Kenya is gradually becoming a graft cesspool under president Uhuru Kenyatta’s watch

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By Hezron Karanja
“The regime of President Uhuru Kenyatta has allowed the most permissive environment for corruption in Kenya’s history…” so screams the editorial section in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. I proceed to read the editorial to its entirety and mid-way my mind is racing to come up with points that would be sufficient enough to write a concrete rebuttal with which to forward to the NYT op-ed section – as I have done in the last year or so to any international criticism of Kenya in general. But it suddenly and sadly registers, there is no defense. In other words, there can be no defense.

I, like most people, have come to the realization that corruption in Kenya has been elevated to a new level that cannot under any circumstances be defended no matter how supportive you are to this government. Anything short of that in my opinion is nothing but blind loyalty driven by forces other than good governance and the best interests of the Kenyan people. I have totally lost the determination to defend this government against graft and corruption. Additionally, underlining the emptiness of my will and desire to defend it is the fact that the president himself has come out in public and stated that “…his hands are tied…” when it comes to fighting this scourge.

What drove home the point for me –although by sheer coincidence- was the announcement of a new scandal involving the disappearance of $50 million from the Ministry of Health, and on the same paper, ran a story of a pregnant mother who died of loss of blood at a Kenyan hospital because she couldn’t be admitted for various reasons among them lack of cash. What’s further intriguing is that part of the misappropriated cash at the health ministry was earmarked for maternity equipment acquisition and to provide a subsidy in maternity hospital admissions.

It now seems like with every passing financial quarter, there is a new financial scandal being unearthed. Despite this government being the most well equipped technologically to fight graft, in the history of the nation, it has turned out to be the most affected by corruption of all previous governments combined. Kenya is gradually becoming a graft cesspool.

President Uhuru Kenyatta seems to talk a good game. He knows the right words to use to illicit support from his base and the country at large. He is by far the most articulate president Kenya has had and perhaps one of the few on the continent that can proficiently and coherently articulate his vision and platform. He has been able to follow through with some of his promises in education and general infrastructure. However, unfortunately, he has failed in fighting corruption. And he says so himself – on camera. Everything has its limits, including the confidence that you bestow on someone, and when someone takes the mic and confirms to their inability to provide due process, take them at their word.

The economy in general has outgrown expectations and that should be attributed to Uhuru’s administration. But just like any task, you cannot evaluate someone by only what they got right and completely ignore where they lack.

Corruption could very well be Uhuru’s Waterloo. There has been many leaders around the world who have enjoyed their people’s undivided support but in the long run their base got fed up. Even Moses ran out his people’s patience in the Bible. Because people have limits to how much they can take and like an elastic band, they break if stretched too thin.

The brazen corruption we are witnessing in Kenya today will in the long run affect our children’s future, because unlike the governments before where funds were stolen directly from public coffers, these new sophisticated corrupt officials are stealing borrowed money that has to be paid back decades from now. Kenya (and other African countries) are borrowing like never before to satisfy growing populations and to create updated and modern infrastructure to cater to growing business and the ever morphing inter-governmental trade. Some of these loans have a life of 30-50 years of servicing via the Treasury. Which means that the average citizen will have a share of their income taken away to cater to these loans in the decades to come. That citizen is the child you see playing in the playground today. It is also the unborn fetus, and it is also the embryo not yet conceived.

So when this borrowed money doesn’t make it to its intended purpose, instead ending up in someone’s pocket (as its happening now), then our next generation will be paying for loans that never benefited the country. They will be servicing loans that went to bank accounts belonging to a few corrupt government officials. If that doesn’t shake you to the core, I am not sure what other kind of mismanagement could.

This is a great recipe to manufacturing resentment towards the government. Public stealing is so blatant and prevalent that some people in Kenya have come to see this as a norm, they have become so desensitized and developed ways of how to incorporate it in their lives. It’s like having an incurable disease where you have no choice but to live with it and you learn ways and tactics of how to manage it. It’s a shame when someone like Robert Mugabe –a man who destroyed his country in less than a decade- could point to Kenya and say “…that is the epitome of corruption…” But to be honest, Kenya’s corruption scandals are legendary all over the world.

I hear a lot of people say “…if we only elected new leaders, things could be better…” Perhaps. But would changing players and the referee change the game? No. Because the game isn’t the players or the referee. The game is a structure. The rules that regulate the play are the game. Not the individuals taking part in the game.

We can change leaders all day long until the cows come home, but unless we change the structural and systemic designs that offer corruption a chance to grow and manifest, we will never be able to get rid of it. Part of those structural changes would be seriously enforce the anti-corruption laws already in place. To start genuine prosecutions of corrupt officials, and to vigorously promote asset seizures of all proven ill gained wealth. And in this case, not junior civil servants as we have seen over the decades, but senior officials, and mostly politicians. The best way to send a message is to have a few examples. Today, the most serious consequence a corrupt politician can receive in Kenya is a ban from ever getting a visa to travel to the western world. And even then, these aren’t efforts made by the Kenya government, but by the US, Britain, Canada etc.

Another logical way to end graft would be to require all political parties to get electoral funding from the Treasury. Because as long as private money is allowed to fund elections, there will always be political debt to be paid. The satisfaction of that debt has always been to look the other way when your election financier engages in underhanded dealings while making it big like a bandit, stealing from public coffers. Because they say you cannot bite the hand that feeds you.

Whether it requires changing the constitution to give the justice office more powers and latitude to prosecute remains to be seen. But Uhuru needs to do more than just talk a good game. He has to back up stern anti-corruption talk with something tangible that can be believed in order to recreate public faith and trust in his ability to lead. For talk is cheap.