By Katharine Houreld*
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenyan investigators arrested the former chief executive of the electoral commission and two others in dawn raids on Wednesday, the latest twist of a scandal that has already led to Britain’s first conviction of a company for foreign bribery.
President Uhuru Kenyatta is under increasing pressure to curb endemic corruption before elections due in August. His administration has been engulfed by financial scandals, although Wednesday’s arrests concern contracts signed before he took office.
Former election official James Oswago was charged in court with receiving bribes from Trevy Oyombra, the agent for British firm Smith and Ouzman Ltd, a printing firm that won contracts to print election material in past votes.
The men appeared in court with Hamida Ali, who covered her face with a golden veil stamped with the Chanel logo as prosecutors alleged she facilitated payments using her bank account. All three have denied any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors say the accused used the word “chicken” to refer to cash, asking “have you eaten the chicken?” as code for receiving money.
“As long as Kenyans can see that some people have been taken to court over what has been popularly been known as the Chickengate scandal, we believe that the current commission is going to be much more careful in its observance of the procurement laws,” said Julius Muraya, a deputy director at the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission.
After an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), a London court convicted the chairman and marketing manager of Smith and Ouzman Ltd in 2014 of paying nearly 500,000 pounds ($620,000) in bribes, the SFO’s website said.
As plainclothes officers ushered Oswago into a vehicle at his Nairobi home, he protested his innocence and said he was being unfairly targeted.
“This is done for the Kenyan public to believe that the anti-corruption commission are doing something about corruption in Kenya,” he said.
Oswago and other officials were charged in 2014 in cases related to the procurement of voter identification devices and solar lanterns. Those two cases have not yet been concluded.
The government is also facing other corruption scandals, including allegations of missing funds in the Health Ministry and National Youth Service.
Adding to pressure on the president in the build up to the August vote, university lecturers and doctors in state hospitals have been on strike for weeks over pay and working conditions.