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Kenya Is Buffeted By Graft Scandals

Public Confidence Low After Official Resigns

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A21

NAIROBI, Feb. 12 -- Kenya's new government awarded a $34 million contract to a foreign firm for a new passport and visa system to prevent attacks such as the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. But in what became known as the "Anglo-Leasing scandal," top members of the president's office were accused last year of pocketing the money.

In August, the director of the National AIDS Control Council, Margaret Gachara, was found guilty of defrauding the government of $340,000. She spent time in jail, but the president pardoned her in December, along with 7,000 "petty offenders" who had stolen from various government offices.

President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya came into power promising to end corruption. (Antony Njuguna -- Reuters)

The cases are just two of those that were under investigation by John Githongo, the country's anti-corruption czar who was appointed by President Mwai Kibaki when he was elected in 2002. Kibaki, the leader of an opposition coalition, promised to end the system of corruption and patronage that had eaten away at government institutions during the 24-year reign of Daniel arap Moi.

But on Monday, Githongo quit his post, faxing his resignation from the Kenyan Embassy in London.

Githongo had grown frustrated with what he saw as an inability to do his job as his focus shifted from investigating past corruption cases to examining allegations against members of Kibaki's administration, according to a coalition of civic leaders that issued statements on his behalf. Githongo made powerful enemies, the coalition said, and his life had reportedly been threatened. Githongo has not spoken publicly about his decision to quit.

Until Kibaki tapped him to lead Kenya's anti-graft agencies shortly after he was elected, Githongo had been the energetic head of the Kenyan branch of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog group.

Many Kenyans viewed his appointment as a serious government commitment to ending the culture of corruption. Posters of a cartoon rendering of Githongo, glasses pushed close to his round face and a pointed finger warning against offering and accepting bribes, were put up across Nairobi, the capital. He earned respect for saying that bad leadership had "turned every Kenyan into a thief" and urging citizens to hold the government accountable and change the culture themselves.

His resignation symbolizes a loss of confidence in an administration that many looked to for change, and reflects the frustration of Kenyans already skeptical of the government's commitment.

"The government has been insulting the intelligence of Kenyans," said Gladwell Otieno, who succeeded Githongo as head of Transparency International in Kenya, which has been asking the government to guarantee Githongo's safety if he returns to the country. "Any attempts to deal with endemic corruption requires reengineering the entire way the country is run. And obviously this is not happening any longer," he said.

Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa. With cool, sunny, California-like weather, lush green hillsides of mango and banana trees and plentiful wildlife, the country is a favorite safari destination for Americans and Europeans. But most citizens can barely afford their tea and daily bread.

International donors estimate that up to $1 billion has disappeared since 2002, nearly a fifth of the nation's budget for 2004. The result can be seen in everyday life. The roads are crumbling, and if they are repaired, jobless men begging for change do the work, filling potholes with dirt. Squalid hospitals are drastically under funded, with cancer patients forced to wait months for chemotherapy.

Bribes are required to get services such as running water in homes, and large-scale corruption sometimes causes school and road projects to be abandoned.

"Corruption in Kenya isn't a matter of Kitu Kidogo, or of a few ministers skimming off commission," said the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, William M. Bellamy, referring to a common Swahili phrase that means "give me something small."

"It is big enough to cause macroeconomic distortions. Every Kenyan laboring to feed his family, educate his children, care for a family member suffering from AIDS or simply avoid getting hacked to death in the mounting wave of violence sweeping this country is a victim of today's corruption, and they know it," Bellamy said.

On Tuesday, a day after Githongo resigned, the United States suspended $2.5 million in funding for anti-corruption work in Kenya. Bellamy, during a meeting in Nairobi with British businessmen, said the amount lost to corruption could fund antiretroviral treatments for every HIV-positive Kenyan for 10 years.

On Wednesday, the European Union and Japan warned that corruption must be tackled, saying they would withdraw aid if improvements were not made.

The British High Commissioner to Kenya, Edward Clay, has said the government has lost millions of dollars since it came to power. In July, he accused the government of "arrogance, greed and perhaps a desperate sense of panic to lead them to eat like gluttons."

Kenya's foreign minister, Chirau Ali Mwakwere, called Clay an "incorrigible liar" and suggested that he had drunk "one too many" before he delivered a speech last week.

Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi said the U.S. decision to freeze assets was like "like raping a woman who is already too willing," meaning the government already wanted to end corruption.

But that reaction backfired with protests from women's rights activists. Women stormed his office this past week, saying he was trivializing rape. He later apologized.

The international criticism of Kenyan corruption has pleased ordinary citizens. Radio and television broadcasts in recent days have been filled with angry comments.

"The government has no respect for the Kenyans they serve," yelled Javen Nyatuka, 38, a taxi driver. "Our government should bite the bullet while the sun still shines and resign."

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