'We're a Thirsty Land of Empty Promises'

Kenyans demonstrated Friday during an anti-corruption rally in downtown Nairobi. Protesters marched to demand the resignation of government officials for their alleged role in recent scandals.
Kenyans demonstrated Friday during an anti-corruption rally in downtown Nairobi. Protesters marched to demand the resignation of government officials for their alleged role in recent scandals. (By Karel Prinsloo -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 20, 2006

NAIVASHA, Kenya -- On a dry stretch of potholed country road, Mary Ciira, 25, worked quickly in the hot sun to sell mangoes to passersby. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead as she explained that she was trying to earn enough money to move her family out of the country's north, where a drought has dried up rivers, turned green fields to dust and left as many as 3.5 million Kenyans on the brink of starvation.

Ciira, an unemployed college graduate, said she never thought her family would so desperately need her help. She had put her trust in President Mwai Kibaki, who was elected in 2002 on vows to stamp out corruption, generate jobs and help farmers in the often-neglected north.

But those promises have evaporated. The Kenyan government can barely afford to feed its hungry citizens, much less make good on campaign pledges, largely because past and present administrations have looted the country's treasury in one corruption scandal after another.

"We're a thirsty land of empty promises. Other countries have droughts and you never see their people dying," Ciira said in this town 50 miles northwest of Nairobi. As she spoke, people gathered around her, some waving copies of one of Kenya's daily newspapers, the Nation, with a three-page spread detailing the largest scandals.

"Look at us selling fruits at intersections when our leaders are feathering their nests and filling their stomachs," she said. "Surely, I am filled with tears."

Last week, dramatic details of two of the largest scandals have implicated high-level officials, some of whom allegedly pocketed a total of $1.3 billion in public funds, money that critics say should have gone to irrigation and road projects to help protect farmers from the devastating effects of recurring droughts.

As the country's worst drought in 20 years wears on, many Kenyans are blaming government corruption, not Mother Nature, for their dire situation. The crisis highlights how government fraud and mismanagement can worsen, and in some cases create, food shortages.

On Friday, thousands of Kenyans protested in the streets of Nairobi, the capital, demanding the resignation of officials linked to the scandals. "Our money, our money! Sack our leaders," they shouted from the city's central Uhuru Park.

"Nobody blames the government for the drought, but it is guilty of the famine situation," Billows Kerrow, an opposition member of parliament, said in an interview in the magazine Drum, which ran a cover article last week titled "Famine: An Unnatural Disaster?"

In the most recent controversy, known as the Anglo Leasing scandal, more than $300 million was awarded in contracts for new tamper-proof passports, modern forensic labs and other projects to improve security. But the money disappeared, and top members of the president's office were accused of pocketing the funds.

The country's former anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, secretly recorded a conversation in which he said a high-level minister tried to block the investigation into the missing millions. In the recording, which Githongo recently gave to the BBC, a man tries to slow down the investigation and tells Githongo that the repayment of a loan his father received from a government official "could go slow, if you go slow on the investigation."

Githongo fled to Britain and quit his job last year after receiving death threats.

The disclosures occurred as the U.N. World Food Program began urgently appealing for $225 million in food aid.

"This is actually good for the country to go through," said Killian Lugwe, 40, a hotel manager. "We're all counting those millions stolen and looking at those suffering in the north. We have to speak out and endure what must be hard growing pains to clean up Kenya. Maybe then the next round of leaders will think twice before stealing."

After the tapes were publicized, the Kibaki government released a long-awaited report on a 1990s corruption case involving officials from the previous and current governments. In that scandal, dubbed the Goldenberg affair, taxpayer dollars were used to fund shell companies for exporting nonexistent Kenyan diamonds and gold. The country lost hundreds of millions of dollars paid to Goldenberg International, a fake Kenyan company.

In recent weeks, three Kenyan officials have resigned, saying they are innocent but want to clear their names At the same time, two sons of former president Daniel arap Moi, an autocratic and corrupt leader who ruled the country for more than two decades before he stepped down, and 20 officials were also implicated in the widening Goldenberg probe and were forced to surrender their passports and firearms.

In much of Africa, corruption is a top concern of ordinary citizens, many of whom live in extreme poverty while their political leaders drive luxury cars, enjoy personal helicopters and live in sprawling villas. The problem is acute in Kenya, where subsistence farming is a way of life for the majority of the population and where just one season without rain can mean widespread hunger.

"These parts of Kenya look like war zones. I've never seen so many dead animals. And there's no need for it. Every minister needs to be spending state money on development projects for their own citizens," said Tony Hall, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, who recently visited the drought-hit areas. "They've certainly got the money here. Kenyans have every right to be upset and to demand these things so that millions don't go hungry while there is massive corruption."

Aid groups say that at least 40 people have died in Kenya because of famine-related illnesses. In the country's north and east, a third of children under 5 are malnourished, triple the usual number in those regions. The region's herds of livestock -- the life-support system for most families -- have fallen by 70 percent in some places, leaving the carcasses of more than a quarter-million cows, goats and even the usually hearty camels rotting in the sun.

In an interview in Nairobi, Col. Shem Amadi, director of National Operations Center for the office of the president, said the country is suffering a cumulative problem dating back to the Moi era.

"Every day, Kenyans wake up and compare 24 years of rule to a system here for three years," said Amadi, who has helped coordinate military flights to deliver food aid. "What's happening in Kenya today has been accumulating for decades. There's been a collapse in infrastructure, weather changes, AIDS; you can't pinpoint it all on corruption. But we do know it's there and we must do better to protect our less fortunate."

Although Kenya has the largest number of people in need in East Africa, a lack of water and nearly 15 years of armed conflict in Somalia have left 1.7 million in need of food aid there. In Ethiopia, 1.75 million are in need of food along with 60,000 in Djibouti, according to the World Food Program.

Peter Smerdon, spokesman for the World Food Program in Nairobi, said if calls for donations went unanswered, Kenya could turn into another Niger, where aid arrived only after a significant number of deaths.

"We need to be demanding irrigation projects and feeding those in need right away," said Brendan Cox, emergency coordinator for Oxfam International, who has been working in the affected regions. "If the response isn't adequate, this could be the worst food shortage in Kenya's modern history. The sad thing is we should have never been in this situation."

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