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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Kenya: Anti-Corruption on the Agenda

Africa Policy E-Journal
January 21, 2003 (030121)

Kenya: Anti-Corruption on the Agenda
(Reposted from sources cited below)

This posting contains excerpts from an interview with John Githongo, who was appointed on January 15 by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki as Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President in charge of Governance and Ethics. Mr. Githongo has been the executive director of Transparency International(TI)-Kenya, and a member of the global board of TI.

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Kibaki Has Two-Year Window To Tackle Kenya's Corruption And Deliver On Promises, Says Analyst

Interview with John Githongo

January 1, 2003

By Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Nairobi

[Reposted with permission. Excerpts only: see full interview at]

Corruption, and the battle to curb it, was the oft-repeated election campaign message of both Kenya's new president, Mwai Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), and of the man he beat to the top job, Uhuru Kenyatta, the candidate of the outgoing governing Kenya African National Union (Kanu). ...

John Githongo, a political analyst and former journalist, is currently the executive director of Transparency International, Kenya, a watchdog organisation that monitors levels of corruption in and out of government.

In the run up to Kenya's general election on 27 December, Marianne Kihlberg of Swedish Broadcasting and's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton caught up with Githongo for his predictions on what the outcome would be. He correctly forecast a sweeping victory for Kibaki and Narc in the voting, which has been declared orderly, free and fair by observers.

Githongo also explored the pressing issue of corruption in Kenya, its origins, impact and implications. He again rightly predicted that corruption, and how to fight it, would dominate the initial utterances of the new administration in Kenya.

Q: How would you assess corruption in Kenya?

A: Corruption in Kenya is systemic, it's endemic. It affects every institution. And at the lowest levels, the simplest corruption is not seen as wrong in the eyes of most Kenyans. They don't see it as being that much of a problem. That is the petty corruption, which takes place at low levels involving small amounts of money.

Grand corruption, which usually involves kickbacks in public works' contracts and that kind of thing, is still very prevalent and is a major problem.

The third type of corruption is particularly prevalent in countries that are undergoing political and economic transition - we call it looting here. It is a type of corruption which is politically driven, in many parts of Africa. It is used to finance militias. It is used to finance elections and competitive politics - that kind of corruption has declined in Kenya. But still Kenya remains in the bottom 10 percent of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI), always has. That persists which seems to show that, at least in terms of perception, Kenya is one of the world's most corrupt countries.

Q: Give us an example of the three types of corruption you've mentioned.

A: The petty corruption you will see on the side of the road. If you drive out of here, ask your driver to take you up the Ngong Road, stop there for half an hour and you will see a lot of it, because the police have a roadblock there and they are taking money from every public service vehicle that passes by. That's quite common.

Grand corruption usually involves the government purchasing goods and services at an inflated price, because some of the money is going into the pockets of senior officials - either political or bureaucratic. We have a study called "Public Goods, Private Purposes," which details the way it happens, how grand corruption works.

The third type of corruption, which we saw a bit of in Kenya particularly in the early 1990s and which Mobutu made famous in Zaire, is where the political leadership of a country becomes delinquent with a country's resources and uses them as personal resources, usually for political purposes to keep themselves in power. That destroys all the institutions.

In grand corruption, a service is still delivered. So, if a kickback has been paid to build the road you just drove on, on the way here, the road is still there, it's just that you are paying what you should not be paying for it.

In the looting type of corruption, no goods and no service are delivered. Money is paid, but nothing is delivered for it. This is very premeditated. What it does is really undermine the main institutions of any country. It causes increased money supply, exchange rate falls, banks collapse and it has the effect of undermining the very institutions on which it itself is dependent. So, it's very cannibalistic.

In a country where you have that type of corruption, the main government institutions are deteriorating steadily.

Q: But does Kenya fall into that category?

A: Kenya fell into that category briefly in the early 1990s, when we first went into multiparty politics. We had a series of scams that is now called 'Goldenburg,' where a lot of people were paid money for export compensation for exporting gold, ostensibly, which they never exported.

That could have set us back, the estimates vary, but about half a billion US dollars. Kenya's entire GDP is US$10bn. That's half a percentage. It's really an extraordinary amount of money. The economic effects of that scam are still being felt to this day in this country.

Q: How?

