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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The terrorist attack this September at Nairobi's Westgate Mall was shocking - first, for the violence carried out by Islamist gunmen against innocent shoppers; and then for the video evidence, released a month later, that showed security forces looting the mall when they were meant to be liberating it.

And this is a window into a broader problem in Kenya. NPR's Gregory Warner reports that police corruption is a major challenge in the country not only because of who's in the police force, but who isn't.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: James Kusimba remembers the exact day he hit the glass ceiling. It was June of 1996. He'd been in the elite Kenyan Special Forces for six years. He'd served in the even more elite Kenyan Presidential Guard. But he was still making the equivalent of $87 a month. So he applied for a course to become a sergeant and earn more money.

JAMES KUSIMBA: I answered all the questions that were put to me, and I answered all of them correctly. But I was not successful for a promotion.

WARNER: James did not score high enough to take the sergeant's course, but he was tapped to teach that course the following term - to teach the very material he supposedly wasn't ready to learn. The same thing happened the following year, and the next year and the next.

KUSIMBA: I still was called upon to train the people who had qualified. But, of course, I was not qualified to attend. So over time, I got disillusioned and decided to look around again. That's how I left the police force. Yeah.

WARNER: James turned in his badge in 2004. He's now a security officer for DHL, the shipping company. His salary now is more than three times that of a Kenyan police sergeant, the rank he never attained. And you'd think he'd be happier about that, but he still feels like he missed his calling as a cop.

KUSIMBA: It was very difficult for people coming from some regions to get a breakthrough - and get promoted to senior ranks.

WARNER: His was the wrong region, the wrong tribe, the wrong last name. And while you hear a lot of talk in Africa about a culture of impunity - this allows bad behavior to go unpunished - talking to James and other former cops, I heard the flip side of that story: Good behavior goes unrewarded. And this drives many ambitious, would-be civil servants to quit.

GEORGE MUSAMALI: Because that frustration.

WARNER: George Musamali is another ex-cop. He now runs his own security company.

MUSAMALI: Poor pay, nepotism, promotions that do not come on merit. You see, all that kind of rot makes people get frustrated, and they leave the force.

WARNER: There's a local expression for this sense of frustration and uncertainty.

MUSAMALI: They say here, we feel like we are a drunkard's cockerel.

WARNER: A drunkard's rooster, we would say, because remember, the rooster - or the cockerel - it's the most valuable chicken in the coop. But when the drunkard, who controls these chickens' fates, comes home sloshed and starving, anyone's neck could go on the block, even the rooster's.

MUSAMALI: So people in the service are feeling like a drunkard's cockerel, quite unsure of themselves. They don't know what will happen tomorrow. Will I be in service, or will I have been kicked out? And not because I'm incompetent; because somebody, somewhere, for political reasons, feels uncomfortable working with me.

WARNER: When you can't plan for tomorrow, he says, you grab whatever you can today. This shortsightedness, he says, has been corroding Kenya's security forces for years. It was exposed to the world when footage from the Westgate Mall seemed to show Kenyan soldiers looting cellphones and cash from the very stores they were supposed to be protecting. Kenya's top officials have now vowed to root out corruption. They've even promised a pay raise. But current and former security officials I've spoken to say that real reform means putting aside entrenched tribal politics, and reversing a longstanding brain drain. That'll take more than just punishing a few cops for instances of bad behavior. It means starting to reward individuals when there's work well done.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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