Friday, April 24, 2015

The Leadership Is The Problem. Not Kenyans.

The death of Lee Kuan Yew, architect of Singapore’s rise from a corrupt economic backwater to one of the globe’s most prosperous and clean societies will undoubtedly spark debate across the world on the lessons that can be drawn from his successful efforts to eliminate corruption. Across Africa, he has been lionised and some, particularly Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame, have sought to replicate his autocratic methods with varying degrees of success.

In Kenya, which is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt nations on earth, many have pined for a benevolent dictator in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew. The argument has been advanced that the country’s myriad security and economic problems cannot be addressed in the context of a free-wheeling liberal democracy. President Uhuru Kenyatta regularly proclaims his administration’s need to be freed from the constraints of constant political competition in order to focus on the imperatives of development and economic growth.

However, this misses the crucial lesson from Singapore. It is true that Lee Kuan Yew brooked little dissent and that his rule was characterised by a clampdown on political freedoms as well as harsh social controls. It is equally true that he ruled for an inordinately long time, turned Singapore into a de facto one party state and that his family, especially his children, have done pretty well for themselves: one son is the current prime minister, another heads the Civil Aviation Authority and his a daughter is the director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

But in this, Singapore is not very different from, Kenya and much of Africa, which have similarly experienced the diminution of civil and political freedoms though these have tended to entrench, not alleviate poverty and the looting of state resources. The crucial difference is not that Singapore was a dictatorship and Kenya wasn’t. It was in the quality of the leadership. Simply put, Lee Kuan Yew walked the talk on corruption. Where he eschewed graft and actively worked to prevent the capture of the state for the benefit of a corrupt elite, successive Kenyan presidents have used the state as a means to enriching themselves, their families and rewarding their cronies.

Compare the records of the two countries’ anti-corruption agencies. Lee Kuan Yew inherited the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau from the British and transformed it into a formidable graft-fighting watchdog which has taken scalps among high ranking government officials including cabinet ministers. According to a 2013 study commissioned by the Prime Minister’s office, in the previous five years, the CPIB had on average opened 39 cases involving public officers each year with two-thirds resulting in prosecution or disciplinary proceedings.

By contrast, Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission has only prosecuted 22 cases in the last three years, a negligible fraction of the nearly 10,000 complaints it received. And it lost most of these, securing only 3 convictions. Further, in the last half century, despite the fact that dozens of investigative commissions have thrown light on hundreds of cases of corruption, not a single cabinet minister has ever been convicted.

Currently, Kenya is prosecuting 13 suspects, including two former Finance Ministers over the Anglo Leasing scam which cost the taxpayers nearly $1 billion in fictitious supply of security related equipment. However, given the government’s past record, few expect that this will result in convictions. A “list of shame” released in 2006 by then Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Martha Karua, had implicated at least 28 senior officials in the Mwai Kibaki and Daniel Arap Moi administrations including then Vice President, Moody Awori and current Deputy President, William Ruto. Further muddying the waters, the EACC and watchdog committees in Parliament today find themselves embroiled in allegations of taking bribes to cover up the involvement of senior administration officials and businessmen in the theft of public resources, including in the Anglo Leasing investigation.

The fact is while the Kenyan elite talks a good game, it has not demonstrated any interest in battling graft. They do not see the raison d’etre of the state as uplifting the lives of ordinary Kenyans but rather as a means of preying on them. Instead of fundamentally reforming the parasitic colonial system, the elite have instead sought to blame the victims, to convince Kenyans that they are the problem, their culture, their stupid and tribal politics, their willingness to pay bribes. In effect, the elite has argued that Kenyans are in fact stealing from themselves, impoverishing themselves and, in turn, scapegoating those in power.

 Lee Kuan Yew’s record against corruption is not a lesson in what authoritarianism can achieve and democracy can’t. If it were, African countries would head the corruption indices. It rather teaches that what matters is a genuine commitment within the leadership to eradicating the vice and to building systems that, to paraphrase the former Singaporean Minister for Home Affairs, Ong Pang Boon, "reduce opportunities for corruption, make its detection easier, deter those susceptible to it and severely punish those who engage in it".