A: I'll give you an example. The 'Goldenburg' saga took place really from around 1991 into 1993. In late 1993, the government recognised that things were going wrong, inflation was over 100 percent and there was excess money supply and government had to pull all this money out of the economy. How did they do it? By raising interest rates on government securities, especially treasury bills.

What then happened is that the entire banking sector started buying treasury bills, instead of lending money to Kenyans, because it was much easier. At one point, they were earning 70 percent. So we had a huge amount of money which also came from overseas into Kenya. You bring money in, you earn 70 percent on that and you send it back.

It means a huge percentage, I can't remember the figure, 40 percent of government revenue goes to the paying of interest on debt. That is money that should be going into buying medicines for schools, books for school children and that kind of thing, but it's not doing any of that.

You can tell it if you go into our hospitals and schools, you can tell it. It goes back to 1994, so the impact of that was immediate in a very real sort of way, in practical things. It also affected the psychology of the Kenyan people, in that if a scam of that scale could be perpetrated by people who remained in power, and remained in positions of authority and public trust, it undermines people's faith in their own institutions.

Q: What about the looting type of corruption - has that ended in Kenya?

A: It has almost gone now, partly because of the work of the media, civil society, NGOs and the international community. The levels of vigilance are very high on this, so the government is not able to get away with it.

Q: How corrupt or how corruptible is the Kenyan?

A: That's a difficult question. We did a survey on this in 2001, called The Bribery Index, and we found that the people on whom corruption has the biggest impact, or the corruption that captures the imagination of the international community and international press is a scandal like 'Goldenburg,' involving hundreds of millions of US dollars.

But the most insidious and the most destructive type of corruption happening in Kenya is the low-level corruption, petty corruption, because it affects the poor and women most and our study found this. The less educated you are, the more likely you are to suffer it. And at that level, we are beginning to have a debate within our own organisation asking to what extent is it corruption? It is extortion.

The best example - and I always give it in the case of Nairobi, because it happens every day in the city centre in the evening - you have policemen walking about and many people going home and, if you don't have your national identity card, they say 'give us 100 shillings or 200 shillings'. If you don't have the money, then they arrest you.

And if you are arrested on Friday night, you will only be able to go to court on Monday morning. So it's hugely disproportionate punishment for not having this useless little bit of paper. And you can go into a Kenyan police cell for 48 hours. It's horrific for a young woman going home at 8 o'clock in the evening. That's very difficult choice.

Now if that individual pays 100 shillings to those police, to what extent is that corruption? It is a question we have been asking ourselves. Obviously a corrupt transaction has taken place, because a sanction has been avoided. But we are beginning to say: how do we deal with and how do we categorise this class of corruption where it's the poor, hawkers on the side of the street being chased around by City Council people?

It happens right in front of our building here. The only way to stop it happening is to give these people something, otherwise they'll beat you and confiscate your goods and that takes food away from the table for families.

So, how corruptible is the Kenyan is a question that has to be asked together with how weak and how poor is the Kenyan? Those questions go together. ...

Q: Have the institutions and mechanisms set up to combat corruption made any difference? Are they effective?

A: So far the different institutions and legal instruments that have been put in place to fight corruption, particularly since 1997 at the instance of the International Monetary Fund, have not been effective. Every time they seem to start becoming effective, some apparently very good reason for them not working is found. And then they stop working.

So, so far I would say that different instruments that have been there for fighting corruption have not actually work. What they have done, however, is raise public awareness about the fight against corruption which is important also. ...

The conclusion has been that a lot of what has been lacking to make these instruments work is political will. And I would tend to agree with that. The top leadership felt that if some of these instruments came into power, it would affect them.

The challenge now with the new government is that there will be an opportunity to implement some of these measures. ...

Our experience at Transparency International, and we have about 30 chapters across Africa, our experience is that, regardless of who takes over, whenever you have a major transition and especially when the incumbent who is leaving power has been in power for a long period of time - and when patronage elites have consolidated around this leader for a long period of time - that when that leader goes, you have a window of opportunity that lasts about 24 months.

It doesn't matter who takes over. They are going to be anti-corruption. I can almost write their speeches. It doesn't matter who wins. Corruption is going to be number one. It is the same across Africa. Even when you have coups in Africa, where you have the former presidents being taken to a peace and shot, people will say it was because this person was corrupt.

So, the new president is going to be anti-corruption.

