Nairobi, Kenya – Bus driver Peter Mwathi pulls some dirty bank notes from his shirt pocket and slides them into the hand of a policeman who has pulled him over.
An untrained eye would have missed the transaction, which looks like a friendly handshake, but Kenyans are used to kickbacks and bribes. A few passengers murmur and grumble.
“We call it something small,” Peter said minutes after the payment, one of many he makes each week to Kenya’s notoriously corrupt traffic police as he inches his way across Nairobi’s congested, potholed, city streets.
‘Corruption will cease to be a way of life in Kenya’
For Kenyans, corruption is proving a hard habit to kick.
Three years ago Kenya’s fight against graft caught the public’s imagination, when passengers on a city bus turned on police officers trying to solicit a bribe.
Days earlier, amid the euphoria of his historic election victory, newly elected President Mwai Kibaki declared, “corruption will cease to be a way of life in Kenya.”
But instead of being a model for change that many had hoped for, his beleaguered administration is now dogged by the same kinds of scandals that characterised the 24 year presidency of his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi.
Kibaki, formerly Kenya’s longest serving finance minister and Moi’s vice president for a decade, stands accused of paying lip service to the war on graft he promised.
‘We call it something small’
“The government has not delivered on its corruption promises,” said Mwalimu Mati, executive director of the Kenyan chapter of the anti-corruption group Transparency International.”
“The problem is that the example of corruption has been set by those at the top and they are protecting a system that serves them at the expense of the man on the street.”
Business leaders estimate kickbacks are costing the east African nation $3,5-billion (about R21-billion) a year, money that could easily be directed to roads, education, water and health care and that dwarfs the $500-million (about R3,1- billion) in foreign aid Kenya receives each year.
Kibaki’s administration began well enough.
One of his first acts was to re-establish the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission.
Yet longtime anti-corruption campaigner John Githongo, appointed as ombudsman to investigate, quit last February in protest at government inaction to prosecute those accused of graft. He now lives in exile in the UK.
“The war on corruption will only be won once a powerful and unequivocal message is consistently sent to Kenyans that corruption does not pay,” said Aram Mbui, the chairperson of the Federation of Kenya Employers which represents more than 2 500 companies.
“To put it bluntly, what we really need to see is some blood on the floor.”
The government insists it is taking action with 150 anti-corruption cases before the courts.
The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission insist blood is being spilled but they need more investigators to probe the complex web of grand corruption.
“We are winning the war on corruption but sometimes the process is slow because we have to be extremely thorough,” said the country’s anti-graft director, Aaron Ringera.
“The public have a perception that nothing has changed but this is just a perception.”
Three of Kibaki’s ministers have resigned, one over Kenya’s biggest financial scandal known as Goldenberg, when at least $400-million (about R2,5-billion) was lost from state coffers during Moi’s rule in the 1990s.
And although five former top officials have been charged with fraud and theft as part of the Goldenberg probe – including the country’s ex-spy chief and former Central Bank Governor – no one has ever been convicted for graft.
Two other ministers quit over another scandal involving an estimated $200-million in security contracts with a fictional company called Anglo Leasing.
All insist they are innocent.
The Institute of Economic Affairs says parliament needs more powers to properly scrutinise public funds and how they are spent, citing government borrowing on some security contracts at nearly 28 percent in annual interest rates – four times the prevailing interest at the time.
Peter Mwathi’s bus route takes him through the heart of Nairobi, a sprawling city home to some of Africa’s largest slums with sewage-flooded alleys and rusting iron roofs. Mounds of rubbish litter the road, making rich pickings for rats and the circling Marabou storks that pepper the sky.
He estimates that during the last three years he has paid $600 in kickbacks, a sizable chunk of his annual $1,200 salary.
Among potential charges he has faced are playing his music too loud, overcrowding and putting too many stickers on the windshield.
A bribe, he says, saves him from a protracted court case and the potentially greater loss of time earning his salary.
“For a while when Kibaki got in, the police stopped taking money from us, but gradually it has come back,” he says from behind the wheel of his garishly painted bus.
“Now the police are more discreet because of the fear of being caught, but all that means is we have to pay a bit more. The price for us has gone up.”