In truth, Kenyans and Africans in general, are no more prone to corruption than are Singaporeans. Their leadership, however, is. And that is the problem.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The House of Graft

“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them,” said Karl Marx. The idea that members of parliament are part of the “oppressing class” and represent themselves not their constituents appears to find much support in the conduct of Kenya’s legislators at all levels. Their greed and prioritization of self-enrichment above all else and to the detriment of those they are meant to serve is legendary. Yet Parliament has also served as a forum for exposing and, if not exactly combating corruption, at least curtailing some of its more egregious manifestations.

A 2006 Case Study on the Role of Parliament in the Fight against Corruption: The Case of the Kenyan Parliament by Dr Fred Matiangi, the current Cabinet Secretary for Information, Communication and Technology, traces the roots of corruption in Kenya to the colonial era. “The colonial government rarely understood the traditional African cultural practice of leaders’ entitlement to gifts and favors from their subjects, the measures it took in Kenya … smacked of abuse of power,” he writes. Yet it wasn’t until the sunset of British rule that the Legislative Council, the fore-runner to today’s Parliament, addressed corruption as an issue. In 1956, the Prevention of Corruption Act, was, according Dr Matiangi, “corruption became an issue in legislative affairs (albeit, in a superficial way).”

One would probably be excused for asking why it took half a century for the Council to discover corruption. A possible explanation could be found in the fact that for most of its history, the Council simply served as a rubber stamp for the colonial government. In this, it presaged the subservience of Parliament to the Executive that was to characterize much of independent Kenya’s history and to create room for the theft of national resources.

The period following independence saw two trends that were to exacerbate and entrench corruption in government and in the National Assembly. The recommendations of the 1971 Commission of Inquiry into the Public Service Structure and Remuneration (also referred to as the “Ndegwa Commission” after its chairman, former Head of the Civil Service and later Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, Duncan Ndegwa) allowed public officials, including MPs, to participate in private business which created a host of conflicts of interest by blurring of the lines between private and public spheres. Secondly, Parliament was progressively stripped of its powers of oversight over government and effectively cowed into silence.

As Dr Matiangi notes: “An incestuous relationship would thus emerge between public service and private interests that would undermine any interest in integrity issues. Studies have shown, for instance, that there is a correlation between wealth and politics in Kenya. Those who play active and influential roles in politics are the well-to-do, or they become well-to-do by virtue of office.”

With their watchdog role compromised, the Parliamentary committee system ground to a halt and public service was transformed primarily into an avenue for personal enrichment and for the looting of public resources. Politics paid lip service to the poor but in reality excluded them and privileged the interests of the wealthy while increasing polarisation and conflict, and driving the honest and meritorious out of public life. MPs who dared to question this corruption of our politics, like George Anyona, Bildad Kaggia and JM Kariuki, were ostracised, detained and even murdered.

Following the return of multi-party politics in 1992, Parliament begun to reassert itself but in a Jekyll and Hide fashion. On the one hand, the National Assembly became an important forum for the exposure of mega-corruption scandals. The two largest scams, Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing, were both brought to public attention by the tabling of documents in the House. In 1993, Paul Muite and Anyang Nyongo blew the lid off the former after they received documents from Central Bank whistleblower, David Munyakei. Anglo Leasing was exposed when opposition MP, Maoka Maore, tabled documents showing that the Offices of the President, the Vice President, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Treasury were in the process of illegally procuring passport-issuing equipment, in which the country stood to lose about KSh 70 billion.

Further, in the wake of the Goldenberg revelations, Parliament established an Anti-Corruption Select Committee (or the “Kombo Committee,” as it is commonly referred to, after its Chairman, Musikari Kombo) which was charged with identifying the causes, extent, and impact of corruption in Kenya as well as the key perpetrators and beneficiaries thereof. It was also to recommend sanctions against such individuals and recover the lost public property.

The Kombo Committee represented the first attempt to unearth and document the scale of corruption in the country. Its report showed that more than half of all tax revenue was misappropriated and its now-forgotten List of Shame not only implicated many in the governing elite, but set the trend for corruption-related Parliamentary “naming and shaming.” The current list of the corrupt compiled by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, whose existence was revealed during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s State of the Nation address to Parliament, follows in the tradition set by the Kombo Committee as did the Anglo Leasing List of Shame unveiled a decade ago by then Justice Minister, Martha Karua.

However, another thing these lists have in common is that they rarely lead to serious prosecutions, let alone convictions. So even as Parliament continued to assert itself, its investigations of corruption generate sensational headlines and embarrassment for government officials, they do not, as a rule, result in punishment. In fact, sometimes Parliament has itself purported to clear suspects such as former Finance Ministers, George Saitoti in Goldenberg and David Mwiraria in Anglo Leasing.

