Kenya's decline and fall

The streets are no longer burning, but smouldering corruption at every level of government threatens to rip the country apart. Once the pride of East Africa, it has now been judged a failure of a state, writes Daniel Howden

Symbols rarely come as obvious or appropriate as Nairobi's Integrity Centre. A stone's throw from State House Avenue, the headquarters of Kenya's Anti-Corruption Commission (Kacc) is both a rusting hulk and a public joke. It was built to project the arrival of a brash new world but its metal panels have oxidised and bled, scarring its bronze facade with rivulets like the tracks of filthy brown tears.

In a country so traumatised by the consequences of corruption this ought to be a hive of activity. Instead it is a place which most experts would be happy to see closed. "They should be locked in and paid to stay there," says Mwalimu Mati, an anti-corruption campaigner. "They're not ever going to fight grand corruption. They are managers of scandal and no action is ever taken."

The Kacc is not the exception, it is the rule. Kenya is replete with commissions and authorities, hollow institutions that the ruling elite has long known how to manipulate when using "process" to paralyse reform.

Eighteen months after East Africa's island of stability was brought to the brink of civil war by the fallout from a stolen election, there is a temptation to assume that if the country is not burning, it must be healing. That would be wrong, according to the annual index of failed states, issued yesterday, which put Kenya in the critically failed group, one place below Burma.

The appearance at 14th in the respected rankings compiled by the US-based Fund for Peace has shocked some in Nairobi but others are clear where the failures lie. "If a state exists to provide security, maintain its borders, provide food and a system of arbitration, then you can make the case that Kenya doesn't do those things," says Mr Mati.

The bloated unity government that emerged from the violence is not helping. Remarkably, there is only one MP in parliament who was left outside of government, a situation that has left the job of opposition to foreign envoys. "There was real hope that we'd get a new Kenya. That has not happened," is the verdict of one Western diplomat. "There are no political hopes out there. There is no one with a clean pair of hands."

Foreign aid supplies roughly eight per cent of Kenya's budget but using that leverage to bring change is complicated by venal politicians, the diplomat argue. "If we pull that money, it means no bore holes in Garissa, it doesn't hit them [the politicians]."

While the daily theatre of scandals, meetings and reconciliations in the unity government dominates the Kenyan papers, the symptoms of an extraordinary crisis are present just beneath the surface.

The rule of law is collapsing and the UN has accused the police of a wave of extra-judicial killings. Watchdogs say the grand coalition has launched a "feeding frenzy" of corruption. International agencies are feeding one-quarter of the population. An ethnic criminal sect, the Mungiki, is in open war for the Central Province. And there has been no progress on any of the keystones of the 2008 peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan.

While these crises multiply, corruption is all that holds the government together, according to John Githongo, Kenya's most famous whistleblower. "The glue is greed," he explains. He predicts the government will hold together for only as long as it takes rivals to build up "big enough war chests" to literally fight all over again.

The cosy consensus voiced by the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, that "Kenya looked over the edge of the abyss and stepped back," is wishful thinking, according to Michela Wrong, the British writer whose critique of Kenya's ruling elite, It's Our Turn To Eat, has been effectively banned from bookshops.

Interest in her book – which charts the recent history of the former British colony through Mr Githongo's story and argues that high-level corruption destabilised the country – is such that an underground movement has been set up to get it out to the public. Four hundred people turned up to hear a reading from the book at the National Theatre, the podcast of which is now a popular Kenyan download.

The book drive is evidence of the interest of ordinary Kenyans in finding out about the history of looting of the state coffers by their political leaders. The Goldenberg scandal of the 1990s which cost the country at least 10 per cent of gross domestic product found a sequel in the Anglo Leasing scandal under the so-called anti-corruption administration of Mwai Kibaki. Efforts to punish the guilty and recover the lost millions have in both cases frozen.

The consequences for the rest of the region of an outright failure in Kenya were brought home during the post-election fighting that killed more than 1,500 people last year, when fuel prices in Uganda and Rwanda went up nearly 20 per cent.

The Waki Commission, appointed to identify the culprits behind the political violence has long since delivered its report. But the names it contains remain hidden and the deadline for setting up a local tribunal has passed, raising the prospect of government leaders being taken before the International Criminal Court.

Mr Githongo has said that the only cause for optimism is that the grand coalition is proving to all of Kenya's 42 tribes that having their respective "ethnic baron" in power does not improve their lives. He hopes this could break the mould which has seen elections amount to little more than a periodic ethnic census.

Meanwhile, the political void is exacerbating Kenya's tendency to look for "political messiahs", Mr Mati argues. Mr Githongo, the former graft tsar who worked for the current president for two years before fleeing to London with a caseload of evidence of grand corruption, is even being touted as one of them.

Back in Kenya and working as a consultant, Mr Githongo has been engaging in what he calls "conversations with the grassroots" across the country. An editorial in The Nation said the effort to circulate Wrong's book was a new political movement.

Murithi Mutiga, a younger political commentator in Nairobi, is part of a generation that everyone hopes will find a way out of the crisis. He believes the country has come to resemble the banks that have shaken the global financial system. "Kenya is in the curious position of qualifying to be a failed state but for the big Western powers, it's too important to fail."

The telephone directory of Kenya's non-government organisations weighs enough to remind anyone that Nairobi is the region's hub. It is the UN's third most important base after New York and Geneva and hosts the region's largest US diplomatic mission. Nairobi's elite and the international agency staffers, known as "two-yearers", are living in what Mutiga calls an "imaginary stability".

Not many people here perceive themselves to be living in a failed state. And yet "Kenya is a failing state", in his view. And it was this complacency that prompted the shocked response to the Kenya's descent into violence last year.

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