We all remember those emphatic statements by President Mwai Kibaki against corruption. We particularly remember his declaration during his swearing-in ceremony at Uhuru Park that there would be zero tolerance to corruption during his reign. Well, as it came to pass, Kibaki left behind a legacy of a president who, at best, condoned corruption among his friends and political allies.
At worst, his legacy was of a president who “ate” smartly, using a network of cronies and business partners. This is the fate and legacy that awaits President Uhuru Kenyatta. His experiences are unfolding uncannily similar to those of Kibaki and he may soon be on that slippery road that will see him become like Emilio; the head of a corrupt regime.
It is said the first people who went to Kibaki to tell him that his ministers were “eating” received a surprisingly hostile reception. He told them off and accused them of playing petty politics, “siasa ya kumalizana”.
You see, every president with a reform agenda comes to office with the self-deception that his sponsors, donors, subordinates and supporters share his vision and ambition to change the country. Kibaki deceived himself, as Uhuru is doing now, that the people around him have committed their lives and career to his political goals. Hence Kibaki’s anger, and more recently Uhuru’s, on realising that is not true.
The reality is bitter. And the reality is that most people support politicians to win elections with a clear agenda to use the politician to pursue their own interests in the same way that the politician uses them to achieve his political goals. The days of altruistic support of fellow human beings ended with the prophets. Today it is quid pro quo.
While dealing with this reality, Kibaki had to deal with the fact that he was living in a glass house. One of the first anti-corruption initiatives the Narc government had contemplated was regarding a public plot in Nairobi that had been allocated to a senior politician by the Kanu regime and had been sold to a leading state corporation. The politician asked that the scales of justice measure blindly. He alleged that Kibaki had been a beneficiary of a similar piece of land in the city which had been sold to a commercial bank.
Such issues kept getting in the way of Kibaki’s war against corruption. He couldn’t properly deal with the Anglo Leasing scandal as he himself was implicated in the financing of a fertiliser factory that was never built yet the taxpayer continued to repay the loan. The payments continued even as Kibaki was president.
In one way, the circumstances of Uhuru are already affecting his fight against corruption. While the average Kenyan would want to see anyone with a court case left out from public appointments, Uhuru would be the last person to fulfill such expectations. Like Kibaki, Uhuru is in some ways also living in a glass house.
A third challenge Uhuru shares with Kibaki is the political risks of fighting corruption. Many Kenyans never got to know that at some point in 2003/2004, the forces of corruption had decided to engineer a vote-of no- confidence against Kibaki’s government.
In order to convince MPs to do so, for at that time such a vote would have meant dissolution of Parliament and a fresh General Election, these forces had set aside enough money to pay each MP their full salary for the remaining term of the House and a campaign bonus to boot.
This threat had two effects. First, the Kibaki regime went slow on the corruption suspects of the Moi regime. The Goldenberg report, the Ndung’u report and the Kroll report were all shelved. After this, the anti-corruption drive became a joke and was left to presidential rhetoric and the pursuit of small fish.
The second effect it had was to make Kibaki’s chief lieutenants put the pursuit of wealth as a critical political objective. They said they needed money to fight back. They told their supporters that they needed to “do deals” so they could raise enough money to protect Kibaki. Hence the Anglo-Leasing deals and the clear approvals they enjoyed within Kibaki’s inner circles.
Uhuru might not be fighting a monied challenge, in any case he can possibly beat them a pound to their shilling, but the political war is already shaping up. The day the political repercussions of fighting corruption begin to threaten Uhuru’s throne, that might be the last you hear of an anti-corruption initiative at the highest levels.
Two last experiences that Kibaki had which may also become Uhuru’s reality: One is that, no one in Kenya fears the presidency any more. The President can huff, he can puff, but so long as he keeps his actions within the law, he scares very few people.
In countries where corruption is feared, the consequences are devastating. In China, they shoot you, and force your family to surrender the ill-gotten gains. When the Chinese government says it will go after corrupt people, everyone listens. In Kenya, when the President says he will punish corruption, the corrupt smile wryly and nudge each other knowingly. Because they know that nothing will happen.
Lastly, like Kibaki, Uhuru will wake up one day and realise that everyone around him has “eaten”. He may not be corrupt but his government will have become corrupt. Then he will have no choice than protect the guilty for, if they go down, so shall he.
But there are things the President can do to save himself from this legacy of corruption.
1. Trust no one. You are not Jesus or Mohammed and those surrounding you are not apostles and swahabas. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). No one is immune to temptation and any one can succumb.
2. As the Russians say, trust, yes, but verify. Keep everyone under check and let them know you are checking. And your checks must be in-deep and unapologetic.
3. Be a stickler to the rules. You cannot be everywhere and you can’t trust anyone. So rely on the rules and insist on them being followed. They are there to stop corruption. If they are not working well, tighten them. Don’t allow gaps like Government to Government to be used under your watch. You may realise too late that you sanctioned mega corruption.
4. Avoid political grand-standing. Mega corruption in Kenya is always predicated on political exigencies. To make announcements of how you shall rule for 10 years and your deputy another 10 is to make a clarion call to your people to raise money for political campaigns.
5. Discourage pettiness. A side effect of a tough anti-corruption campaign is pettiness that eventually clogs government. People start questioning each other’s motives and decisions become dangerous to make.
Political pettiness is another reality that leads to corruption. Imagined fights against “those in the opposition” just coalesces your supporters into corruption cartels to fight imagined political threats. There is nothing criminal in opposition. Don’t encourage fights against your political competitors as it only results in “the means justify the end” approach in protecting you.
6. Do the right thing. Don’t let your anti-corruption drive be determined by your circumstances. You must separate your realities from your solemn duty to the people.
Yes, you assumed office while having a serious case against you, but don’t make that the rule. Appoint no one with a court case. People might not be scared by Presidential threats and it may take years to convict anyone with corruption, charge them nevertheless.
7. Beware of corporate interests. No government should allow itself to be held hostage by vested commercial interests.
But better, you should not put yourself in a position where vested commercial interests have an expectation that you will serve any other but the public interest. These expectations begin with the reliance by you on material assistance from businessmen and by promises, express or implied, in appreciation for this assistance.
You should not place yourself in such a conflict of interests and, if you find yourself in one, you must resolve the same in favour of the public good.
Paul Mwangi is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya.