Leakey leaves, casting pall over Kenya's antigraft efforts

Famous conservationist Richard Leakey left his civil-service post in Kenya Monday.

The man who was hired to clean up government in Kenya, world-renowned conservationist Richard Leakey, has stepped down after less than two years, throwing the future of reform in this troubled country into doubt.

While Kenya's government is viewed as one of the world's most corrupt, its economy is one of the most important in eastern Africa. In 1999, President Daniel arap Moi astonished Kenyans by appointing his former political foe, Dr. Leakey, to reform the government and take charge of civil service. Leakey hired five top private-sector executives as part of a so-called dream team that would take the reins of government departments and reassure international investors.

Leakey's sudden departure comes with the reform process at a standstill. Several of his key efforts - cutting 40,000 government jobs, an independent corruption watchdog, a civil service code of ethics, and privatization of the state-owned telecommunications company - have all been put on hold, whether by courts, the Parliament, or by President Moi.

"I think we can say goodbye to reform," says John Githongo, executive director of Transparency International. "The reform process has been stuck since last November, and this is the final nail in the coffin."

"I see [Leakey's departure] as the first sign that the regime is already tired of the so-called dream team," says Gachuki Nyaga of the Nairobi-based Institute of Economic Affairs. He says the group was never given a chance. Leakey needed at least five to 10 years before his reforms would pay off.

In a written statement, Moi said he and Leakey had agreed to Leakey's departure, but he did not call the move a sacking or a resignation. The statement said Leakey had made government more efficient and accountable and had completed what Moi called "stage one" of Kenya's economic-recovery strategy.

"It is therefore time for others to take over and move the process of reform forward,'' Moi said.

The person who replaces Leakey is Sally Kosgei, the first woman to head Kenya's civil service and the only woman with a seat in the cabinet.

"This is monumental for Kenyan women," says Anne Nyabera, programs coordinator for the League of Kenyan Women Voters, adding that Dr. Kosgei has the credentials to do the job.

The Stanford-educated Kosgei is a lifelong civil servant. Previously she was permanent secretary - the top post - in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and once held Kenya's most important ambassadorial position, as High Commissioner to Britain.

Perhaps more important, she is said by many to have the ear of the president - unlike Leakey.

Leakey came under widespread criticism from the press and some politicians for the speed at which he pushed his reforms.

Earlier this month, local media lambasted him for asking the attorney general to quash an investigation into bank fraud committed by top officials of the Dutch bank ABN-Amro.

Leakey has yet to speak to the media following his departure. Moi's statement quoted him as thanking civil service colleagues for their support in a "challenging" assignment.

While Leakey's appointment met with a chorus of approval from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, officials from the two institutions have not been available to comment on the news of his departure. The World Bank and the IMF, bothered by what they called slow progress on tackling corruption, had suspended loans to Kenya in August 1997. Every year since then, the country's economy has grown more slowly than its population, and economists say it likely contracted last year.

Much of the push for reform has come from foreign-owned corporations, which long ago grew tired of Kenya's collapsing industrial infrastructure, the dreadfully inefficient civil service, and entrenched corruption.

Moi, who has held power for 23 years, has won the two presidential elections since multiparty democracy was introduced in 1992. By law he must step down next year.

"People like Dr. Leakey make life difficult for the ruling elite when they want to find finances to fund their election campaigns," says Mr. Githongo. "Leakey was strangling the patronage regime, so he had to go."

Leakey, who comes from one of Kenya's most prominent white families, is son of the famous paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey. He became famous in his own right for fossil discoveries in the Lake Turkana region. As head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Leakey did much to stamp out poaching and expand the national parks.

Leakey, who was confined to a wheelchair after a 1993 plane crash, resigned twice in frustration as head of the Wildlife Service after run-ins with Moi.

In 1995 he formed the political party Safina, which campaigned against corruption and human rights abuses in the run-up to the 1997 election. Leakey won a seat in parliament but paid a price: During the campaign, he was badly beaten by hired thugs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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