SHORTLY after arriving in Kenya earlier this year, I fell into conversation with a young engineering student in Mombassa. He was bright, strikingly eloquent, and expected to finish college soon. What, I asked, did he hope to do then?
``Enter politics,'' he replied without hesitation. ``I want to become an MP [member of parliament].''
``Because in this country, it is the only way to make a lot of money.''
At the time, I was somewhat taken aback by his answer. But nearly four months in Kenya and numerous discussions with its citizens have shown just how revealing his reply was.
The simple truth is that many of Kenya's politicians and elected officials -- at all levels -- have used their positions to amass sometimes considerable personal wealth and privileges.
``Almost all politicians here are businessmen,'' a West European diplomat told me. ``There are some who work in the interests of their country, but most are out to make as much for themselves while they have the chance. Then it's someone else's turn.''
Corruption, of course, is not peculiar to Kenya. Nor is it as blatant here as it is in Zaire. Nevertheless, it pervades virtually every black African country. And every foreign businessman, aid coordinator, or traveler must inevitably confront it.
This includes the small customs official in Somalia trying to augment his miserably meager salary with an illegal 200 shilling ``exit tax'' (no receipt) on a visitor leaving the country. Or the drunk Ugandan soldier menacingly waving his automatic rifle at a road checkpoint, demanding ``chai'' (tea), a euphemism for cash. Or the well-dressed Kenyan minister extracting a cut from a company or aid project in return for a permit.
But what might be treated as corruption, a conflict of interests, or abuse of power in the United States and Europe is not necessasily considered such in Africa. It has always been part of the system, either as a right or a basic means of survival.
In Kenya, a politician who gets rich in office is much like the tribal chief who receives presents for being what he is. The accumulation of riches is a prerogative of power. At the same time, his constituents, usually members of his own tribe or clan, expect something to trickle down to them.
``A politician is helped into office not only to improve his own position, but also that of his people,'' said one Western diplomat. This can come in the form of a job, a university scholarship, a new village well, or a new asphalt road for the region.
One elected official with a reputation of being reasonably honest was recently booted out of office by his supporters after five years. When asked why, one supporter said: ``If after all that time, he failed to make money for himself, how can we expect him to make money for us?''
While many, but not all, Kenyans are resigned to such forms of abuse, it is doubtful that the public is fully aware of the extent to which some of its leaders have enriched themselves. According to Nairobi business community sources, certain government ministers and administrators have managed to purchase, or otherwise procure, companies, farms, and other enterprises since reaching their high-level positions.
Part of this wealth is ostentatious. One need only drive through some of the more posh suburbs of Nairobi to see the spacious, walled estates known to belong to politicians. Expensive cars, such as a Mercedes Benz or BMW, are essential.
``The trouble is that we are new to money. It is Africa's worst disease,'' a Kenyan insurance director remarked.
To an outsider, what amounts to stealing from the people comes across as even more repugnent when one realizes how much the ``small man'' is victimized and how little he has to gain. Economically, it is also a grossly inefficient way of running the country and a severe drain on resources. But those capable of changing the system show little inclination to do so.
``The problem is that there are simply too many people in positions of power who don't want to see it changed,'' said one European development official. ``They have too much to lose.''
According to most sources, Kenya's corruption is growing steadily worse. In part, the donor countries and Western businessmen, who foot the bill for a large share of the economy, are to blame. They play along or shut their eyes to the abuses because Kenya is a strategic ally, a friend of the West. But as any journey through Africa will show, what is happening in this country is also happening to a greater or lesser degree in other parts of the continent.
The Asians, too, who are regularly ripped off by customs officials at Nairobi airport, usually do not consider it worth their while to protest.
But there are some -- both European and Asian -- who consider this irresponsible. They refuse to pay bribes and still manage to continue normally.
The wheeling and dealing of corrupt officials come in the form of dormant partnerships, bribes, and kickbacks on business transactions or scarcely disguised blackmail. Even the ice cream vendors in Nairobi's Uhuru Park must pay the police for turf rights.
``Some ministers simply appropriated the farms of Europeans and Asians by making life difficult. Some fought it, but many had little choice but to sell out, often at a pittance,'' said one long-time resident, who was a victim of such a scam. ``This sort of thing goes on the whole time, but you remain quiet.''
Another example is the valuable Indian Ocean front properties in the Mombasa or La Malindi region. The sale of all beachfront property has to be approved by the office of the president.
``What usually happens,'' said one hotel owner, ``is that they'll block the deal unless you sell to the President or one of his cronies. I simply can't afford to sell, because i know i'll get a quarter of the price.''
As for President Danial Arap Mois, both business and diplomatic sources say that he has acquired enormous personal wealth since first becoming Minister of Home Affairs, then vice president, and eventually, in 1978, President. Much of this is hidden wealth. (In contrast to some of his ministers, he is considered relatively frugal and less ostentatious to the public eye.) But his assets, including numerous properties and businesses, are said to have made him one of Africa's richest leaders.
There is no effective legislation to enforce accountability among elected officials. Financial disclosure laws, strictures against conflicts of interest, not to mention the public's basic right to know, are rarely allowed full reign if even on the books.
Occasionally the government does crack down on a corrupt official to set an example. Or it deals quickly and harshly with a merchant involved in illegal foreign currency operations. But observers say it is all but impossible to curb corruption among the lower ranks when it prevails in high places. Said one European diplomat, ``It's the poor blighter caught stealing a box of biscuits who'll get lynched.''
Any newspaper or private citizen seeking to look into the finances of this country's leaders can expect swift retribution.
One politician, Oginga Odinga, who dared criticize the late President Kenyatta for ``landgrabbing'' was hounded out of office. Journalists who have tried their hand at investigative reporting, have been sacked or arrested. Students protests against power abuse have been suppressed.
``There is no censorship as such,'' a senior Nairobi newspaper editor told me. ``One gets to know the mood about when to censure a minister or examine a certain touchy issue. The cardinal rule, however, is never, never, attack the President.''