Though much of the initial focus was on corruption in the executive branch which at the time admittedly included many MPs, the conduct of the entire legislature has also been firmly in the spotlight. One of the ways legislature was kept under control was via a deliberate policy of keeping MPs’ pay and benefits low. The President could offer opportunities to supplement this income via ministerial appointments and, by 1989, half the members elected to Parliament occupied ministerial positions, eroding the distinction between the holders of elective office and the administration.

As the Nyayo dictatorship begun to be rolled back, one of the first objectives of the MPs was to take control of their calendar as well as their remuneration. Changes which gave Parliament control of its calendar and budget were pioneered by Peter Oloo Aringo, a former government minister, at the end of the 90s. Ever since, raising salaries has been a great strategy to unite MPs and trump executive opposition. It is also a deeply unpopular strategy with the public who are wont to see MPs as greedy and unprincipled, insensitive to the plight of those whose taxes pay for their extravagance –a situation that is not helped by MPs’ reluctance to themselves pay tax.

Repeated salary hikes have multiplied MPs’ minimum pay by a factor of 10 to just over US$ 10,000. This in a country with a poverty rate of up to 42 percent outraged many in the Kenyan public who saw it as a form of corruption – the abuse of public office for personal gain. By 2013, Kenyan legislators were considered to be by far the best paid in the world relative to per capita GDP.

One reason for MPs constant obsession with their pay is that despite the introduction of devolved funds and county governments, MPs are still expected to contribute to their constituents’ expenses such as school fees and burial expenses. Thus their pay serves also as a resource for bribing voters.

In addition, as Parliament became more assertive, there was greater interest from businesses looking to influence policy or legislation. “No one lobbies a weak legislature, but as legislators’ authority over policies increases, so will attempts to influence them,” wrote Dr Matiangi. This led to the much-publicized “cash for questions” allegations, where MPs were alleged to be induced by cash rewards to ask particular questions in Parliament.

For all the money that Kenya has thrown at the problem of legislative independence, that freedom has not necessarily translated into a more responsible and effective Parliament. If anything, it has proven that one cannot buy integrity.

Perceptions of the MPs personal integrity have worsened. A September 2005 nationwide survey revealed that more than 8 in 10 believed some, most or all MPs were corrupt. Legislators were second only to the police in perceptions about public corruption. A 2008 survey showed that less than half of the population had any meaningful trust in Parliament.

In terms of legislative output, both quantitatively and qualitatively, it is questionable whether higher pay has improved MPs’ work ethic. In 2013, Alphonce Shiundu, outgoing chairman of the Kenya Parliamentary Journalists Association said that the trials of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto at the International Criminal Court, as well as a push to further enhance their pay –in the process ignoring public outrage and swatting aside attempts by the Salaries and Remunerations Commission to revise their terms- dominated the agenda of Parliament. “Their goal was to protect the interests that put them there,” he says. “If they were actually working for the people, their attention would be on different things like the Capital Markets Authority which has not had a chief executive for 18 months.”

The new constitution has gone some way to reducing the opportunities for Parliamentary graft. Dr Matiangi identified three ways in which MPs were vulnerable to corruption. First, as noted above, MPs who became ministers gain access to resources far beyond those of backbenchers, and the enticement to use them for personal and party purposes can be very great. Second, MPs’ control of their own pay as well as the Constituency Development Fund provided greater opportunities for corruption. And finally, Parliament’s core legislative and watchdog functions and its greater role in the national budget-making process, while healthy, also increase the likelihood that individuals and organizations will attempt to influence public policy by providing MPs with private benefits.

The first two have effectively been eliminated. MPs cannot join the Executive unless they first resign (as did Joseph Nkaissery), their pay is now determined by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission and a court has recently ruled CDF unconstitutional. However, as the scandals currently bedevilling several Parliamentary committees demonstrate, there are still opportunities for bent MPs to make a quick buck.

Dr Matiangi proposed “sunshine as the best antiseptic” and suggested opening up, not just plenary sessions, but committee meetings to the press and public. This would indeed be a great start. Laws on public disclosure of contributions and gifts would also help as would better resourcing of Parliamentary reporters to enable them sniff out and chase down graft. In keeping with the “sunshine as antiseptic” theme, Kenyans should also insist on amending the law to make declarations of wealth by public officials available for public inspection.

