The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kenyans have had it with corruption. Their leaders may finally be doing something about it.

Kenyan activists take part in a demonstration against corruption in the capital, Nairobi, on May 31, 2018. (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI — Thirty years ago, Margaret Kuya made a costly investment that she hoped would pay off for her newborn daughter: She bought herself a better job.

“To get a job in Kenya, it is not about being smart or hard-working. We say, ‘You have to know someone,’ ” Kuya said recently at her home in Nairobi. Her family is by no means wealthy or well-connected, but back then, she knew someone who knew someone else. She gave most of her meager savings to a middleman and went from being a maid to cooking in a school cafeteria — one small rung up on society’s ladder.

On the eve of her retirement from that job, Kuya makes about $200 a month. Diana Kuya, her daughter, is now almost 30. Margaret has paid out thousands of dollars — years’ worth of scrupulously saved paychecks — to try to secure Diana a job that’s at least one rung higher on the ladder.

But those dreams have been stolen. Each middleman has run away with her money. Diana is an unpaid intern, one of hundreds of thousands of educated young Kenyans without jobs.

A sense that pervasive corruption is stifling young Kenyans’ futures has been building for years, like pressure in a sealed, heated chamber. And Kenya’s leaders — themselves long accused of corruption — seem finally to have recognized the potential political cost of not addressing it.

In recent weeks, Kenya’s president and deputy president have offered to be among the first subjects of a “lifestyle audit” — an anti-graft initiative that, if implemented, would require all government officials to show how they earned enough to afford the mansions, ranches and luxury cars so many of them own. Only if corruption is weeded out at the top, the thinking goes, will it be possible to end the kind of petty corruption faced by the Kuyas.

For now, the audits are just a proposal. Yet, as corruption continues to factor into almost all economic transactions here, the clamor for change keeps growing.

Real estate developers bake graft-related expenses into their budgets. Poor people grease the palms of city officials to stay in illegally built but affordable slums. Scandals involving collusion between government officials and business executives to import inferior or even contaminated foods dominate the headlines.

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“The elite corruption in this country is carried out with increasing impunity and brazenness. A billion shillings is the new million,” Auditor General Edward Ouko said in an interview in his 12th-floor Nairobi office. “Ordinary folks have to ride with the tide.”

Ouko is seven years into an eight-year term, and his office has been instrumental in bringing to light some of Kenya’s most egregious recent cases of corruption. Over the past two months, dozens of raids and investigations have targeted government officials, but that has not led to any convictions. He is now a leading proponent of the lifestyle audit, likening it to a truth and reconciliation commission.

“The Kenyan public must be shown that their leaders are serious. It will be hard. Big men will fall,” he said. “But it is the only way to move forward.”

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s offer to undergo the first audit, however, has provoked scorn from Kenya’s small band of anti-corruption activists. He is the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and the family has enormous land holdings and owns companies in various industries. The Kenyattas are seen by detractors as the heirs of a colonial system built on legalized discrimination and theft that they did little to dismantle.

“Lifestyle audits? Not a bad idea,” said Maina Kiai, a Kenyan lawyer who until recently was a special rapporteur to the U.N. secretary general. “But how far is Uhuru willing to go? Will the rest of his family do it? Can they really tell us how they got all the land? What about accounting for shell companies and offshore accounts? And if they don’t, then how can we expect everyone else to?”

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Kenya’s former anti-corruption commission chairman estimated two years ago that the country loses a third of its state budget to corruption — almost $6 billion annually. The scale of the graft threatens national security, discourages foreign investors and saps public services of funds. Police officers and teachers often go unpaid, and Nairobi’s roads continue to deteriorate. Nairobi County Gov. Mike Sonko, who runs the capital’s government and whose last name is also a slang word for “rich man,” was elected partly because he uses his wealth to run private fire and ambulance services.

One of the first Swahili phrases foreigners learn here is “kitu kidogo” — something small. That is what the government official taking care of your paperwork will ask for: “Just something small, sir. I want to have lunch.”

While Kenya’s economy still creates jobs and state institutions are functional, if inefficient, corruption has become so deeply rooted that a 2016 survey of young people by one of the country’s best universities found that half of respondents did not care how they made their money, as long as they did not end up in jail. More than a third said they would “easily” give or take a bribe.

Diana Kuya voiced sympathy for that kind of jadedness. When her mother matter-of-factly remarked during a dinnertime conversation that “the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor,” Diana winced and said she would do “whatever it takes” to get a job.

“Kenyans are frustrated people, hungry people,” she said. She even forgives the middlemen who stole her mother’s money. “Those guys were just trying to get ahead, too.”

Shailja Patel, a Kenyan poet, playwright and political activist, has argued that Kenya’s elite have little but contempt for their constituents and that an insurrection is a possible outcome.

“How do we exist in the air of this contempt and not be defined by it? Rage is a reaction. Armed revolution is a reaction,” she wrote. “Silence, invisibility, self-loathing, acquiescence. . . . Those are not reactions. Those are the desired effects.”

But Patel wrote that five years ago.

Margaret Kuya feels resigned. Revolution sounds absurd. She would surely lose everything. She once took part in a protest for a minuscule wage hike and was beaten by police.

“The big people can even tell the police to shoot you if you ask for what’s fair,” she said. “A small person like me cannot tell a big person to stop eating money.”

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