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Looting of Kenya Treasury Finally Puts Pressure on Corruption : Africa: Theft of up to $850 million has scandalized foreign aid donors, who for the first time are making contributions conditional on reforms.

November 05, 1995|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — Somebody has been looting the national treasury of Kenya. From 1990 to 1993, $600 million to $850 million "went missing." That is about the same amount this struggling country received in foreign aid from the United States, Britain, Germany and other developed nations.

On the scale of African corruption, the theft may be shocking but hardly warrants top ranking in the record books.

As for the history books--well, they may tell a different story.

Finally, on the world's poorest continent, the ugly hand of corruption is being slapped back. Manifold revelations about Kenya's mysterious--or maybe not so mysterious--treasury looting have energized domestic and international fury. In this region where trouble is contagious, big trouble appears to be brewing for the old guard of Africa, known for its plundering ways.

Or so many hope. Because the alternatives are so discouraging.

Impoverished Africa, as any number of experts will testify, is being left behind in the global scramble for a new economic order. Few things weigh it down more than the inefficient, dispiriting millstone of corruption.

The 50 assorted republics that make up sub-Saharan Africa have long borne this cross and for a multitude of reasons. Not the least of which is that the strong prey on the weak, and Africans began their independence 30 years ago with the misfortune of having a powerful few at the top, a powerless many down below--and not much buffer in between.

Quickly it came to pass that men with the title "Honorable" before their names, independence fighters who were once known as the Thomas Jeffersons of the continent, began expecting a little something besides honor for their talents. And the generals sought a little something, too, as did government ministers and district representatives. After a while, the "little somethings" added up.

Olusegun Obsanjo, Nigeria's former president, estimates that just a few African strongmen now sit atop cash deposits of more than $20 billion in Swiss banks. It was all pillaged from societies that live hand-to-mouth in disease and squalor, most of them heavily dependent on the largess of the world's richer nations.

"Whole communities and in some cases whole nations are impoverished by this process," he said.

Obsanjo now resides in prison, the result of his opposition to the military junta in Nigeria, an important U.S. oil supplier and, analysts say, a country with one of the most corrupt governments on the continent. More than $12 billion of Nigeria's public funds went missing in recent years and is still unaccounted for.

When practiced at such a grand scale and for so long, corruption yields its own corrupt, degenerative cycle. At each turn, more people are swept along. Today, in any number of African countries, the price of justice is a little something for the judge. Staying out of trouble requires something for the police officer. Passing grades for the children depend on something for the principal. To activate a rubber stamp, something for the clerk.

Some say the payoffs are necessary: A Kenyan civil servant with the title "assistant director" of a national government agency explains that he is provided an allowance of $3.63 a day to cover hotels and meals when traveling on official business. Compare that to the $145 a night charged at Nairobi's major hotels and the $7 for a decent hamburger. "Are civil servants supposed to sleep at bus parks and eat from dustbins?" he asks.

Dieter Frisch, former director general of development for the European Commission, says Africa is approaching the tragic closed circle where "corruption is both cause and consequence of underdevelopment."

According to a national poll conducted last November by Kenya's Center for Law and Research International, 92% of citizens recognize that corruption is "rife" in their government and country. More than 60% said they could not hope to get a job without paying bribes.

"A large portion of the Kenyan population is unlikely to strive much to enhance their skills, qualifications and work performance because such attributes are not expected to be used as criteria for selection, advancement or promotion," the watchdog group concluded.

Soon thereafter, the organization was outlawed for meddling in politics.

A decade ago, a few cracks like this from the government bullwhip might have quieted the meddlers. But not today.

Kenya--a proud anchor of stability in East Africa, long a friend of the West, a continental leader in commerce and education, a favorite of tourists and Africa's ambassador to much of the outside world--is finding its old ways on trial from within and without.

It should be emphasized that Kenya is by no means the most corrupt of African nations. Some would argue that the dishonor goes to such countries as repressive Nigeria or diamond-rich and dirt-poor Zaire, where President Mobutu Sese Seko's personal wealth is believed by Western analysts to be greater than his country's huge debt.

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