Obama highlights Kenya's stubborn corruption problem

The East African nation is one of the world's most corrupt. Obama's highlighting of the problem probably didn't win him friends among the powerful, but drew cheers from the crowd gathered to hear him in Nairobi.

Sayyid Azim/AP
President Barack Obama walks with Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn after his arrival at Bole International Airport in Ethiopia on Sunday.

In a speech meant to inspire Kenyans, particularly young men and women, President Barack Obama praised the country’s immense progress, but warned that it is endangered by chronic corruption.

“Kenya is at a crossroads, a moment filled with peril, but also enormous promise,” he told an invitation-only crowd of about 5,000, who lined up outside Kasarani Stadium hours before the speech to get in.

“Across the country, one study shows corruption costs Kenyans 250,000 jobs every year -- because every shilling that’s paid as a bribe could be put into the pocket of somebody who’s actually doing an honest day’s work,” he said, prompting some of the loudest cheers of the day. “If someone in public office is taking a cut they don’t deserve, that’s taking away from the people who are paying their fair share…  It is important that not only low level corruption is punished but folks at the top if they are taking from the people."

His mention of “folks at the top” got particular attention.

“I like the fact that he talked about corruption, which is a very serious issue in this country. And the fact that he’s not looking at the issue of petty corruption, but he’s also looking at grand corruption, which is really ailing our economy,” says Dennitah Ghati, an MP and women’s representative from Migori County in western Kenya. “I love that he put a lot of emphasis and time to talk about corruption without fear.”

Civil society, scholars and international anti-corruption activists have criticized the Obama administration for a hands-off approach to Kenya’s issues of corruption and governance, particularly a shrinking tolerance for civil society, because of its security partnership with Kenya.

Corruption more than almost any other issue is felt at all levels of Kenyan society, from police demands for bribes during minor traffic stops to additional “fees” associated with getting permits to open a business to the members of parliament seen with high-end cars and other trappings of luxury that are unaffordable on their government salaries.

“What brings Kenya down is corruption and tribalism,” says Aura Francis, a union organizer at the partially state-owned East Africa Portland Cement, waving two American flags in his hand after the speech. “It’s a cancer to Kenya and the whole of Africa.”

A crisis

Obama has been under pressure to address the issue as strongly as he did when he visited Kenya as a junior senator in 2006. Then, he called it “a crisis that’s robbing an honest people of the opportunities they have fought for.” He said then:

It is painfully obvious that corruption stifles development - it siphons off scarce resources that could improve infrastructure, bolster education systems, and strengthen public health. It stacks the deck so high against entrepreneurs that they cannot get their job-creating ideas off the ground. In fact, one recent survey showed that corruption in Kenya costs local firms 6% of their revenues, the difference between good-paying jobs in Kenya or somewhere else. And corruption also erodes the state from the inside out, sickening the justice system until there is no justice to be found, poisoning the police forces until their presence becomes a source of insecurity rather than comfort.

The Standard, one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, called his words “prophetic” in a piece today looking back at his 2006 speech and how little had improved since. That year, Kenya scored 142 out of 163 on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. In the latest report Kenya scored 145 out of 175, tied with Laos and Papua New Guinea, tiny economies compared to Kenya's (Kenyan GDP is more than double the other two put together.)

“The issue, which irked government most at the time was corruption. Obama spoke passionately against corruption, saying it was threatening the freedom the Kenyan forefathers bitterly fought for. … Almost a decade later today, with Obama in the country, corruption remains a thorn in Kenya’s flesh," reporter Nzau Musau wrote.

Many of the same talking points showed up in his speech today. Like then, he pointed to how corruption played a key role in Kenya’s security failures amid the growing threat of Al Shabab, a point that resonates in the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attack of 2013 and the attack on Garissa University in April.

Five cabinet secretaries and scores of other government officials are suspended or under investigation amid a sweeping government corruption probe that has earned the moniker “List of Shame.” The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission is facing its own internal crisis, with top commissioners suspended earlier this year in the middle of the corruption probe.

“I think the change comes with us rather than with someone else,” says Maria Wangondu, a law school student at Nairobi’s Strathmore University, speaking after Obama’s speech. “The fact that we heard it from someone outside is definitely inspiring.”

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