Murder, graft and intrigue haunt Kenya

Moi's successor fails to purge legacy of corruption and tribalism, as bitter infighting afflicts new government
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The Independent Online

Nine months after sweeping to power on a wave of public euphoria, Kenya's new government has become ensnared in a web of corruption allegations, bitter infighting and, as of last week, a murky murder mystery.

Last Sunday gunmen burst into the living room of Dr Odhiambo Mbai, a respected university don. They shot him four times and, as he bled to death, stole away on a public bus. The killing rocked Kenya and deepened tensions within President Mwai Kibaki's government. The politics professor was a key figure in efforts to re-write the constitution and dilute the presidency's wide powers. Angry colleagues claim he was the victim of a political assassination.

The murder has further damaged hopes for the dramatic transformation Mr Kibaki promised impoverished Kenyans. After taking office the 71-year-old vowed to purge the gangrenous system of graft and tribalism bequeathed by his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi. He would also re-invigorate the sinking economy.

So far, he has failed to deliver on either pledge. Although international donors are slowly returning, Kenya remains desperately poor. Ugly tribal schisms have re-surfaced. And after a promising start, the fight against corruption is waning. Mudslinging rival ministers have traded accusations of sleaze. Even bribe-taking policemen - who were subjected to spontaneous citizens' arrests in the wake of the election - are returning to their old ways.

"We are only at four out of 10, which is still not a pass mark for Kenyans," admitted a senior anti-corruption official, who requested anonymity. "But it is better than nought out of 10, which is where we were before."

It was never going to be easy for Mr Kibaki, who started out well. Corrupt judges were cleared out. A slew of sticky-fingered state officials were fired and replaced with a mix of technocrats and political cronies. He ordered inquiries into Moi-era scams. Even the Kenya Football Federation, where hundreds of thousands of pounds in Fifa funding disappeared over the years, came under scrutiny.

In the bedraggled capital, Nairobi, flowers were planted on street verges, and people found they could obtain a birth certificate or a passport without greasing any palms. But then it all started to go wrong. Kenya has just finished mourning the Vice-President, Michael Wamalwa, 71, who died in a London hospital last month. He was the fifth government member to leave office in a coffin - others have died in plane crashes, flooding, and from cancer and diabetes.

The string of deaths prompted jibes that State House resembled a funeral parlour more than a power centre. Mr Wamalwa's death may also have represented a missed opportunity. Although the cause of death was vague, he was treated by an HIV/Aids specialist and died from a condition related to the excessive use of anti-retroviral drugs. The secrecy surrounding his death was "a missed chance for a powerful lesson", said Kariuki Njenga, a Kenyan academic living in the US.

But bad politics, rather than bad karma, are mostly to blame for Mr Kibaki's stalled reforms. In opposition, his party was a patchwork of rival groups that came together to oust Mr Moi. In power, the bitter rivalries between them have explosively resurfaced.

The deepest rift is between Mr Kibaki's camp and the dynamic Public Works Minister, Raila Odinga. In a pre-election pact, Mr Kibaki promised to water down the near-dictatorial presidential powers accumulated by Mr Moi. Now he seems to be having second thoughts and Mr Odinga is furious. The clash has spilled over into the Constitutional Review Conference, where the blueprint for a new Kenya is being drafted. At a hall outside Nairobi, partisan delegates are openly warring. Obstruction of debates is rife, and sums of money have changed hands.

Review chairman Prof Yash Pal Ghai admitted to being "extremely" disillusioned. "I can't tell you how disappointed I am," he said. "Our work could be over in a couple of weeks if they wanted to. Instead delegates come to me with allegations they are being bribed to delay the process."

Tension has risen since the murder of Dr Mbai, who headed the key committee on devolution of power. Since last weekend, other delegates have also complained of receiving death threats. The clash has worrying tribal overtones. Mr Kibaki is a Kikuyu while Mr Odinga is torchbearer for the Luo. Following Dr Mbai's murder, Kikuyu public buses were attacked in the Luo heartland of western Kenya.

Government officials insist they remain committed to eradicating corruption.

One apparent success is the Goldenberg Commission, which last Thursday entered its 76th day. It has uncovered details of one of Africa's largest scams ever. Streams of witnesses have testified how Moi-era officials conspired to plunder state coffers of up to $1bn (£600m) through a fake export compensation scheme. Among those implicated are Mr Moi's son, Philip, and the current Education Minister, George Saitoti.

But when it comes to tackling present corruption, Mr Kibaki's government has shown less enthusiasm. Grumbles about the "Mount Kenya Mafia" - a cabal of Kibaki associates dominating government business - is swelling. And the escalating political battles have consumed the government's time. "Economic reform is not even on the back seat, it's in the boot," said commentator Robert Shaw.

Foreign donors believe Kenya is on the path to recovery. This week the European Union announced a €225m (£155m), five-year aid package. Britain remains one of the largest bilateral donors. But on the crime-ridden streets of Nairobi, impatience is growing for the dramatic changes Mr Kibaki promised to roaring crowds in his pre-election rallies.

"The honeymoon period is over," said Mwalimu Mati of the corruption watchdog Transparency International. "Now it's time to deliver."