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Kenya Attempts to Unravel Corruption Scandal Implicating Former President - 2004-06-02

Kenya is attempting to unravel a billion-dollar corruption scandal that has implicated former President Daniel arap Moi, several of his children, and some of his senior associates.

The 14-month probe into a fictitious gold and diamond export scam has set off a debate in Kenya on what to do about former President Moi.

A Kenyan presidential commission, made up of prominent lawyers and led by a senior judge, has heard testimony that Mr. Moi received cash payments and shares in Goldenberg International, the company that ran the phony export scheme.

Mr. Moi has issued a statement denying he was ever a director or shareholder in Goldenberg. His lawyer is monitoring the commission's hearings, but it is not clear if Mr. Moi will testify.

The star witness at the Goldenberg hearings has been Kenyan businessman Kamlesh Pattni, who says he devised the scheme in the early 1990s, when Kenya was desperate to earn hard currency through exports.

The scam led the Kenyan treasury to pay billions of Kenyan shillings to Mr. Pattni's gems firm to subsidize gold and diamond exports that prosecutors say never took place.

Mr. Pattni told the Goldenberg commission's chief judge, Samuel Bosire, the scheme blossomed with the support of Mr. Moi.

"This thing has grown into a monster, my lord," he said. "I am saying it, and I am putting the facts on the table, my lord. It is not comprehensible by our country that such a thing can be a reality, my lord. My lord, that is why our Herculean task [is] to open the eyes of the public."

The hearings have attracted huge crowds, and people spill out on to the plaza of Nairobi's convention center to listen to the testimony over loudspeakers.

The onlookers have mixed opinions about whether a legal case should be opened against Mr. Moi, though they are unanimous that the money should be returned.

Eric Kirorei is a 21-year-old student who thinks it would be a mistake to bring charges against Mr. Moi.

"It is not proper for an African leader to be prosecuted, especially when it is just immediately after he has left office," said Eric Kirorei. "We have seen that happening in Zambia where [President] Levy Mwanawasa prosecuted the former president. That is, Frederic Chaluba. And I think it is not proper. The best thing that should be done with him [Moi] is to make him give back the money to our economy."

But Michael Wamalwa, a 24-year-old business administration student at the University of Nairobi, disagrees.

"Moi should be prosecuted because he is citizen like any other person, and he is not above the law," he said. "And so he should be prosecuted and taken to court. I have confidence with the president. I have confidence with the government. And I know they are going to recover that money and the law will take its course."

The man who ordered the Goldenberg probe, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, won office in 2002 after Mr. Moi decided not to seek re-election, ending 24 years in power.

Mr. Kibaki has vowed to stamp out corruption. He has appointed a high-profile anti-graft investigator. But allegations of bribery and kickbacks continue to surface in some government ministries.

A public policy expert at Nairobi's Institute of Economic Affairs, Kwame Owino, says Kenyans want impunity to end when high-level wrongdoing is exposed.

"Given the nature of secrecy and the lack of transparency in government, the conduct of business by government, it is not possible to tell whether, in the overall sense, grand corruption has actually reduced," he said. "I would probably be misleading anybody who listens to me to say it has. I mean we do not see the evidence that it has."

No one has yet been prosecuted in the Goldenberg scandal. The investigating commission is expected to present its findings later this year, but it is not clear if the report will recommend any legal action.