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One Kenyan's online crusade against corruption

Bribery for government services is so pervasive that Anthony Ragui started a website to let people report instances. The goal: Empower them to say no.

October 15, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Kenyan protesters confront a police officer in Nairobi during a demonstration over parliamentary wages.
Kenyan protesters confront a police officer in Nairobi during a demonstration… (Dai Kurokawa, European…)

NAIROBI, Kenya — The euphemisms for bribery in Kenya are as quaint and unthreatening as an honest policeman's smile: "something small," "facilitate," "do the necessary," "tea money."

All those something smalls, however, add up to something large, according to Anthony Ragui, a Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner whose website, ipaidabribe.or.ke, tracks self-reported bribes in Kenya. Since going online in December, the site has reported respondents shelling out more than half a million dollars, mainly to police and other government officials.

"I'm not stupid enough to think I can change the world in one day. But I said, 'What can I do to make a difference?'" Ragui says, explaining why he started the website.

Police are the worst, according to raw data submitted to the site and other corruption surveys. But the most surprising insight, says Ragui, is not the pervasiveness of bribery for government service, whether it is obtaining a birth certificate or securing a government contract.

Instead, it is the fact that somewhere in Nairobi there really is an honest cop.

"Honestly, I was in utter shock. That degree of courtesy and politeness was too much," wrote a Kenyan motorist on the website, after being caught behind the wheels of an uninsured car without a driver's license in June. After the policeman patiently admonished him without asking for cash, he asked the officer what made him different from all the others.

"I love my job," the policeman replied, adding that he'd recently gotten a raise. The humbled driver said he went out and paid his insurance the next day.

The website allows Kenyans to report bribes as they are demanded, via cellphone text messages.

"It's very empowering if you can go to an office and tell someone, 'I'm going to report you for corruption,' and you can do it automatically on your cellphone," Ragui says. The names of alleged bribe takers are not posted on the Internet so as to avoid people unfairly smearing their enemies.

Ragui's site contains heartbreaking stories of ordinary Kenyans, many of them in dire poverty, including a girl who applied for a scholarship and was told she would get it only if she agreed to have sex with an official.

"Those stories are painful for me," Ragui says. "I wish I could help this person.

"As much as it's difficult and challenging, it's the stories of Kenyans all over the country that keep me going. Taking the step of talking about a bribe is a huge step."

The aim of the website, as much as exposing the extent of corruption, is to empower people to say no.

"Not me, not ever," one Kenyan headlined his account of how he was promised his passport in two days for $190, equivalent to the cost of three months of school for his daughter. When he refused, the passport official looked dumbfounded.

"I honestly think that his 'clientele' is only too willing to pay him off, which says a lot about the state of the country and morals. We are always so ready to pay bribes," the man wrote. "I can simply wait. I just told the gentleman, 'No thanks,' and left. I know that my passport will be delayed, but that's all right."

"You just need to be assertive," another Kenyan declared on the site.

But not paying a bribe for a road contract, one Nakuru businessman reported, isn't easy when it hurts your business and your family:

"Saying no to paying a bribe when you are really desperate and need a contract is hard. It has caused tension between my wife and I, and with my partners. I guess I am idealistic. My wife will cool off and my partner can as well open a new business. I am not paying a bribe."

Like every Kenyan, Ragui has experienced corruption. When he was young, his father was falsely accused and arrested after an enemy bribed the prosecutor.

"Here you are, this young boy, and you see your father in the police cells, and it's very uncomfortable. I felt powerless. You can't do anything about it." The lawyer who advised the family to pay the prosecutor a bribe is now a judge.

Then, when he was 20, Ragui needed a passport. The bribe was 10,000 shillings, "a ridiculous amount of money" at the time, he says.

"I said, 'Why is this happening? Why do we have to pay for services the government should provide?' "

A key trigger for corruption is the long bureaucratic delay to get a document, license, permit or service. Digitalizing government departments would shorten the process and cut opportunities for corruption, he says.

"I don't believe you can change human nature. But if you can change the processes and the systems, you will be able to make a difference."

Ragui studied at UC Berkeley and came back fired up with idealism, only to find a generation of Kenyans had embraced Facebook, where government corruption was the hot topic.

"People would be complaining about corruption, but nobody did anything about it. I said, 'Why are we chattering about this and nobody does anything about it?' I deleted my Facebook account."

Instead he set up the anti-corruption site, based on a similar enterprise in India, and plowed his own money in to develop it.

"It's cost me $20,000, because it's something I believe in," he said.

Of course, to set up as a nongovernmental organization (in order to qualify for funding from international aid organizations), he needs a special government license.

That's a process that will take almost a year.

Unless…

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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