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Kenya Still Beset by Widespread Corruption

Just three and a half years ago, the east African country of Kenya brimmed with hope that the new government of President Mwai Kibaki would honor its campaign pledge to stamp out widespread corruption. But a new batch of high-level corruption scandals have only deepened Kenya's reputation as one of the most graft-infested places in the world.

Earlier this month, the Office of the President received a damning report from the government's own anti-graft agency, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission. The report said that the majority of Kenyans believe that the ministers and other senior officials at the president's office are the most corrupt officials in the country.

The findings are an embarrassment to a government that swept into power in 2002 on an anti-corruption platform and is facing re-election next year.

Two high-level graft cases under investigation right now are worth more than $1 billion - about a fifth of the state budget in one of the world's poorest countries. The scandals have forced the resignations of three government ministers this year.

Kenya's Assistant Minister of Information and Communications, Koige wa Wamwere, says the government deserves severe criticism for breaking its promise to clean up graft.

"The cases that have been investigated so far, I would call them 'the tip of the iceberg,'" said Wamwere. "And I fear that our time could run out before we do anything to correct the injustices of this corruption, which will make people very, very, very disappointed."

That disappointment already runs deep among the poor and low income wage earners, who are the hardest hit by the culture of graft in Kenya.

Twenty-nine year-old Anthony Gitua lives and works in the Kenyan capital, selling automobile insurance policies to private motorists.

The monthly commission he earns is barely enough to pay for rent and other needs. So, like many Kenyans, he is, at times, forced to borrow money from friends and family, just to pay the numerous bribes asked of him on a daily basis.

"I feel very angry when someone asks something of me. I have to go look for that money to bribe him so that he can do that something for me," he said. "Let me ask you. Why should it take so long to get maybe a passport, a driver's license? It is because there are people all over who want to benefit."

Nearly all Kenyans agree that corruption plays a major role in almost every part of civil society. In last year's Corruption Perceptions Index survey, Kenya ranked 144th out of 159 countries for graft.

But the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International singles out Kenya's police force as the worst of the worst.

Typically, a corrupt police officer will stop a person or a vehicle for a minor offense. Rather than issuing a ticket, the officer will offer to forget the matter in exchange for a bribe. Most of the bribes are fairly small. But Kenyans say bribe demands of $50 or more are not uncommon.

Simon Kimutai is the chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, a Nairobi-based group that owns and operates mini-buses known as matatus.

Kimutai says corrupt officers sometimes use intimidation tactics to solicit bribes. But he says the officers also know that, many times, people will hand over money willingly to avoid having to deal with Kenya's cumbersome, inefficient, and corrupt legal system.

"Our justice system is so sluggish," he said. "One spends so much time in courts looking for justice. People look for easier options.

And that vicious, self-perpetuating cycle is what officials at the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission hope to break.

Smokin Wanjara is the commission's Assistant Director of Policy and Prevention Services. He says getting rid of corrupt police officers and politicians is not enough to fight corruption because it does not get to the root of the problem.

"For a long time, corruption had become almost acceptable as a way of life," said Wanjara. "The commission alone will not be able to deal with corruption unless the general public makes it very difficult for those who engage in corrupt activities."

Under Wanjara's leadership, the commission recently launched an aggressive media campaign to try to stimulate public debate and lessen people's tolerance for corrupt people and practices.

"We have had to try and influence the public psyche to show that they in fact have the right and the responsibility to resist corrupt tendencies," he said.

Assistant Minister Koige wa Wamwere goes further, saying he believes Kenyans must also change their belief that money alone can solve the problems of poverty.

"We worship wealth. It does not matter how it has been earned. And to the extent that we worship wealth and it is the corrupt that are the most wealthy, we end up bowing to them," he said. "We end up cheering them. We end up putting them in power because that is what we want to be ourselves. And I think that is what is most tragic about our situation."

It is estimated that corruption costs Kenya hundreds of millions of dollars every year in lost revenue and lost investment opportunities.

Anti-corruption advocates warn the country is also in danger of losing the respect and confidence of the international community, if Kenyan leaders fail to bring the graft problem under control.