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February 21, 2019

Kenya, It's Our Turn To Eat The Great Ugali

A tale is told of a lavish wedding somewhere in Kenya. The groom’s family prepared a feast massive enough to feed many hundreds of guests. The mountains of ugali were so gigantic that friends sitting on one side of a serving had to eat for several hours before, early in the evening, the chunk of ugali had receded enough for one to realise the other had been eating on the other side all along. Only then did they greet one another and celebrate the occasion having, as Idi Amin once put it, eaten until they were ‘fed up!’

The Jubilee government, its politicians, bureaucrats, courtiers and tenderprenuers, have embarked on a corruption-inspired feast that is without comparison in Kenyan history. It has gotten so blatant that bribes are solicited or extorted in broad daylight and at the bottom of the scale the sums are no longer in the hundreds but in the thousands of Shillings. Worse still social media and mainstream press report on so many allegedly ongoing scams it has had a numbing effect. The media is replete with scandals in almost all major government procurement projects. Meanwhile every effort is made to keep the biggest of the procurements secret from the Kenyan people. It is into the mire of this opacity that even the President and Deputy President’s names are dragged. The results are most apparent in the capital Nairobi, where a consumerist boom by a tiny middle class is underway.

Iconic institutions such as Kenya Airways and Uchumi Supermarkets have run into choppy waters that are alleged in the press to be corruption-related as well.  There is this feeling that anything goes and if you get caught its because your competitors arranged it or because you are not in the right books politically.

Over a month ago, a leading investor in a multibillion-shilling Tatu City Project, New Zealander Stephen Jennings of Rendeavour, took an unprecedented step. He did this while speaking with brutal frankness at one of the MindSpeak events hosted by local investment guru Aly Khan Sachu. The tale he narrated was of alleged criminal extortion by a former governor of the Central Bank and an icon of the private sector using the police, judiciary and immigration authorities. It was the most humiliating upbraiding by a foreign investor I have ever been embarrassed to witness. His most unsettling observation was that some of Kenya’s key governance institutions are more rotten than their counterparts in places synch as Russia, the DRC and Nigeria.

Last year Kenya slipped down the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index to the lowest level since the mid-1990s. Bloomberg Business carried a piece on May 26 that expressed the underlying discomfiture of the private sector with the government’s imploding anti-corruption fight. Generally speaking though, the feeding frenzy by all and sundry has made the business climate unpredictable and hostile to investors both local and international. The business community generally does not complain about corruption if it is consistent and predictable. But if they are confronted with a situation where everyone is shaking them down their ability to plan diminishes and the complaints rise exponentially. Kenya is fast acquiring a reputation as the best-endowed economy in the region in terms of human capacity but also the most chaotically corrupt. The morning Jennings addressed MindSpeak a gang of policemen and immigration officials had raided his offices in the middle of a board meeting.

Thus we’ve become a place where billionaire investors often leave State House inspired by presidential reassurances that their travails will be dealt with. They soon realise the President’s word means nothing in the face of a bureaucracy, police and other governance institutions that are in the process of criminalising.

Recent exposes with regard to contracting at the Devolution ministry are a case in point. For me the surprising thing was not that they emerged but that no one was really surprised. What Jubilee has created is an eating machine that is cannibalistically consuming state institutions and the very soul of Kenya. For even when the President rises to speak against corruption – as he does often with feeling and consistency – it's now clear that in all probability the red carpet he walks on, the cutlery he uses in State House, the vehicles he rides in – all include a slice for this or that ostensible ally of his; a percentage for this or that broker who has invoked his name. It is an invidious position to be in.

As a result of all this eating, institutions that are pillars of our democracy and society are being hollowed out – eg the security services, the national examinations system, the judiciary, the system that’s supposed to protect us from fake drugs and poisonous foods. It is the age of transparency despite attempts to silence ‘critics’. The truth leaks out of this most secretive of regimes more than any of its predecessors. All of it points to one truth that leaders would do well to heed: Kenyans are ‘fed up!’ Africans are a forgiving people. There is still time to make good lest this regime end up with the legacy of the regime that celebrated theft as enterprise; where conflict of interest was mistaken for business savvy; where Kenyans ceased being citizens and became robotic consumers.



John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. [email protected]


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