Will Kenya's Attempt To Root Out Graft Take Hold?

The mayor of Nairobi, Geoffrey Majiwa, was in court on Oct. 26 to face charges of fraud.

hide captionThe mayor of Nairobi, Geoffrey Majiwa (center), was in court Oct. 26 to face charges of fraud over the purchase of land to serve as a new cemetery for the Kenyan capital. Majiwa was arrested by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission.

Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Corruption has crippled much of Africa, and it has cost few countries more potential than Kenya.

Kenyan investigators are trying to change that.

In just the past few weeks, police have arrested the mayor of Nairobi over an alleged land fraud involving a city cemetery, and two cabinet ministers have been forced to step aside because of other suspicious property deals.

Kenyans are glad to see some accountability, but they wonder if it will last.

The cemetery deal is numbingly familiar to most Kenyans. The city paid $3.5 million for 120 acres of parched, windswept grassland down a nearly impassable dirt road well south of Nairobi. Patrick Lumumba, head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, says the land is worth several times less than what the government paid.

Even worse, if you dig down 2 or 3 feet, you hit bedrock. In other words, there's no room to actually bury people there.

Lumumba, who is leading the investigation into the cemetery deal, says there's more energy to fight corruption these days. For one thing, Kenya has a brand new constitution that provides more checks and balances and makes it easier to go after dirty officials in what for decades had been a one-party state. For another, taxpayers are just sick of being ripped off.

"People are getting angry, and people are saying if we don't rid this scourge from our midst, we are done," Lumumba says.

Kenyans say corruption has cost their country dearly over the years. Kickbacks and graft have resulted in poorly constructed roads, shoddy buildings and a massive loss of government money. Corruption and the government's notorious bureaucracy have scared off foreign investors from a country that has been mostly stable and boasts white sand beaches and some of the best wildlife on the continent.

"Today, I dare say we would be in the same class as South Korea, Malaysia and the other Asian tigers if we'd proceeded on the course we were following in the mid-'60s," Lumumba says.

Francis Macharia, a Nairobi businessman, says corruption is part of daily life in Kenya. Take the police, who loom by the side of the roads, sometimes pulling people over for no reason other than to shake them down.

"You go to any police station right now, there is a 'Corruption Free Zone' poster on it. And — please — how much money is exchanging hands there?" Macharia says. "I have cops who live in a much better house than I do, and their salary is, what, $500?"

But Macharia is encouraged by the recent crackdown.

"If you look at what is happening in the courts this year, it's really improved," he says. "If this is an indication of where things are going, corruption will be a thing of the past in the next couple of years."

Still, not everyone is nearly so optimistic.

Carol Asuko, a travel consultant, is a skeptic when it comes to anti-corruption campaigns. She says Kenya goes through phases.

"There is a time when everyone is out saying no more corruption and we are arresting people," she says. Then — after a flurry of activity — cases languish in court, the accused go free and the public loses interest.

"We only hope this is not a phase anymore, that this is going to be a way of life," Asuko says. "If you're touched by scandal, you have to step down and let investigations take place."

Is Asuko convinced that Kenya is turning a corner?

She laughs and shakes her head: "I hate to say this, but I have a feeling that we will go back to normal."

And normal is not good.

Last week, the global watchdog group Transparency International released its annual ranking of countries based on public perception of corruption.

Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore tied for first place. Kenya was 156 out of 178 countries. In other words, it has a long way to go.

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