By Mfonobong Nsehe*
Kenya is grappling with an endemic corruption problem, and it’s like nothing the East African nation has encountered in its recent history. Almost every week, Kenyan media reports a new scandal – from the infamous ‘chicken gate’ affair and a land grabbing incident involving the Deputy President to a $50 million procurement scandal reportedly involving a member of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s extended family; corruption in Kenya is sliding out of control.
In Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, Kenya ranked 145th out of 176 countries, dropping six positions from the 2015 index, and conflict of interest remains one of the core vices Kenya is struggling with.
The Kenyan law under the Public Officer Ethics Act forbids any public officer from holding any interest in a corporation, partnership, or body directly or through another person, if such interest would result in his/her personal interest conflicting with official duties. In the event of an arising conflict, the public officer is required to declare personal interest to his/her superior or appropriate body and comply with any directions to avoid the conflict and also refrain from participating in any deliberations with respect to the matter.
However, Tony Watima, a 29-year-old Kenyan politician and economic analyst, argues that this provision is weak since it leaves enforcement to the soul searching of the public officer rather than a bulwark against the greedy passions to access and control of public resources.
“Two scenarios have shown that this law is self-preserving. First, when Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari visited Kenya early last year, he visited Brookside Dairies – a corporation owned by the Kenyatta family, in company of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s brother. Afterwards, Brookside announced its intention to venture into the Nigerian market. Now we don’t know if Brookside Dairies merited Buhari’s visit or if President Kenyatta was simply placing his family’s private interest ahead of public interest,” Watima said during an interview in Nairobi.
Second, there is an accusation that when Safaricom held its Initial Public Offering in 2008, many MPs bought shares and so whenever a bill to tame its dominant and monopolistic practices in the market was brought to Parliament, the MPs would always shoot it down since they felt part of the corporation’s ownership. How do we also address that under the current law?” Watima asks.
For this reason, Watima has submitted a petition to Kenya’s parliament calling for a review of the current Public Officer Ethics Act and to introduce the concept of blind trusts as a safe guard in addressing conflict of interest avoidance.
If passed, the petition would see all public officers including the President, cabinet secretaries as well as Members of Parliament cease to conduct any commercial activity unless and only under a blind trust. Failure to comply would see public officers automatically lose their respective positions. The petition not only intends to prick the conscience of public officers but also rouse the public’s greater action by giving them the right of information into assets and declaration filed by public officers for random checks and scrutiny. If an officer is found to have given misleading or insufficient information he or she will then be blacklisted from holding any public office.
I recently caught up with Tony Watima, who is contesting for a Parliamentary seat in the 2017 general election. He talked to me about his petition and assessed President Uhuru Kenyatta’s fight against corruption.
Looking at the veracity of this petition, it targets the whole political establishment, how well has it been received?
The right of citizens to participate in decision-making and governance is well enshrined, in view of the constitution and in the eye of the law but it has pretty much been a frustrating experience.
I first filed the petition in September last year only for the Clerk of Senate to reject it because it lacked the right format when the Petition to Parliament Act is explicitly clear that the Clerk cannot reject a petition on the basis of lacking the right format.
I resubmitted it in early December but there has been no response so far heading to two months now when again the Petition to Parliament Act requires the clerk upon finding a petition satisfactorily meeting the basic requirements has ten days to notifiy the speaker for publishing. I am yet to know the stage at which the petition is.
So I will be sending a follow up petition to both houses of parliament asking them to serialize all public petitions for easy tracking of their progress and enhance accountability as well as public participation.
What would you make of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s leadership in fighting graft? Has he achieved much?
We are just seven years into the new constitution dispensation and we have witnessed the shutting down of the levers of our constitutional democracy in the four years his reign. The executive has infiltrated with the intention to weaken independent constitutional bodies like Parliament which offers it oversight and holds it accountable, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission that would have led in final assault against graft and we are now seeing the Auditor General being the next prime target.
This has made President Uhuru’s administration peak new levels of infamy; his regime has not only been a paradise of corruption and an apse in the temple of impunity but will also be remembered as a historic pillar of mediocrity.
The amount of public funds put in the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway which has increased our public debt by almost 20% is worth upgrading the current railway line into a metre gauge that would see it do the same speeds as the Standard Gauge at a cost of $400 million, upgrade the Mombasa-Nairobi-Malaba highway – busiest and most important road link in the region contributing 10% to Kenya’s GDP – into a dual carriageway at a cost of $1.3 billion and the rest put into breathing life in the new Lamu port.
This would have made Kenya ten times more effective and efficient transport and logistics hub but the Uhuru administration saw it wise to construct a new Standard Gauge railway parallel to an existing railway line that is operating below capacity of 3 million metric tons of freight cargo per year instead of 5 million, whereas the SGR will require 25 million metric tons of freight cargo per year for taxpayers to regain their public investment.
You are running for public office in the coming election, how different is the election since Kenyan elections are known to always characterize ethnic tensions and animosity?
Putting Kenya’s political system in its right context, it’s a product of a poltical criminal axis where corruption and violence continue to be the twin bridesmaid operated by a syndicate of ethnic warlords to stroke the underbelly of an electoral democracy.
Political elites from both ends simply use political repression and ethnic violence to bully their way into public office. When you look at the Kenya’s opposition figures they carry the same stench we are trying to run away from in the current regime. An example is that history remembers Kalonzo Musyoka as one of the hardliners who rose against the then President Moi in opposing the re-introduction of multi-party democracy in 1990 saying, “The choice is between KANU (then single party rule) and violence.”
However, there are reasons to be optimistic, 70% of eligible voters in the coming election are below the age of 35 and it’s within this majority that there is a new faith, a new awakening in their conscience that a ballot revolution is needed in the August poll.
This revolution cannot mean the restoration to power of leaders who have been utterly discredited by history and that’s the reason why I chose to run for public office.