Shortly after arriving in Kenya last year, I fell into conversation with a young engineering student in Mombasa. 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 actually was.
Apart from a select few, 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 said. ``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 alone. It pervades virtually every black African country and every foreign businessman, aid coordinator, or traveler will confront it.
This includes the drunk Ugandan soldier menacingly waving his Kalashnikov 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.
Privately, some Kenyan government officials agree that corruption is a problem. But they hasten to add that it occurs in other countries such as the United States. Thus, they say, there is no need to single out Kenya for criticism.
Publicly, many of these officials steadfastly deny that such abuses exist or are reluctant to make a statement. ``I don't know of any cases,'' maintained one Foreign Ministry official. When asked about President Daniel arap Moi's salary, another official laughed -- not without some embarrassment -- and said, ``We never ask that sort of question here.''
But what may be treated as corruption, a conflict of interest, or abuse of power in the US and Europe is not necessarily considered such in Africa. It has always been part of the system, either as a right or as a means of survival.
In Kenya, for a politician to get 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. In the past, it was also a sign of respect.
At the same time, his constituents, usually members of his own tribe or clan, expect some to trickle down to them.
``A politician is helped into office not only to improve his own position, but also that of his people,'' says one Western diplomat. This can be in the form of a job, a university scholarship, the construction of a village well, or a new asphalt road.
One elected official with a reputation for being reasonably honest was recently booted out by his supporters after five years. When asked why, one of them retorted: ``If after all that time, he failed to make money for himself, how can we expect him to make money for us?''
While many 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 officials 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 a posh suburb of Nairobi to see the spacious, walled estates known to belong to politicians. Expensive cars -- Mercedes Benz or BMWs are essential.
As an outsider, what amounts to nothing less than stealing from the people comes across as even more repugnant 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 Africa.
Some people, however, refuse to pay bribes and still manage to live, travel, or do business in Kenya.
Corruption among officials comes in the form of dormant partnerships, bribes, and kickbacks on business transactions or scarcely disguised blackmail.
``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,'' observed one longtime resident, himself 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,'' says 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.''
Financial conniving, too, is not just the preserve of well-placed politicians but of their relatives as well. Mama Ngina, a wife of late President Jomo Kenyatta and alleged to have been a key figure in Kenya's once lucrative but illegal ivory trade, has since succeeded in becoming one of East Africa's wealthiest women.
``She is an extremely powerful lady,'' noted a director of one leading Nairobi firm. ``If you get in her way, she can bring the forces of evil down on you.''
As for President Moi, both business and diplomatic sources say that he has acquired enormous personal wealth since first becoming Minister of Home Affairs, then vice-president, and in 1978, President. Much of this is hidden wealth. (In contrast to some of his ministers, he is considered relatively frugal and less ostentatious in the public eye). But his extensive assets, including numerous properties and businesses, are said to have made him one of Africa's richest leaders.
There is no effective arsenal of 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 point out that it is virtually 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 had dared to criticize the former President Kenyatta for ``landgrabbing'' was hounded out of office. Journalists who have tried their hand at investigative reporting, have been arrested or dismissed from their jobs. Student protests against power abuse have been suppressed.
``There is no censorship as such,'' a senior Nairobi newspaper editor explained to 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.''
Foreign correspondents also come under the same restrictions. Most use the Kenyan capital as a conventient base to cover the rest of Africa and save their barbs for once they have left. (This article was filed from outside of Kenya.)
One American journalist, David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times, did just that in his book ``The Africans.'' Mr. Lamb recounts what many Kenyans and other Africans feel but dare not express in public. Branded as ``racist,'' even ``communist'' by some politicians, it has been unofficially banned in Kenya.
But frustration is rising. There is a small, but expanding number of intellectuals and educated Kenyans who question this system of privileges. Kenya is a lot less stable than many people think.