When it comes to punishing corruption, it is important that MPs are not allowed to hide behind their in-house processes. The scandal engulfing the Parliamentary Accounts Committee, for example, seems to be primarily dealt with by the Powers and Privileges Committee, a case of Parliament investigating itself. Neither the EACC nor the Office of Public Prosecutions nor the Police appear to have taken any interest. As a society, we must insist that MPs are held to the same standard as all other public officers.

More importantly though, it is important that we seek to reset the basis and objectives of our politics. It must become about finding solutions to our common problems rather than personal enrichment at the cost of everyone else. We should not only eliminate the opportunities for graft but also place integrity and the Kenyan people at the heart of public service. This will require that we reflect not just on our failure to reform the colonial history of corruption, but also on the policies and actions of the post-colonial governments that have entrenched the vice in our body politic.

Friday, April 10, 2015


“Kenya is not a nation if we can’t properly memorialize each and every citizen we lose” writes renowned Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Garissa University College which killed at least 148 people, there have been calls for Kenyans to name and remember those who have died, not just in this incident, but also in previous attacks and at the hands of the state.

The hashtag #147NotJustANumber has sprung up and is being widely used by Kenya’s active online community to commemorate the individual lives lost. It is a worthy and commendable effort, one that deserves the full support of all Kenyans. It is one that seeks to buck a long-standing tradition of official amnesia, especially when it comes to victims of state violence and neglect. In a very real sense, it is about ensuring that those in power are not allowed to play down or dismiss the consequences of their malfeasance.

Nearly two weeks ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed a joint session of the country’s Parliament and delivered an apology for his and previous administrations’ wrongs against Kenyan over the past half century. He also announced the setting up of a Ksh 10 billion fund to compensate victims. With that, he declared he had drawn a line under a shared painful past. He repeated this statement following the Garissa attack, adding that there was a false narrative “being propagated that Kenyan Somalis and Muslims are victims of marginalisation and oppression.”

As even a cursory reading of history -or a visit to Garissa- will demonstrate, the President was being disingenuous. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission found that there had been deliberate oppression and marginalisation of populations especially in the North-Eastern region of Kenya. And while the apology and fund were recommended by the TJRC report, which today languishes in Parliament, so was the memorialisation of victims as well as the prosecution of perpetrators.

It appears that by “drawing a line under a shared painful past” the President is attempting an erasure of sorts; to present a past with neither consequence nor culpability. While asserting the presence of victims who need to be compensated and assisted, he nonetheless denies their victimisation, that their circumstances are the result of that victimisation. He refuses to see them as individuals, to acknowledge their individual pain, to name them.

He does not, for example, see Hussein Farah Wachu, a survivor of the infamous November, 1980 Bulla Karatasi Massacre in which over 3000 nameless citizens in Garissa were killled by security forces in. Mr Wachu’s wife was subsequently murdered by an off-duty policeman in 1994, an incident for which he still waits for justice two decades later. Similarly, the President has said nothing about repealing the 1970 Indemnity Act, which illegally gave retroactive blanket immunity to all government personnel for crimes committed during the Shifta war, in which the lives of up to 7000 Kenyans were snuffed out, and during which the government herded the North Eastern population into concentration camps.

The President appears to imagine that some compensation will serve as a substitute for justice. And worse, that it will remove the need to confront this history, to acknowledge the many lives ruined and to punish those responsible.

By insisting on memorialising these victims, on uttering their names, Kenyans on Twitter are refusing to be railroaded into a superficial closure that leaves wounds festering underneath. They are insisting on seeing the victims as full human beings, not just as units to be bought off with the promise of compensation. They demand that the full horror of what happened is acknowledged, not just instrumentalized by a government looking to score some PR points. And this idea goes beyond naming just those who died. The myriads today living with the consequences of our history need to be seen and acknowledged as well.

Last week’s events in Garissa need to be understood as part of a history where the residents have been primary victims, not just of terrorists taking advantage of governmental neglect, but also of security forces responding to such attacks. We cannot wish away the fact that they, like many of their counterparts across the country, still have to endure the legacy of the last 50 years and beyond. Naming them, and seeing them, is the first step towards acknowledging and finally confronting this history. It will also be the first step in the process of cleaning out the foundations of our nationhood and establishing them on firmer ground.