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Kenya's New President Already Cleaning House

Mwai Kibaki appoints an anti-corruption czar and fires suspect officials as citizens take up their own fight against graft.

February 27, 2003|Davan Maharaj and Gwendolyn Driscoll | Special to The Times

NAIROBI, Kenya — Fed up with their East African nation perennially being branded as one of the most corrupt places in the world, Kenyans and their new government are engaged in one of the biggest housecleanings in modern African history.

Since taking power nearly two months ago, newly elected President Mwai Kibaki has fired top officials long suspected of looting state funds, launched an anti-graft investigation against the country's top judge and even appointed Kenya's independent anti-corruption watchdog as the government's anti-graft czar.

In addition, Kenyans are fighting back against corruption -- sometimes literally. Many Kenyans have started refusing to pay bribes for jobs, medical care and basic government services. And in scenes replayed across the country, commuters have assaulted traffic officers demanding bribes from operators of matatus, or minivan taxis, who for decades have routinely coughed up money to greedy police.

"Kenyans feel they are helping the government achieve its avowed mission of ridding the country of corruption," said Gichira Kibara, who heads the Center for Democracy and Governance, a think tank in Nairobi, the capital. "Ordinary people feel that they have to do the job themselves [because] the police and judiciary, which would be expected to lead the battle against corruption, are themselves so corrupt."

This week, Kibaki granted Kenyans' call for an inquiry into the "Goldenberg Affair," a scandal in which the administration of former President Daniel Arap Moi funneled an estimated $600 million to individuals with ties to government ministers for exporting nonexistent gold and diamonds. Many economists believe that the 1991 payments to a Kenyan-owned company called Goldenberg International caused the economy to spiral into decline, throwing millions of people out of work.

Kibaki's administration already has heeded widespread calls to reclaim land and money from some of Moi's cronies. And by launching several investigations into high-profile scandals, Kibaki is satisfying voters who two months ago swept Kenya's ruling party out of power for the first time in 40 years. Critics say Kibaki's anti-corruption drive is just about money. The new president needs to show international donors that he is serious about fighting corruption to have a chance at freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars that the International Monetary Fund withheld from Moi's regime. IMF officials feared that large chunks of the money would end up in foreign bank accounts of top government officials. The new government has had what it called promising talks with the IMF, but no decision on the loans has been announced.

Kibaki, who once served as Moi's vice president, acknowledges the country needs a resumption of foreign loans to help rescue its struggling economy. But he insists his corruption battle is about reclaiming his nation's soul and changing the way many Kenyans do business.

"Corruption has undermined our economy, our politics and our national psyche," Kibaki said when he opened parliament last week. "It has undermined our most important institutions and tarnished our reputations as Kenyan leaders."

Indeed, corruption accounted for nearly $2 billion in losses from the Kenyan treasury in the last decade, according to a United Nations-funded study released this month. Other studies have shown that corruption exacts the greatest toll on the poorest Kenyans. Public officials demand bribes in two out of three encounters with people they are paid to serve, according to a recent survey of 2,200 respondents by the Kenyan chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group.

Some Kenyans pay a third of their $300 annual wages in bribes to secure driver's licenses, birth certificates or to prevent the police from taking them to jail for not carrying their identification cards -- a common occurrence. Kenya's low-paid police officers -- some earn about $50 a month -- are the top bribe demanders. Nine out of 10 Kenyans surveyed said their encounters with law enforcement agents resulted in demands for bribes.

It is not surprising that roadside police checkpoints, where motorists and minivan taxi operators typically pass petty bribes, which range from about $1.25 to $5, are now the front lines in the war by ordinary Kenyans to stamp out corruption. Police officers who utter the traditional Swahili euphemism for bribery -- "tuo kitu kidogo ya chai," or "give a little something for tea" -- are likely to be confronted by angry Kenyans shouting the newest catch phrase: "rudisha kila kitu," or "give everything back."

In recent times, confrontations at checkpoints have turned violent. Last month, at least seven police officers were attacked by angry mobs demanding that they return bribes.

Local television reporters, who videotaped officers demanding bribes from motorists, recently broadcast footage of an angry mob pummeling a policewoman for allegedly extorting a bribe from a matatu driver.

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