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Handshake shakes up corruption culture in Kenya

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By TEE NGUGI
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The Building Bridges Initiative otherwise known as the Handshake recently organised a first-of-its kind conference on corruption.

Some time ago, an anti-corruption summit was held at State House, but many observers saw that as mainly a public relations exercise. It was at that summit that President Uhuru Kenyatta seemed to give up on the fight against corruption.

The conference last week at the Bomas of Kenya came on the heels of renewed efforts to fight this deeply ingrained culture. The presentations and discussions were brutally honest and passionate. There was a never-before-seen determination to end this disease.

For the first time, Kenya looked itself in the mirror and admitted to the ugly warts on its body politic, and vowed to remove them.

The government has always been in denial about the fact that corruption is out of control. As billions were being stolen at the National Youth Service, as Youth Fund money was simply transferred to personal accounts, as billions were lost paying for land already owned by the government, as theft on an epic scale was going on, the government would say that it was doing everything possible to fight graft.

This attitude was captured in all its cynicism by William Ruto when he would respond to criticism by saying that Jubilee was doing more to fight graft than all the previous governments. When relatives of the president imported fake mobile clinics and sold them to the Ministry of Health by taking advantage of a tendering facility meant to give priority to poor women, Mr Ruto defended them, saying they, too, were women.

The cynicism and arrogance was insulting. First, the clinics were fake. Second, the president’s relatives could hardly qualify as disadvantaged women.

At the Bomas of Kenya, the mood was radically different. President Kenyatta and former prime minister Raila Odinga in unequivocal terms captured what undermines the fight against corruption. It is not that they said anything new. For years, civil society groups and columnists have been saying exactly what the two gentlemen said.

The difference, and this is why their statements are significant, is that for the first time the president and a key opposition politician and civil society were all agreed that corruption had reached levels that threatened the very existence of the country, and were sharing views on how to fight it.

President Uhuru said that corruption has no social stigma. Corrupt people are hailed as conquering heroes, especially by their ethnic communities. He urged professional bodies, churches and the community to ostracise thieves and put them in what he called “social jails.”

Mr Odinga said that when a chicken thief is jailed, people say he more than deserves it. When a big shot is jailed, people – judges, community and police – feel sorry for him.

The two leaders pointed an accusing finger at the judiciary, claiming some of its actions undermined the fight against corruption. Raila reminded the gathering of a case in which British courts jailed their own citizens for bribing Kenyan officials. The officials who had solicited the bribes were never held to account.

He referred to another case in which a foreign jurisdiction indicted two well-connected Kenyans for money laundering. The same individuals remain free in Kenya. Raila then cited the case of Kenyan drug traffickers held in US jails, who could never be convicted in Kenya.

Other speakers decried the judiciary’s tendency to issue injunctions stopping this or that. A while ago, this column decried the practice of granting “anticipatory bail” to stop arrests and injunctions to stop police from investigating a crime. It is time for the judiciary to look itself in the mirror and admit to the warts all over its body.

By facilitating an honest national conversation on corruption, the Handshake has shown up those who dismiss it as a political gimmick. Its composition – clergy, civil society, lawyers – gives it an apolitical character that will enable it to hold national indabas to debate the really important issues.

The intellectual honesty displayed at the conference and passionate recommitment to rebuilding our frayed nationhood contrasted sharply with the selfish, juvenile and utterly useless 2022 politicking.

Now, the Building Bridges Initiative should facilitate a conversation about Chapter Six of the Constitution on integrity, the growth of a fraudulent evangelism that fleeces multitudes, patriarchy in our society, and other issues at the heart of our social and economic underdevelopment.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.

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