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Exodus of Reformers Dashes Hopes in Kenya

Africa: Economic prospects look grim after Richard Leakey and others hired to clean up government quit.

April 17, 2001|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — A series of political shake-ups including the departure of civil service boss Richard Leakey is casting doubt on Kenya's economic prospects and leading analysts to question the government's commitment to reform.

The renowned paleontologist, son of white colonial settlers, was head of a "dream team" recruited from the private sector to clean up Kenya's notoriously corrupt and inefficient civil service and prepare state-owned companies for privatization.

Instead, the abrupt departures last month of Leakey and three other reform-minded technocrats, together with this month's replacement of the governor of Kenya's Central Bank, are causing apprehension among Kenyans, who have been beaten down by years of deprivation.

The reshuffle is likely to keep this East African nation in a state of uncertainty as it heads toward elections next year.

"There was an excuse for optimism before," said Robert Shaw, a respected local economic analyst. "There isn't any reason for optimism anymore."

Economic growth is near zero. Foreign direct investment has plummeted, and there is a level of desperation among average Kenyans rarely experienced in recent years. More than 50% of the country's 29 million people live below the poverty line, according to government statistics.

Kenyans generally welcomed the appointment of Leakey in July 1999, viewing him and his team as having the competence and integrity to put their country back on track. But analysts said the problems facing the team were too big.

"The task that these people had was so enormous, it was limited as to how much they could have achieved," Shaw said. "They probably stopped the situation from getting worse than it was, but little beyond that. Overall, their impact was relatively small."

A statement from President Daniel Arap Moi's office said Leakey had voluntarily stepped down.

"It is time for others to take over and move the process of reform forward," Moi was quoted as saying. "Dr. Leakey and I have agreed that he stands down. I am pleased to say that his advice and consultation will continue to be available to me."

But it was no secret that Leakey's relationship with Moi was often acrimonious. He has kept a low profile since his resignation and has refused to comment publicly on the matter.

Leakey's team is credited with presenting proposals that are said to have persuaded the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to release more than $340 million in aid.

The financial institutions had suspended loans to Kenya in August 1997 because of corruption, a lack of transparency in government spending, and the failure to push for political reform. Lending was frozen again last year due to the government's inability to keep its promises on reform.

The team suffered another setback when parliament halted the firing of nearly 40,000 civil servants--after a first batch of more than 25,700 was laid off--preventing further reductions of the country's bloated public service sector.

Reformers also fell out with Kenya's ruling elite over political shenanigans surrounding the privatization of Telkom Kenya, allocation of public forest land to ruling party supporters, audits of presidential trips and a court's declaration that the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority was unconstitutional.

Efforts to attack corruption, enforce fiscal discipline, clamp down on access to easy money from lucrative government contracts and curtail the evasion of customs also won the reformers enemies.

"Corruption finances politics in Kenya," said John Githongo, Nairobi-based executive director of the Kenyan branch of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group. "So they upset a lot of those patronage relationships. They threw an entire political machine into confusion just a year and a half before an election."

Detractors accused Leakey of arrogance and favoritism in hiring and firing senior civil servants. Many also resented the salaries of his team--thousands of dollars a month--compared with the minimum public employee's salary of $50 a month.

Sally Kosgei--a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, a former ambassador to Britain and a staunch Moi ally--has replaced Leakey. Her new team, predominantly career civil servants, faces stiff challenges in trying to continue where Leakey left off. Many observers are skeptical that they are up to the task.

"They may be good, but do they have the teeth to bite?" asked one economic observer for an international financial agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Githongo, of Transparency International, said the team "will have to work very hard to build up credibility."

Kenya's financial downturn has led to widespread unemployment, environmental degradation and soaring crime.

Many Kenyans expressed little confidence in the new team.

"I am living from hand to mouth," said Josphat Emurugat, a 30-year-old accountant. "Today, I am not able to afford a plate of food on my table, and I'm never sure about tomorrow." Accountants here often earn less than $100 a month.

"The dream team's ideas may not be implemented," said Eunice Gunga, 27, a bank teller. "The group that is there now are [ruling party] stooges."

Analysts said that to make progress, the new team needs solid political support, time and minor interference from government cronies, none of which they are likely to get.

"Confidence--and, one may say, competence--take time to build," said a recent editorial in the popular Daily Nation newspaper. "Frequent and unexplained changes do not generally bespeak a steady ship, sure of its course."

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