Global Policy Forum

Kenya Bribes are Growing Bigger


By Orla Ryan

May 17, 2004

Kenyan lawyer Haron Ndubi used to drink at a Nairobi bar popular with public servants and politicians. Anytime of day and night those people had money to spend, he says. But in recent months, the bar has emptied out, reflecting the empty pockets of its former clientele.

"A lot of public servants who used to spend money there used to get that money from corruption. I consider [the empty bar] a manifestation of the fact that their source has dried up," says Mr Ndubi.

Mr Ndubi believes there has been a fall in corruption since President Mwai Kibaki came to power in December 2002.

Under President Kibaki's predecessor, Daniel Arap Moi, corruption was rife and had become a way of life for many. A year and a half into Mr Kibaki's administration and there is evidence that much has changed. The percentage of encounters with officials where bribes were demanded has fallen from 65% to 40%, according to a Transparency International survey. Former bribe takers now risk losing their jobs if they ask for a "little extra".

This greater risk has however meant that the bribes have become larger to compensate for the greater risks to those taking them.

The average size of a bribe has risen from 2,300 Kenyan shillings (£16; $29) to 3,960 shillings, according to Transparency International.

Fight against corruption

Mr Ndubi, who is a former council member of Kenya's Law Society, points to concrete evidence of action having been taken against corruption. The new government has passed the Public Offices Ethics Act and the Anti Corruption and Economic Crimes Act.

Jobs in the public service and tenders for government contracts are now advertised regularly. Corrupt judges have been suspended and procurement officers have been sacked. The Kenya Anti Corruption Commission is not yet fully institituted, but it exists.

The Goldenberg inquiry into billions of dollars of stolen money continues, dominating the daily pages of Kenya's papers. Critics of the Narc government however say that it has focused on the corruption of the previous regime and its commitment to tackling current misdemeanours is half-hearted.

Mr Ndubi offers a cynical and widely held view, which supports the Transparency International survey. "There are people who are of the opinion that corruption has become more expensive and sophisticated because of the risk you expose yourself to if you are caught out," he said.

Business pain

It appears that the nature, if not the fact, of corruption is changing. For those used to buying favours, change can be a painful process.

Indeed, while many businesses welcome the chance to compete for government contracts, others find it hard to survive in an environment where they can no longer buy contracts.

Laban Onditi Rao, the owner of Bibil Engineering works, said that previously it was difficult to get government contracts unless you had political connections. The new government's initiative on corruption has made many businesses nervous, he said, as they now face real competition.

"There is no short cut, they have to be ready for competition, which has not been there before," Mr Onditi, also the vice chairman of the Kenya Chamber of Commerce, said. "The government is a huge consumer to all what we are trading in."

One businesswoman told me that the crackdown on corruption hurt poorer people first.

"Here corruption used to take place from the bottom to the top; now it just takes place at the top... which is very unfair," she laughed.

Patrick Asingo, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy, Analysis and Research, said progress has been made but breaking the cycle of corruption will be hard.

When corruption runs in "the veins", it takes time to tackle it, he said.

Economic joy?

While there might be some short-term pain for uncompetitive businesses, a less corrupt environment can in a broader sense only be good news for the Kenyan economy.

The cost of corruption was high as officials siphoned money from public accounts and businesses faced bribery "taxes", Luka Obbanda, director of operations at the Investment Promotion Centre said. Since the new government came to power, more investors are enquiring about doing business in Kenya, a fact he links to the "drastic" fall in corruption.

"If you get a licence for $10, you spend another $10 or more to get it [in bribes], the cost of that licence has gone up, the cost of doing business has gone up... your business is likely to suffer," he said.

It was this huge cost to the economy and business that forced Narc to act, Mr Ndubi said.

For Mr Ndubi, the issue now is maintaining the momentum in the fight against corruption. "The government might lose the opportunity if people give up, if they think nobody is interested, it will go back to business as usual," he said.

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