NAIROBI — Everyone in Kenya knows the phrase “kitu kidogo.”
It means “something small” in Swahili, and it refers to the bribes Kenyans pay minor bureaucrats, such as policemen and utility company employees, to make life easier. For decades, Kenyans had only their relatives and friends to complain to. Until now, that is.
A new Web site — I Paid a Bribe – is allowing Kenyans to share their experiences with bribery. Activists say the site could become a potent weapon in the fight against graft in one of the world’s most corrupt nations.
“It brings a human face to corruption,” said Samuel Kimeu, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya, an anti-corruption watchdog group. “When people tell their stories the way they do on the Web site, it has the potential to catalyze action.”
Drawing some inspiration from the Arab Spring uprisings, activism appears to be on the rise here and in many other corners of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, protests erupted in Uganda and Malawi over bad governance and other issues. More recently, Nigerians have demonstrated against corruption and rising fuel prices, and activists in Senegal have rallied against President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third term.
“I’m calling what’s happening in Kenya the ‘Bribe Spring,’ ” said Antony Ragui, the Web site’s 36-year-old founder. “People are fed up with corruption and the government. The real goal of I Paid a Bribe is to harness the collective energy of Kenyans. I am trying to create a network of Kenyans who are anti-corruption-minded.”
Ragui, a financial services consultant with an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley, said he returned to Kenya in 2007 to find a society that revolved around corruption. Out of 182 nations, only 28 are more corrupt than Kenya, according to Transparency International.
“I was tired of people whining about corruption. I wanted to do something about it,” Ragui said.
One day, Ragui read a magazine article about an Indian Web site — Ipaidabribe.com – that was fighting corruption. He contacted the site, which agreed to provide the software to start a similar effort in Kenya, its first spinoff.
Launched last month, Ragui’s site is divided into three sections. One part collects stories about bribes paid, listing the amount as well as where and when the incident occurred. Another section collects details about people who refused to pay bribes. And the third provides a forum for instances of honesty, when a bribe was not required.
More than 400 bribes have been reported; the total amount paid is nearly 9 million Kenyan shillings – or about $110,000.
One contributor wrote about “our depressing first bribe,” when she and her husband were stopped for an illegal U-turn around midnight one night. The police officer asked her husband to step out of their car and “took everything in his wallet.”
“Later, my colleague said, ‘Never stop for a policeman on foot — they can’t catch you!’ ” the woman wrote.
Others described paying police officers to investigate robberies and bribing bureaucrats to speed up licenses and passports. In many cases, police were accused of intimidating victims into paying bribes, going so far as to make up infractions.
Contributors proudly provide advice on how to avoid paying bribes, which usually involves a lot of patience and bargaining. One person wrote about refusing to pay off an electricity company worker for reconnecting the power.
“I just told him I could stay in the dark for the whole weekend before he even saw a coin,” the commenter wrote. “I also threatened to call his boss. He reconnected me, which he should have done instead of aggravating me.”
To prevent abuse and possible legal problems, the site’s software blocks out names of bribe payers and recipients. The most vital information, Ragui said, is where, when and to which government body bribes are paid.
T.R. Raghunandan, a spokesman for the Indian site, said activists in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines and Nigeria have asked how to start their own sites.
“Working with Antony was very instructing for us,” he said in a telephone interview. “It gives us confidence to work with other countries. Our goal is to create a worldwide source of fighting corruption.”
Ragui said he has met with the World Bank and other organizations, seeking funds to expand and publicize the Web site. He wants to add a function that would allow victims to send text-message complaints to the site, enabling Kenyans to report corruption in real time.
With the cost of living rising in Kenya, he hopes more people will reject paying bribes and fight the system.
“If I can change one department in the government, I can die a happy man,” he said.