What war on graft? The one overseen by a tiny, incestuous, corrupt elite?

John Githongo is the CEO of Inuka Kenya Trust, a grassroots advocacy group aimed at creating an informed citizenry. He served as Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at World Vision International and Senior Associate Member at St Antony’s College Oxford, where he is still associated as a Senior Common Room Member. Between 2000 and 2003, he was Director of Transparency International-Berlin and Executive Director of Transparency International in Kenya. He also served as Permanent Secretary, Office of the President of Kenya, between 2003 and 2005, and was a nominee for the 2015 Allard Prize for International Integrity.


By Content Production Media

In February of 2005, you resigned as the Permanent Secretary in charge of Governance and Ethics and left for the UK. At that time, you said that whereas the government was preaching to the public how it was fighting corruption, the situation was actually getting worse. A day or two after US President Barrack Obama recently left the country; you said that corruption in the country is spiralling out of control. We are losing the fight, aren’t we?
Yes. My comment was that corruption is worse now than it has ever been. The recent report by Afrobarometer seems to confirm that the majority of Kenyans –64 per cent of those polled felt that corruption and impunity got worse last year, and that  we are the worst performing country in Africa in terms of governance – feel that the country is losing direction. To describe what Kenya is becoming as an authoritarian democracy with kleptocratic proclivities would be generous. Jubilee has successfully engineered for us a blow-dried kleptocracy; it is very articulate in using the language of democracy, sovereignty, etc., but is overseeing an unprecedented privatisation and criminalisation of the state.

First, because our economy has grown, there is more to steal. Second, scandals are reported continuously, from Chickengate, to NYS, to the Auditor-General’s findings, to the Standard Gauge Railway whose costing went up from 220 to over 300 billion shillings, the case of Lang’ata Primary School land, the opaque so-called security contracts, and so on.

Transparency International’s index and Afrobarometer’s latest impunity survey also depict us as sliding down the scale. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, wananchi, increasingly the private sector, civil society and even the President and elements of government itself, have complained about graft and “corruption cartels”. Last month, a new strategy to fight graft was launched, with the explanation that the one from 2006 had failed. It was the first time since their coming to power that the Jubilee government had referred to the largely discredited 2006 plan that was articulated before promulgation of the Constitution 2010. It’s very curious. We have in place the most corrupt government in Kenya’s history since we started trying to measure corruption, and they talk about it the most.

Between 2005 and 2015, the country has changed its leaders (the presidency and other public officers); we have even changed our system of governance.  How come the fight against corruption is failing? Are these offices so toxic that it does not matter who holds them?
Corruption, broadly defined as conflict of interest, is a tool of governance in and of itself in Kenya. Yes, we’ve changed the constitution, but keep in mind that the Chapter on Integrity was gutted prior to promulgation. This betrayed the overall attitude of the elite to these issues.

Kenyans have allowed political leaders to normalise corruption as something that’s integral to the conduct of our affairs. This has, in turn, created a condition of social inversion in Kenya – the corrupt who flaunt their wealth are celebrated and even elected to positions of authority; criminals and individuals whose past and current behaviour is characterized by scandal are enabled to rise in public life. Indeed, we go so far that public sector jobs which have oversight over large sums of public funds are described in the media as “juicy” or “plum” jobs – things to be eaten. All the metaphors used in regard to these positions are derived from the act of eating, or from food itself.

In most instances, dialogues on corruption often crucify the ruling elite, the rich and the powerful in Kenyan society. Isn’t it curious that ordinary citizens are only brought into the discourse when the devastating effects of corruption are discussed? Have they no other role to play in this dialogue?
They do, indeed, have a role to play. But corruption arrives to the poor majority of Kenyans as extortion – they are forced into a corrupt transaction. This partly explains the focus on leaders, who are supposed to set an example for others. Secondly, the sense of impunity and conspicuous consumption with regard to corruption among the elite means they are the most visible, larger-than-life manifestations of the malaise.

“We have in place the most corrupt government in Kenya’s history since we started trying to measure corruption, and they talk about it the most”

On tribal and class loyalties, you believe that it is these two notions that have entrenched corruption and greed in the country. If this is to be accepted as true, you surely must have an explanation as to how it came to be so…
Tribalism and corruption are two sides of the same coin in our society. Their grip on overall governance is the reason Kenya didn’t turn into a South Korea, a Malaysia or a Singapore. And given our current trajectory and the extent to which tribalism and corruption define governance, unless we change tack, Kenya will resemble Haiti in 20 years: volatile and ruled by a tiny, incestuous and corrupt elite.

