I was recently asked about my views on the current fight against corruption. I chose to use Martin Luther King’s euphemism that we are just having a high blood pressure of words but an anaemia of deeds.
To give the proper context of where I am coming from, last year I was invited to speak to visiting MBA students from the University of Pennsylvania on the management of the Kenyan economy in relation to corruption and governance. I took the students through Kenya’s entrenched system of institutional corruption, pervasive bureaucratic manipulation and corrosive politics of patronage since pre-independence.
The colonial regime buttressed its empire by giving colonial chiefs and home guards, their two loyal forces, the freehold to exploit public resources so as to provide them with the needed base to occupy the country’s economic and political apex.
Come the independence period, those who joined high-ranking government positions were members of the colonial loyal force (sons and daughters of colonial chiefs and home guards) who then enjoyed unfettered access to state power and public resources. And Kenya’s post-independence transition ended up in crony capitalism and state capture. This is something Kenya continues to struggle with to-date. Two years ago, former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga in an interview with Africa Arguments described Kenya as a “bandit economy” and those who wish to liberate it from its power-thirsty ruling elite and corrupt cartels have to pay a heavy price.
After my presentation, one student commented that what I had described was reminiscent of DR Congo under Mobutu Sese Seko where the ruling elite spoiled themselves rich with public resources - public and private resources were one and the same to them.
Now, when you have a country where millions of taxpayers’ money are directly used to pay for the private education of the kin of a top public servant abroad; or when ‘the government floats a $2.75 billion Eurobond at the Irish Stock Exchange and the money is deposited and spent from a mysterious offshore account whose signatories are unknown; or a procurement fraud of a dam construction project where companies supply towels and carpets worth millions instead of construction materials; or a top public servant admitting that he grabbed public land and built a hotel but he is instead asked to buy the land, you have little moral authority to challenge that analogy.
So, against this historical backdrop, unless we start pushing for institutional reforms against crony capitalism and endemic corruption because accountability is a property of institutional structures, all this paper-tiger talk about a renewed fight against corruption is just smoke and mirrors.
The first reforms that I have religiously pushed for is the need to address the issue of conflict of interest within government, public servants placing personal interest ahead of public interest. At least this systemic problem has been acknowledged by the President and has directed the Office of the Attorney-General to draft a law that will address this issue. So we can only hope that this will come to fruition.
Second is the need to revise Section 32 of the Public Audit Act, which implies that the Auditor-General’s report becomes official only after it’s published by Parliament or relevant county assembly. This creates an unnecessary bureaucracy when it comes to the proactive fight against corruption. Parliament always slacks in publishing them therefore government agencies like the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) or the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) cannot use these reports.
Third, one of the other grievances floated is the lack of prosecutorial powers by the Office of the Auditor-General to stem financial misconduct and impropriety.
Though it would be ill-informed to give the Auditor-General prosecutorial powers, one of the institutional reforms that can be considered is the merging of that office with that of the EACC so that there is real time and proactive intervention in stemming cases of graft or abuse of office.