Kenya: If The Patience Runs Out

25 February 2005

Kenya: If The Patience Runs Out…

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years ago, Kenyans voted for a new leader who promised to end the deeply entrenched official corruption that has been destroying the country’s economy. President Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya with an iron fist for 24 years while his cronies robbed the country blind, had just died, and in December 2002 Kenyans flocked to the polls to elect a man who really seemed determined to root out the corruption: Mwai Kibaki. Unfortunately, Kibaki was just fooling.

It seemed like a real chance for salvation at first, even though Kibaki, like Moi and his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s independence hero, was a Kikuyu. The Kikuyu had dominated politics for so long not just because they were Kenya’s biggest tribe, but because they had borne the brunt of the independence struggle against Britain and paid a terrible price for it. It gave them a sense of entitlement, and Kikuyu ministers had taken the lead in corruption every step of the way. Yet Kenyans of every ethnic group trusted Kibaki enough to ignore his tribal allegiance and vote for him anyway.

Kibaki began well. Petty corruption decreased sharply, and he appointed John Githongo, a respected former journalist who was the director of Transparency International’s Nairobi office, to wage war against high-level corruption as the country’s first Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Governance. The International Monetary Fund resumed lending money to Kenya after a four-year ban, and foreign donors, who had suspended the flow of aid to Kenya because so much of it was stolen, opened the taps again in late 2003.

At the end of 2003 Transparency International still ranked Kenya 129th out of 144 countries in its annual survey of honesty in government, but Githongo himself had warned that it would take two years to know whether he was winning his battle against high-level corruption or not. Kenyans and foreigners were both willing to be patient — but gradually it became clear that President Kibaki either couldn’t or wouldn’t take action against the clique of senior Kikuyu ministers who continued to steal vast sums of money.

The first public suggestion that things were going badly wrong came from the outspoken British ambassador, Sir Edward Clay, who accused Kibaki’s ministers last July of “arrogance, greed and perhaps a desperate sense of panic” which led them to “eat like gluttons” and “vomit on the shoes” of foreign donors and the Kenyan people. Harsh words for a diplomat, but they reflected the growing sense of dismay among ordinary Kenyans as they started to realise that they had been deceived and betrayed.

Kibaki’s anti-corruption crusade has not yet resulted in the conviction of a single senior political figure, and cynical deals between foreign businessmen and Kenyan officials — kickbacks, padded invoices, every imaginable form of fraud — are estimated by diplomats to have cost the country $1.1 billion in the past two years. It costs Kenya even more than that, in fact, because the biggest foreign aid donors, the United States, Britain and Germany, have once again suspended their aid to the country in protest against the corruption.

What precipitated their action was John Githongo’s resignation on 9 February, just two years after he had taken on the job of anti-corruption tsar. He took the precaution of leaving the country before announcing that he was “no longer able to continue serving the government of Kenya:” he had opbviously realised that his task was hopeless.

At the same time Sir Edward Clay returned to the charge, claiming that the foreign associates of Moi’s corrupt regime were now cooperating regularly with officials of Kibaki’s government to steal public funds through crooked procurement deals: “We are not talking about minor corruption. We are talking about massive looting and/oe grand corruption which has a huge impact on Kenya’s economy.”

Kibaki’s government responded by attacking its critics. A government spokesman branded Sir Edward “an incorrigible liar” and “an enemy of the state”, and Lands Minister Amos Kimunya, a close associate of Kibaki’s and a fellow Kikuyu, threatened to have the British ambassador arrested. Kumunya also declared that any civil servant who leaked information on corruption to the press or foreign diplomats would be charged with treason, a hanging offence. And the long-suffering Kenyan public watches all this and seethes with anger.

Kenya has been fortunate, compared to many other African countries: no mad dictators, no inter-tribal wars, and such a wealh of human and natural resources that even decades of corruption have not reduced it to utter penury. But at some point the patience of the people runs out, and that point may now be approaching fast.

Kenyatta got away with it easily because of his almost mythic status as father of Kenyan independence. Moi only got away with it by creating an atmosphere of repression and fear in which outspoken critics of government corruption died of “accidents” at a statistically improbable rate. Kibaki bought a couple of years more by pretending to lead an anti-corruption crusade, but he probably won’t get away with it much longer.

The trick will be to get Kibaki out without triggering a wave of violence that would do the country grave and permanent damage. Already Kibaki’s government is playing the anti-foreigner card, and it is starting to mobilise Kikuyu tribal loyalty in its defence as well. Bad times are coming to Kenya.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“At the end…money”;and “Kenyatta…longer”)