Our tribesmen in public office work hard to convince themselves that they are stealing for “us” at the very worst. At the very best, when they are held to account, they cry wolf that thieves from the President and Deputy President’s communities seem to be getting a free pass while they are being hung out to dry. The tribe is used as the ultimate defence for corruption. It is highly effective in a context where political mobilisation is ultimately tribal. It is an ideology, a system applied carefully on us by leaders whose primary compunction is to steal.

The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, together with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, have been rendered nearly helpless in their fight against corruption. These two institutions have offered “token effort” in executing their mandates. What could be wrong with our anti-graft bodies?
Across Africa, the anti-graft institutions that were created starting in the late 1990s haven’t delivered as expected. We created them because the police, Attorney-General and Prosecutors offices were not investigating and prosecuting corruption. By creating anti-graft agencies, we sought to go round this problem. However, it created orphan institutions removed from the rest of officialdom. Partly because of this, they haven’t done well. We should be thinking of strengthening the institutions meant to deal with the problem in the first place – police, Attorney-General, Prosecutors, Judiciary…

To be specific, the office of the DPP has not secured any conviction against the public figures named in the dossier handed to Keriako Tobiko by President Uhuru Kenyatta. He – Tobiko – has been accused of selective prosecution among other things. A section of Jubilee allied politicians want him out of office. A section of Cord allied politicians are working in his defence. How much has political interference derailed the fight against corruption in Kenya?
The President’s action of throwing an incomplete draft Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) report on the state of their investigations into Parliament was self-destructive. It undermined the investigations, alerted those who were being investigated, allowing them to organise, and greatly undermined the EACC as an independent agency, which was made to look like a lapdog of the Executive. It fits the general pattern though.

In your experience, can you emphatically and positively say that the anti-corruption legislation in Kenya is adequate? b) Does it work?
Kenya has an overload of corruption legislation. Creation of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission is mandated by Article 79 of the Constitution. Our constitution reads like a rule book for a naughty boy since its spirit is one that assumes the elite is not only corrupt but will do all they can to avoid accountability.

Government is bent on rendering the civil society useless through the PBO Act. What role does Civil Society play in a democracy, and how will the strangling of ours affect Kenya’s progress/change the situation as it is?
Governments across the world are working hard to limit the freedom and political space civil society has to operate. According to the Carnegie Endowment’s research, over the last three years 60 governments have passed legislation to curtail the operations of NGOs generally; ninety-six governments have sought to limit the operations of NGOs generally.

They argue that this is because power has shifted away from the West to the East and increasingly from the North to the South. Liberal democracy and economics are increasingly challenged by new models – such as China’s – especially in the minds of elites who’ve managed to capture their democratic processes anyway.

Secondly, governments have woken up to the power of civil society to mobilise – it is most apparent in the Americas and Asia but we have incidents of it in Africa. Lastly, the so called “war against terror” has been the passing of legislation that undermined the freedom of civil society.  Until the Uhuru Kenyatta case at the ICC floundered, for example, Jubilee treated civil society as the real opposition in Kenya rather than political parties with which they are in competition.

Personal investment in causes such as this normally comes with trials and tribulations. What has the fight against corruption cost you?
You become associated with a single issue – corruption or anti-corruption – and people think you have all the answers. No single person has all the answers.

Do you wish you acted differently on February 7, 2005 when your resignation openly declared war on the corrupt and the establishment?
No. One wonders if Al Shabaab would have gained such a foothold in Kenya if the Anglo Leasing security contracts had not been the subject of so much predatory attention.

Corruption has in part cost us our security in large swathes of the country. It has helped bring terrorism into our capital city to the extent that you are searched as if you are going into an airport when one is merely going into a shopping mall. But Kenyans are resilient. We accept and move on.

The younger generation of Kenyans – teens and those in their twenties – what qualities would you want instilled in them if the fight against corruption is to be won in the future?
This younger generation is the most impatient when it comes to corruption. This is a good thing. They already exhibit one of the necessary qualities – a general scepticism of politicians, their pronouncements, political parties and officialdom. They are thus far more ruthless in demanding transparency even it this comes at a high price personally or nationally.

They are the digital generation and in this they have created an excellent new space in which to fight corruption that some of us are too old to use effectively. I think we should not be fearful to speak out. We have a fiercely rapacious regime in place that’s excellent at public relations, propaganda, lies and theft on a grand scale.

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