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Kenya Battles Government Corruption - 2003-07-25

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki is facing a tough battle in his war on government corruption, according to his own cabinet. Graft is so deeply entrenched in Kenya's bureaucracy it is part of its culture.

The people of Kenya call the bribe they pay when they ask the government for practically any service "kitu kidogo," which in Swahili means, something small. Not paying the bribe, means delays or even the denial of services.

So concerned was the World Bank about the level of Kenya's corruption that, two years ago, it suspended all lending to the East African country.

The government itself is well aware of the cost of graft. Speaking Wednesday at a high profile anti-corruption conference in Nairobi, Kenya's Justice Minister, Kiraitu Murungi, said the fight against corruption is a matter of life and death.

Murngi said, "We have seen corruption destroy our agriculture. We have seen corruption close our factories. We have seen corruption destroy our roads. We have seen corruption steal famine relief. We have seen corruption slowly killing our society. Corruption for us is not simply a matter of crime. Corruption is a crime against humanity. For us, corruption is the public enemy number one."

According to the Kenyan branch of the international corruption watchdog, Transparency International, bribes cost every Kenyan an average of four dollars each month -- a fortune for the 60 percent of Kenyans living on less than a dollar a day. The group said its survey last year showed six out of 10 urban residents pay bribes to the police or are mistreated or denied service if they do not.

Kenya ranks 16th on Transparency International's list of the world's most corrupt countries.

Since his election last December, President Kibaki has taken a number of steps to root out corruption. He pushed for anti-corruption legislation and a code of ethics for civil servants, and his government set up infrastructure to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who attended the Nairobi anti-corruption conference, was impressed with President Kibaki's efforts, and said the bank may soon lift its ban on lending to Kenya.

But, many obstacles remain. Attorney General Amos Wako, speaking to VOA, said the culture of corruption is deeply rooted and efforts to stop it might become entangled in political wrangling.

We must ensure that our fight against corruption is above board, it's not politicized.It may actually be hijacked politically by the people with vested interests. Whenever you touch them, they say, you are discriminating against us, they say, my tribe is being discriminated against, and so on," said Wako.

The executive director of Transparency International Kenya, Gladwell Otieno, is more optimistic.

"There was a very deep commitment expressed at the conference to anti-corruption," said Otieno, " As it was said here, it really is a question of seizing this particular opportunity because it won't present itself again."

Ms. Otieno says the challenge will be to change what she calls long entrenched habits and corruption networks in the civil service, but the fight will eventually be won.