaki’s decade-long regime, the situation remained bleak, with corruption running rampant. Kenya’s education sector offers a particularly troublesome glimpse into the continued prevalence of the problem. A 2010 forensic audit of Kenya’s Education Sector Support Programme found that misappropriation of funds and leakages in transfer of cash and materials from the Ministry of Education to schools, as well as other types of private embezzling and mis-accounting of funds, had led to the loss of 4.2 Billion Kenya Shillings (US$55 million) that was originally intended for education. Furthermore, most of the suspected actors went unpunished; even when caught, the culprits were either transferred to new departments or at most suspended from their role.

As for President Kenyatta’s more recent efforts, the President claims that he has done his part in the anticorruption fight and is frustrated by the lack of complementary efforts by others. Yet many critics claim that President Kenyatta has not demonstrated the political will necessary to fight corruption. And some have gone further, accusing the president of suspect and excessive awarding of government contracts to companies like Safaricom without an open bidding process. Safaricom have been involved in multiple corruption scandals already, leading to suspicions of bribery. Critics have also been highlighting the fact that those close to Kenyatta seem immune from serious scrutiny for corrupt acts.

Even if we put those concerns to one side, and assume that both President Kenyatta and President Kibaki before him were acting in good faith, the numerous anticorruption initiatives undertaken by both administrations do not seem to have had much of an impact. There are a few things that Kenya’s next president—whether it is Kenyatta or someone else—could do that would go further in making progress against the corruption problem than the measures that have been adopted so far:

  • First, the citizens of Kenya should demand that the next president provides complete public transparency for all government contracts. The laws on government contracting should require private companies to detail the selection process, as well as the reason for the amount of money awarded in the contract. Making the allocation of funds publicly available will go a long way toward removing the veil of uncertainty the public has always felt about the Kenyan government regarding corruption. Without such transparency, even if government contracts were not corruptly awarded, the appearance of corruption is damaging.
  • Second, instead of waiting for embezzlement to be uncovered through investigation, better accounting of the results of programs that rely on international aid (such as the Free Primary Education initiative mentioned above) can help inform donors about whether their money is reaching its intended recipients and used appropriately. If donors use this information to decide whether to continue to provide funds, it could help prevent or reduce misappropriation and embezzlement. The government should, therefore, grant international donors direct access to financial records for accounting purposes.
  • Third, according to Global Integrity’s 2008 report, although Kenya’s anticorruption laws are “very strong,” the gap between Kenya’s legal framework and implementation of laws is “large.” Kenya’s failure to fully and effectively enforce its anticorruption laws is likely due to a lack of political will. The fact that the judiciary has over 300 pending corruption cases that it hasn’t yet acted on is further evidence of the ineffectiveness of Kenya’s law enforcement system in dealing with corruption. Some accuse the judges of being too lenient; indeed, the Attorney General has called them the weakest link in the anticorruption law enforcement system. However, the judges and their defenders retort that the prosecution tends to be inept in handling corruption cases, sometimes not even showing up for scheduled court appearances. The solution here could be to create an independent prosecution body in the judicial branch for cases involving corruption. Unlike the KACC, which is only authorized to conduct investigations, education, and awareness-raising programs, this proposed new anticorruption prosecutor would act as part of the judiciary with a sole focus on corruption-related cases, thus allowing for greater transparency of judicial review. Another a potential solution might be to increase public awareness (and donor awareness) of the number of corruption cases in the system, and how long they have been open, in order to create more external pressure to process these cases more expeditiously.
  • Fourth, Kenya needs a better system for encouraging whistleblowing. Many citizens, especially poorer citizens, feel trepidation regarding the consequences of reporting corruption, especially if they are unsure of their suspicions. A framework that allows for the specific and anonymous reporting of suspected corrupt officials in government-run sectors (such as education or health) would help bring more cases to light. To ensure the effectiveness of such a system, Kenya must provide strong protection for whistleblowers, perhaps along the lines of what Nathan Sandals advocated on this blog last year.

