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Missing Millions Put Kenya's Public Education System in Jeopardy

Two of six Education Ministry officials facing charges in connection to the alleged theft

Investigations are continuing into the alleged theft of more than $1 million from a government program that funds Kenya's Free Primary Education initiative. As a result of the scandal surrounding the case, both the British and American governments have suspended funding for the program. And that raises fears that primary schools will go without essential materials and services in the near future.

Two of six Education Ministry officials facing charges in connection to the alleged theft of $1.3 million from the Kenya Education Sector Support Program appeared in court in early February. They are among some 40 officials that the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating.

"Suspects basically forged receipts. They took imprest [government application forms for funds]," Nicholas Simani, the commission's public relations officer said. When they were supposed to surrender (receipts), they forged those items. There was fraudulent acquisition of funds."

Those funds help to support primary and secondary education in Kenya. And because of the alleged fraud, in late January, the U.S. government suspended $7 million from the Education Sector Support Program. That followed the British government's withdrawal of $16.1 million.

"We want to see a full and transparent audit, something that could be published and shared with the Kenyan people," Michael Ranneberger, U.S. ambassador to Kenya said. "We want to see the people who are identified as responsible - again, whatever the level, from the very top down - fully investigated and prosecuted."

Kenya won world-wide praise when the newly-elected Kibaki administration created the Free Primary Education initiative in 2003. The initiative was designed to remove school fees and other barriers that kept primary children out of school.

As a result, primary school attendance in Kenya increased by more than one million children and secondary school attendance jumped 10 percent.

The initiative assists more than eight million children, and includes giving them greater access to textbooks and equipment. But those gains may be at risk if donors continue to freeze funding.

George Wesonga is the national chairman of the Kenya National Union of Teachers. "Unless money comes in from somewhere, the situation will be bad," he said. "Because the supply of things will not be there, things like electricity, books, equipment, and therefore education is going to be affected seriously."

Wesonga says his group suspected that money was being misappropriated more than a year ago. "As a union we have been smelling a rat, because if this money was from the donor community, we knew that the money was coming in good time. But we started to realize that money was not going to the schools in good time, and when we were asking for reasons, they would not give the reasons," he stated. "They would say, 'We shall be wiring money to these schools in a month's time, in a week's time', and the days would go by."

The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission estimates that at least 100-thousand children may not be able to continue their education because of the suspension of donor funds.

Ministry of Education officials declined to be interviewed by VOA TV.

In press reports, ministry officials have maintained that the Free Primary Education initiative will continue, and that they are doing what they can to investigate the situation.