Is it possible to shame those who steal public funds? Uhuru’s mission impossible

Thursday January 10 2019

Hassan Wario

Former Kenya's Sports Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario at the Milimani courts in Nairobi, where he was charged with abuse of office. PHOTO | NMG 

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While on vacation in Mombasa, President Uhuru Kenyatta fielded questions from Kenyan journalists on a variety of issues. On housing, he explained his government’s proposals to facilitate home ownership by people in the low-income bracket.

He also sought to allay growing fears that Kenya’s public debt had reached unsustainable levels. The borrowed money, Kenyatta emphasised, went into activities that expanded the economy.

On health, he said his government was determined to extend health insurance cover to all across the country.

There were two issues about which he spoke at length and most passionately.

One is the now famous, or if you are William Ruto, infamous, handshake with Raila Odinga.

He singled out the acrimony and violence that followed every election cycle as the reason for Kenya lagging behind countries with which it was at par at Independence.

The handshake, now officially billed the “Building Bridges Initiative,” seeks to understand the underlying causes of the deep feelings of resentment and exclusion among many communities across the country. The president vehemently dismissed those seeing the handshake as a political gimmick by Raila Odinga.

The other point he dwelt on was his government’s fight against graft. He gave assurances that he was absolutely committed to seeing this fight to the end. In this fight, he reiterated, he did not have friends or relatives. You steal as an individual, Kenyatta said, and you will be prosecuted as an individual.

The president said his government had provided adequate resources to the institutions mandated with fighting graft. He asked the judiciary to also play its part to see that those who use public office to enrich themselves are punished.

It was reassuring to see the president’s commitment to this fight. There were fears that he would lose the political will to carry on the fight when some members of his governing coalition began to push the narrative that the fight against graft was persecution of one community.

Total war

In his first term, the president had watched as mega-corruption, last seen in the heyday of Kanu, made a grand return. No doubt there was corruption in the Kibaki administration, most notably the multimillion-dollar Anglo-Leasing scandal, and others in the maize, oil and education sectors.

But the scorched earth type of theft – money carried out of banks at night in gunny bags, blatant transfer of money from government to personal accounts, the grabbing of everything from school playing fields to just about anything moveable or unmovable – was last witnessed during Kanu rule.

The return of this kind of corruption was so pervasive and on such a spectacular scale that ambassadors to Kenya of a number of Western countries took the unprecedented step of jointly issuing a statement calling for steps to be taken.

The African Union, of course, was busy with more important matters than improving the welfare of the African people.

Now, since Uhuru Kenyatta has declared total war on corruption, then it truly must be total. This means not only capturing and prosecuting the thieves no matter their status, but also changing a culture that has taken root since Independence.

In our cultural context, wealth, even if ill-gotten, is a social and political asset. Now President Kenyatta must take steps to ensure that ill-gotten wealth becomes a social and political liability.

First, Mr President, stop transferring failed officials to other duty stations. There will not be a magical Saul-to-Paul transformation that will make these officials commit to using their offices to bring “the greatest good to the greatest number of people.”

Transferring incompetence is a form of corruption, because the Kenyan people are robbed of the potential of those offices.

Second, the political party you lead should disassociate itself from people charged with corruption or other offences. Raila, your handshake partner, and all other heads of parties should do the same. And if they fail to do so, their parties should be deemed rogue and sanctions applied to them including cessation of government funding.

Third, and most important, stop promoting or transferring people charged in courts of law with corruption to other state positions.

What message does it send when you say that you are fighting corruption and then retain people charged with theft in critical offices or make them ambassadors?

These and other actions should gradually give birth to a new culture in which thieves are ostracised socially and politically. Then we would be like countries where being associated with graft is cause of great personal shame.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based social and political commentator.