“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them,” said Karl Marx. The idea that members of parliament are part of the “oppressing class” and represent themselves not their constituents finds much support in the conduct of Kenya’s legislators at all levels. Their greed and prioritization of self-enrichment above all else and to the detriment of those they are meant to serve is legendary. Yet Parliament has also served as a forum for exposing and, if not exactly combating corruption, at least curtailing some of its more egregious manifestations.
A 2006 Case Study on the Role of Parliament in the Fight against Corruption: The Case of the Kenyan Parliament by Dr Fred Matiang'i, the current Cabinet Secretary for Information, Communication and Technology, traces the roots of corruption in Kenya to the colonial era. “The colonial government rarely understood the traditional African cultural practice of leaders’ entitlement to gifts and favors from their subjects. The measures it took in Kenya … smacked of abuse of power,” he writes. Yet it wasn’t until the sunset of British rule that the Legislative Council, the fore-runner to today’s Parliament, addressed corruption as an issue. In 1956, the Prevention of Corruption Act was passed. According Dr Matiang'i, “corruption became an issue in legislative affairs (albeit, in a superficial way).”
One would probably be excused for asking why it took half a century for the Council to discover corruption. A possible explanation could be found in the fact that for most of its history, the Council simply served as a rubber stamp for the colonial government. In this, it presaged the subservience of Parliament to the Executive that was to characterize much of independent Kenya’s history and to create room for the theft of national resources.
The period following independence saw two trends that were to exacerbate and entrench corruption in government and in the National Assembly. The recommendations of the 1971 Commission of Inquiry into the Public Service Structure and Remuneration allowed public officials, including MPs, to participate in private business which created a host of conflicts of interest by blurring of the lines between private and public spheres. Secondly, Parliament was progressively stripped of its powers of oversight over government and effectively cowed into silence.
As Dr Matiang'i notes: “An incestuous relationship would thus emerge between public service and private interests that would undermine any interest in integrity issues. Studies have shown, for instance, that there is a correlation between wealth and politics in Kenya. Those who play active and influential roles in politics are the well-to-do, or they become well-to-do by virtue of office.”
With their watchdog role compromised, the Parliamentary committee system ground to a halt and public service was transformed primarily into an avenue for personal enrichment and for the looting of public resources. Politics paid lip service to the poor but in reality excluded them and privileged the interests of the wealthy while increasing polarisation and conflict, and driving the honest and meritorious out of public life.
Following the return of multi-party politics, Parliament again begun to reassert itself but in a Jekyll and Hyde fashion. On the one hand, the National Assembly became an important forum for the exposure of mega corruption scandals. The two largest scams, Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing, were both brought to public attention by the tabling of documents in the House.
Further, Parliament established an Anti-Corruption Select Committee which was charged with identifying the causes, extent, and impact of corruption in Kenya as well as the key perpetrators and beneficiaries thereof. It was also to recommend sanctions against such individuals and recover the lost public property.
The Committee’s report showed that more than half of all tax revenue was misappropriated and its now-forgotten List of Shame not only implicated many in the governing elite, but set the trend for corruption-related “naming and shaming.” The current list of the corrupt compiled by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission follows in the tradition set by the Kombo Committee.
However, these lists rarely lead to serious prosecutions, let alone convictions. The revelations may generate sensational headlines and embarrassment for government officials, they do not, as a rule, result in punishment.
For all the money that Kenya has thrown at the problem of legislative independence, that has not necessarily translated into a more responsible and effective Parliament. If anything, perceptions of MPs personal integrity have worsened. A September 2005 nationwide survey revealed that more than 8 in 10 believed some, most or all MPs were corrupt. Legislators were second only to the police in perceptions about public corruption. A 2008 survey showed that less than half of the population had any meaningful trust in Parliament.
When it comes to punishing corruption, it is important that MPs are not allowed to hide behind their in-house processes. The scandal engulfing the Parliamentary Accounts Committee, for example, seems to be primarily dealt with by the Powers and Privileges Committee, a case of Parliament investigating itself. Neither the EACC nor the Office of Public Prosecutions nor the Police appear to have taken any interest. More importantly though, it is important that we reset the basis and objectives of our politics. It must become about finding solutions to our common problems rather than personal enrichment at the cost of everyone else.
This is an abridged version of an article to be published in the next issue of The Platform magazine