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Corruption Charges Pose Latest Challenge to Kenya Coalition

The Kenyan government has launched an investigation into charges of corruption in the distribution of corn (maize). The allegations, which come as Kenya prepares to declare a food emergency, have opened divisions within the country's tenuous coalition government.

The Kenyan government has announced that the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission will begin an investigation into accusations of corruption in the distribution of corn. According to the latest charges, $2 million worth of imported grain has been diverted to neighboring southern Sudan, for resale at a higher price. The charges have particular resonance following the government's announcement Friday that the country faces a food emergency, with some 10 million people - more than a quarter of the population - at risk.

In the past two weeks, the heads of Kenya's state-owned oil pipeline and the country's tourist board have also been implicated in corruption scandals, raising concerns about the ability of Kenya's coalition government - formed last April, after disputed elections - to fight corruption. The director of the Kenya chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Job Ogonda, says the coalition - which includes both of the country's main political factions - may be facilitating corruption.

"We had hoped that the coalition arrangement would make corruption more difficult. It's emerging that it's becoming easier, in that it's compartmentalized," said Ogonda. "Even when corruption scandals of a scale that should be condemned happen, you find that the people who perpetrated that corruption are protected within their own arm of the grand coalition.

Ogonda called for a speedy investigation into the corruption charges and for increased transparency in government business.

"It's pretty obvious what has happened," he said. "The transactions were opaque to public scrutiny. If you open up public affairs to public scrutiny, then corruption can't occur. The reason being that, even before corruption occurs, some fragment of the public would have inquired about the weaknesses of that public affairs system."

The corruption allegations have widened divisions in the fragile coalition government. Justice Minister Martha Karua - an ally of President Mwai Kibaki - has charged that officials in the ministry of agriculture have been involved in illegally reselling corn. The agriculture ministry is headed by William Ruto, an ally of Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who heads the other main party in the coalition.

This week, five lawmakers from President Kibaki's party accused Odinga of responsibility for the corn shortage. Member of Parliament Johnstone Muthama says Odinga facilitated corrupt operations by blocking the creation of a new grain-handling facility at Kenya's main port, Mombasa.

"The prime minister is the genesis and is squarely involved with the shortage of maize," he said. "He was picked by Mr. Jaffa, who is the owner of the grain bulk handling terminal in Mombasa. I have that evidence. I have those photographs and I am waiting for the right appropriate time for me to expose them.

Odinga and his allies have dismissed the allegations, with Lands Minister James Orengo accusing the lawmakers of "playing politics with food."

The corruption charges are only the latest issue to divide the coalition government. In recent weeks, Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement has claimed that it is being bypassed in government decisions, including reforming the electoral system and a law on media regulations.