These measures can immediately be effected to counter the rampant corruption in Kenyan government positions. If President Kenyatta is serious about his anticorruption beliefs, supporting measures such as these would demonstrate he meant what he said about tackling corruption, and that he deserves another term in his continued fight against it. Alternatively, the political opposition can point to the lack of success up to now as an opportunity to offer something different, and can promise measures such as these.

8 thoughts on “The Opportunity to Address Kenya’s Corruption Problem

  1. While I appreciate your four recommendations, the material offering a loose assessment of the current status of corruption as a force in Kenya and of the degree to which, if at all, the two Kibaki Administrations and the current Kenyatta Administration oppose corruption is unhelpful. Empirically it’s seems quite clear that both of the Kibaki and now the Kenyatta Administration are quite emphatically in support of corruption, actively encouraging and participating in it, failing to prosecute any of the major cases that are periodically exposed each year, and advancing the political and business fortunes of corrupt allies. As you note, the laws remain in place and in some instances Kenyatta has been more articulate in speaking against corruption than Kibaki was, but the pace of growth of corruption seems to have increased. There have been very many new cases of the successful looting of public coffers since the 2010 revelation of the 2003-10 looting of the “free” primary education system. These have proved successful for those in high positions. Even where fines and jail sentences are meted out in the U.K. (Smith & Ozman) or the U.S. (Goodyear) for the bribery of Kenyan public officials, Kenya does not prosecute. Yes, a fresh mandate from the voters for Kenyatta, or for Odinga, will provide yet another opportunity to change directions, but so long as support can be counted on from donors without accountability and elections themselves are corrupted without consequence it would that the incentives are most likely to continue on the side of corruption rather than reform.

    • Hello Ken, thank you for your comment. I agree that prosecution of corrupt officials within Kenya remains weak, in spite of external pressures, and that accountability needs to emerge for positive change. Hopefully, the third point can deal with that. With regards to painting an accurate picture of the current regime’s inclinations, I erred on the side of caution in assessing the corruption of the current regime, as there seems to be less evidence about an increased “pace of growth” that you mention, and as you rightly say, Kenyatta vocalizes his intention against corruption, thus reducing the perception of its existence among many. However, I cede that the report card is still negative for the current administration as well, and we can only look forward and hope for some positive changes.

      • Thanks, Craig. My perception has been that the news about large scale looting with the NYS and national health systems, pricing discrepancies on the Single Gauge Railway, and the big scandle with looting of World Bank loans from the Rift Valley Railways, along with inability to clearly account for anything funded by a significant part of the recent extensive foreign borrowing has pretty well left a perception of faster growth in corruption in recent times. Admitted this is subjective and relies on many of the Kenyan commentators that I trust. Perhaps the resolution of the question will be whether or not Kenya turns out to have achieved in years to come real public value for the big debt burden. Ken

  2. Pingback: The Opportunity to Address Kenya’s Corruption Problem | Matthews' Blog

  3. Craig,

    You’ve generated a lot of interesting solutions! However, even if the next President is 100% in-good-faith committed to anti-corruption reform, some of these proposals would have to go through the legislature as well. As you aptly pointed out, there is also an enforcement gap that might persist for any of the other adopted solutions. Is there any reason to believe that any of these proposals might have enough political support and momentum to make it through that arduous process?

    • Hey Susannah, I think you’re right with regards to the proposals having to go through the legislature. With regards to whether the movement can garner enough political support and backing, the hope is that the next administration faces enough pressure to assist it, or that it becomes evident that they are failing to do as much as they can (as they claim) in the fight against corruption. I believe that it is a tough road ahead, but definitely potential for positive steps forward.

  4. Hi Craig, thank you for your post, I enjoyed reading it. Trying to provide solutions to tackle deep-rooted corruption is by no means an easy task. For number 4, you suggest a better system for whistleblowing. I was wondering if you could expand on the current system. Although I agree that a platform to allow for citizens to come forward anonymously with information (and be protected) is certainly worth considering, I question how effective it will be if there are already issues with judges and courts successfully prosecuting corruption-related cases.

    • Although you correctly point out that there are issues with prosecutions of corruption cases, the problem needs to be tackled from multiple sides. I believe an increase in reporting, whistleblowing, and general transparency will ultimately be beneficial in the long term, even with the existing issue of lack of action in corruption prosecutions.

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