The city skyline of Nairobi stands beyond Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photographer: Casper Hedberg/Bloomberg News)

Politicians Look Set for Easy Ride in Kenyan Graft Crackdown

(Bloomberg) -- Kenyan prosecutors have rounded up scores of officials they intend putting on trial for looting billions of shillings from state coffers. Few of their political masters -- seen by many as the kingpins behind repeated scandals -- look set to face similar censure.

The spate of arrests are part of an effort by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who won a disputed election last year, to improve controls over public funds and shed Kenya’s image as a hotbed of corruption. Public service boss Joseph Kinyua estimates about a third of the annual budget is lost to graft, while accounting firm KPMG LLP says wasteful spending and activities such as bribery and tender fraud gobble up about 10 percent of the gross domestic product of $70.5 billion a year.

Politicians Look Set for Easy Ride in Kenyan Graft Crackdown

Forty officials, including Public Service Principal Secretary Lillian Omollo, were netted in a swoop following allegations that billions of shillings had gone missing from the National Youth Service. Another 14 people were implicated in connection with a mobile-clinic scam and 25 more in selling land to the state without following proper procedures. Probes are also under way into alleged theft from the state-owned Kenya Power Plc, National Cereals & Produce Board and Kenya Pipeline Co.

The fact that not a single politician has been arrested comes as no surprise to John Githongo, who served as permanent secretary for governance and ethics during former President Mwai Kibaki’s administration.

Ruling Elite

“Corruption is essential to Kenya’s political economy,” Githongo said by phone from Nairobi, the capital. “Dealing with it is political suicide for key elements of our ruling elite.”

Kenyatta, whose second and final term is due to end in 2022, may be looking to earn a legacy as the leader who finally helped contain graft in Kenya and accelerate growth. He’s pledged to create jobs, bolster manufacturing and agriculture and improve the healthcare system -- objectives parliament’s budget committee warns may be unattainable unless the nation is better governed.

“When loyalty and future elections are no longer a priority, as we may assume is the case for a president in his final term, the usefulness of corruption wanes,” Jared Jeffery, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC African Economics, said in an emailed note. “There is now utility in taking an anti-corruption stance as increased legitimacy would help smooth the way for the policies he wants to enact.”

Previous Campaigns

Previous anti-graft campaigns Kenyatta spearheaded did little to stop the scourge. In March 2015, he handed parliament a list of 175 officials implicated in wrongdoing, yet none of them have been jailed so far. Three of his ministers were forced to step down and two were cleared of wrongdoing, while the third’s case is ongoing.

“We have done poorly in the tracing and recovery of looted assets, as well as punishing those involved through jail terms and fines,” Samuel Kimeu, Transparency International’s executive director in Kenya, said by phone. “Much of these monies are withdrawn in cash. It’s always hard to get the masterminds of these scandals due to lack of a paper trail.”

Kenya scored just 28 points out of a possible 100 for its efforts to fight graft in Transparency International’s 2017 Global Corruption Perceptions Index. While that was a marginal improvement from the 26 points it got in 2016, it was still below the African average of 32, the anti-graft campaigner said.

Overlooking Successes

Some of the successes against graft have been overlooked, according to Kenyatta’s spokesman Manoah Esipisu.

“The leadership of agencies at the helm of the institutions fighting corruption are almost entirely new,” he said by phone. “We have a new director of public prosecutions, a new director of criminal investigation and the inspector-general has been in office for not too long. And they have the president’s full support.”

Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission said in a report to lawmakers last week that it had concluded investigations into four sitting and former county governors and two members of parliament and the files had been sent to prosecutors who are likely to decide on a way forward this week. The commission’s data shows that it recovered 256 million shillings ($2.5 million) worth of misappropriated assets in the year through June last year, down from 700 million shillings the year before.

Halakhe Waqo, the commission’s chief executive officer, and Noordin Haji, the director of public prosecutions, didn’t respond to calls and messages seeking comment.

Culture of Impunity

While Kenya has well-designed institutions to fight corruption, their work is still being undermined by a political elite who have fostered a culture of impunity, according to Charles Kanjama, a constitutional lawyer.

“To change culture needs leadership, not laws,” Kanjama said by phone from Nairobi. “We have a leadership that doesn’t want corruption among others but tolerate it among themselves.”

Kimeu isn’t optimistic that the biggest culprits behind the graft in Kenya will be reined in.

“Going by historical experience, we don’t think the story will change,” he said. “I see our politics as the main problem.’

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