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Police Corruption Rampant in Kenya Despite Attempts at Reform

June 13, 2004|Robyn Dixon and Nicholas Soi | Times Staff Writers

NAIROBI, Kenya — Friday nights are the best time for threadbare Kenya's police, and the worst time to run into them.

It is when they are most likely to stop people for bribes. The thought of an entire weekend in a Kenyan jail is usually enough to shake loose a shower of Kenyan shillings.

Kenneth Otieno, a 17-year-old schoolboy, was arrested one recent Friday evening as he was heading home from an outdoor cinema where a cotton sheet served as a screen.

Police, he said, planted a gun on him and accused him of plotting a felony, though he's not sure what the word means. He spent two nights in a cell before his mother, a middle-class businesswoman, paid a $65 bribe -- the equivalent of a month's salary for an officer -- to have him released Sunday afternoon.

President Mwai Kibaki has said that he is trying to rescue Kenyans from the clutches of corrupt police. Kibaki recently doubled the salaries of police officers in an attempt to wipe out the practice of extorting bribes from ordinary citizens. The wage increase is part of a new anti-graft drive in a nation widely regarded as among the most corrupt in the world.

Kibaki, who was elected in 2002, also suspended half of the country's top judges. A report by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority last year found that judges in appellate and high courts would take bribes from both parties in a case, then rule in favor of the most generous.

Judges demanded sex from litigants, lawyers and defendants in return for a favorable verdict, the report said. It cost $250 to beat a rape charge. A murder acquittal: $500.

Kenyan police reputedly are the most rampant bribe-takers.

"The police force, even more corrupt than the judiciary, needs an even more thorough purge," declared the London-based analytical newsletter Africa Confidential. "Few of those detained are ever charged if they pay off the arresting officer. Poor defendants can languish on remand for years in horrifying conditions."

Patrick, a 24-year-old police officer, said extorting a bribe wasn't difficult.

During an interview, he leaned forward and lowered his voice. "I can't say I'm all that clean."

"It is just a matter of survival," said Patrick, who didn't provide his last name.

Before Kibaki increased police salaries, Patrick earned about $59 a month. He bought the cheapest food and lived on a crowded, down-at-heels block in Nairobi.

Patrick said his new monthly pay, about $131, wouldn't help much because the price of maize flour, his staple, has risen sharply.

The world's poorest countries are often those most afflicted by graft. Transparency International, a watchdog organization, ranks Kenya as the 11th most corrupt nation.

Kenya's anti-corruption efforts are being closely watched not only by international lending institutions but also by other African countries, where theft bleeds away public funds that could go to schools, hospitals and the fight against AIDS.

The Bush administration dealt Kenya a major blow last month when it excluded the East African nation from a list of 16 developing countries to receive $1 billion in aid this year. U.S. officials selected the countries based on their records of good governance and measures taken against corruption.

Already, there are doubts that the Kenyan government's efforts to fight corruption will reap positive results. The pay increase "doesn't help anything," said Sylvester Otis, a 25-year-old food vendor, who said officers still take bribes from him. "These people are bogus."

Peter Mwangi, 27, who runs an electronics shop, said police still barge into his shop and threaten to confiscate his goods if he doesn't pay them off. For Mwangi, the bribes have ranged from about 25 cents to $2.60.

Jesse Mituki, deputy police spokesman at Nairobi headquarters, said corruption afflicts Kenyan society, not just the police force. "It will take the society to fight corruption and not only the police," he said.

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