Q: And after that 24-month grace period even if the person in charge appears sincere?

A: I think this is the lesson of Kenya and the lesson for all of us in Africa. Will he be sincere is not only dependent on him and the people around him but on us, as Kenyans. Kenyan civil society, Kenyan media and Kenyan people - we have to keep them sincere. They are going to make promises; it is our duty to hold them to those promises. It's our duty to keep on putting pressure. ...

So the sincerity of politicians . . . I say the anti-corruption spirit lasts for 24 months and that goes for Kenya, for Ghana, it's the same 24 months in the UK, where the prime minister Tony Blair came in saying that he wanted to remove Conservative (party) sleaze. After a few years, things start happening and people start to see some of the old sleaze coming back.

Politicians are politicians. The strength of civil societies and other institutions and key government institutions like parliament and the judiciary and that kind of thing are absolutely essential to maintaining this sincerity.

If we sit back and wait for a president and a group of politicians running Kenya to be sincere about the fight against corruption, we shall be disappointed! ...

And now the great thing is that, even in the last days of the Moi government, senior officials in his government came to us for advice, many times, quietly. They didn't want to be seen to be doing it publicly, but it was positive. There is still a bit of nervousness and tension, but I think Kenya is a different country in that respect.

Q: What advice?

A: Advice on anti-corruption measures that they were thinking of implementing, anti-corruption laws that the government was working on. I will give one good example, because it's public knowledge now. The attorney-general's office came to us and said listen, we are drafting an anti-corruption law, we have been instructed by the cabinet to do that. So, we rustled up some of our experts internationally who looked at this law and gave a commentary to the government.

They didn't take all our suggestions and comments on board, but I think that kind of relationship - of using the expertise of a global network such as Transparency International - is a very good thing. ...

Q: So will we see a cleaner and more transparent Kenya in the future?

A: I think we will definitely see a more transparent Kenya. The irony is that it might not initially be cleaner, because cleaning up takes time. What's going to happen is that corrupt networks and systems are going to be disrupted and disorientated. It's temporary.

The president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a former chairman of Transparency International's Advisory Council. Look at the kind of difficulties he's having dealing with corruption in his own country.

So, the corruption networks will try to reorganise themselves in the new year. It takes them about 18 months, during which time they buy lunch for so and so and their contracts can be sorted and then these relationships start to consolidate. But I think it will be more transparent, simply by the nature of the opening up of democratic space.

The new leader of Kenya won't have the myth of the 'Big Man' that Moi carried with him, that inspired a kind of fear and awe which was efficient at keeping secrets. That's gone. Moi's successor won't have that same myth around him. So, Kenya will be more transparent. Will it be cleaner is a different question.

It's one thing being more transparent, so the press will be reporting these horror stories every day - a bit like Zambia and Malawi in that respect - but I think that Kenya will be more transparent. We have a fairly strong civil society and very, very good media. The private sector is now getting more and more unhappy about corruption, so I think there is an opportunity for a cleaner government as well.

And I think there is a feeling that it is not really possible to have a government that is dirtier than the Moi government, in that it has been fairly special. Some of the scams and deals that have been perpetrated and are in all these reports are quite mind-boggling, in terms of the complications that people have had to subject their minds to, to cook them up.

But I would say that I'm optimistic. We have had ten years of multiparty democracy, very imperfect multiparty democracy. The economy has done badly in those years. Our economy has not recovered from the political competition of 1991.

It is a question for the whole of Africa. Who pays for democracy? We talk about democracy and multiparty politics. But who is paying for it? Who paid for all these candidates to drive around the whole country and to hire helicopters during the campaign? Who pays for this, who pays for democracy?

And I believe this is the same in all societies. These are where the big problems of conflict of interest and corruption in political systems start. And it starts in the United States, it starts right there. You have lobby groups and hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into the campaigns of different politicians. Even Tony Blair has had difficulties with it in the UK. Chancellor Helmut Kohl had problems with it in Germany.

How do we pay for democracy?

So these questions that we are asking ourselves here in Kenya and across the border in Tanzania, are important global questions now. We are not just talking about the looting of roads, we are now talking about things at a higher level.

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Date distributed (ymd): 030121
Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +economy/development+

The Africa Action E-Journal is a free information service provided by Africa Action, including both original commentary and reposted documents. Africa Action provides this information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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