Corruption and Kenya’s New Constitution

Stephen DeAngelis

August 09, 2010

Last week, brave Kenyans flocked to the polls to approve a new constitution for one of Africa’s most corrupt nations [“Kenyans celebrate approval of new constitution,” by Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, 6 August 2010]. Raghavan reports, “Kenyans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that promises to address the core problems of governance, such as corruption and tribalism, that have plagued this country throughout its post-colonial history.” Corruption is not new on the African continent, back in 2005 rock star and humanitarian Bono told NBC’s Meet the Press, “This is the number one problem facing Africa, corruption; not natural calamity, not the AIDS virus. This is the number one issue and there’s no way around it” [“The Failure of the Live Aid Model,” by John-Clark Levin, Wall Street Journal, 14 July 2010]. Like so many others, Levin argues that better governance is the solution to many of the ills that plague the African continent. Before addressing the topic of corruption more generally, however, let’s examine what Kenyans are attempting to do with their new constitution. Raghavan reports:

“The constitution, which [President Mwai] Kibaki must sign into law, slashes the powers of the presidency. Many hope that will reduce the political patronage and domination by a single tribe that has been a staple of politics here since the end of British rule in 1963 and turned Kenya into one of Africa’s most corrupt nations. The charter also provides for land reform to curb endemic land grabbing by elite groups; devolves power to local areas; and gives Kenyans more civil liberties.”

Not everyone is happy with the new constitution, “Some church leaders, who overwhelmingly opposed the constitution, said they would continue to press the government to alter a clause that they say could be interpreted as favoring abortions.” Nevertheless, the new constitution is a step in the right direction. I think most realize, however, that it is only a step. Routing out a culture of corruption is not as simple as passing a bit of legislation. Corruption will only be eliminated when leaders eschew it and actively pursue those who continue to practice it. John Githongo, one of Kenya’s best-known crusaders against corruption, told Raghavan, “We’re not out of the woods yet. The heavy lifting starts now.” The election was nevertheless a good start. “It showed that Kenya can run a clean election without a violent aftermath, that the losers can graciously accept defeat, that their supporters can move on peacefully and that the police and security forces can be deployed to maintain stability throughout the country.” [“Kenyans Approve New Constitution,” by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, 6 August 2010].

Frankly, I’m not holding my breath waiting for corruption to decrease in Kenya. A constitution represents a national policy choice; but as New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks discussed in one of his pieces policy has limited power to influence culture. He concluded, “This is not to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.” [“The Limits of Policy,” 3 May 2010]. Recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate how insidious an entrenched culture of corruption can be. When several senior officials in President Hamid Karzai’s administration were arrested for corruption, instead of applauding the efforts of corruption fighters, the President called for an investigation of the anti-corruption organization itself [“Karzai calls for probe of U.S.-backed anti-corruption task force,” by Joshua Partlow and Greg Miller, Washington Post, 5 August 2010].

This is not my first post about corruption (see, for example, posts entitled Development and Corruption in Iraq, Battle to Stop Corruption Wanes, The Ups and Downs of the War Against Corruption, and Corruption Remains a Problem Around the Globe). I’m convinced that corruption can never be eliminated just controlled. The best tool in the corruption fighter’s kit is the harsh light of public scrutiny. Corrupt politicians and bureaucrats hate the publicity that results when their nefarious activities are uncovered. Fortunately, there are a number of dedicated individuals and groups around the globe striving to uncover corruption whenever and wherever it occurs [“Corruption Fighters Form Close-Knit Club,” by Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal, 7 July 2010]. Davis reports:

“The Corruption Hunter Network sounds like a band of comic-book superheroes. But there’s nothing comic about the fraternity of investigators and prosecutors [who] gathered [in Berlin] for a two-day meeting [in early July]. One is investigating the prime minister of Italy on allegations of tax fraud. Another is an appeal away from potentially jailing a former president of Costa Rica in an embezzlement case. A third convicted a top aide to South Africa’s current president on corruption. It is a stressful and often lonely job. The group’s newest member, Ghulam Rahman, a reserved Bangladeshi, says he was stunned when his country’s president decided to promote him last year from energy regulator to head of the nation’s anticorruption commission. ‘When I retire from this job, I will have no friends,’ he sighs. ‘You can’t do a favor for anyone.'”

Mr. Rahman will be lucky to retire (with or without friends). As I’ve noted in past posts, when you fight corruption, corruption fights back. Many corruption fighters have been killed over the years by those unwilling to end their nefarious practices. I suspect that one reason corruption fighters get together is to commiserate with one another about the difficulty of their jobs. Davis continues:

“The Corruption Hunter Network was born in 2005 when Eva Joly—a former French magistrate whose 1990s bribery investigation of state-owned oil company Elf Aquitaine targeted French politicians and convicted Elf executives—decided investigators and prosecutors needed a group to bolster morale. She convinced the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, or Norad, to contribute about $300,000 annually so corruption fighters could meet twice a year in five-star hotels without their usual retinue of bodyguards. While many international organizations target corruption, the low-profile Corruption Hunter Network is unusual in its informality and its loyalty, say members and World Bank officials. New recruits—ranging from high-profile investigators to greener officials in developing countries who seem to need help—are chosen by Norad without approval from other governments. A member fired at home remains part of the club, which helps them resettle outside their country if necessary. The meetings are part reunion, part group therapy and part strategy sessions on how to build cases. On the first day, members report on anticorruption battles; the second day includes presentations from outside advisers. But the real business of the Network takes place during the less formal chats at dinners and coffee breaks—and at late-night drinking bouts, members say.”

In the fight against corruption, going after the corrupt bureaucrats is much easier than going after political leaders. It’s political leadership, however, that permits the culture of corruption to thrive. Davis reports that “the more [corruption fighters] focused on leading politicians, the more turbulence they faced.” He continues:

“In Nigeria, Network member Nuhu Ribadu was dismissed as chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in 2008 after he had successfully prosecuted his boss—Nigeria’s police inspector general—for corruption and then locked horns with the governor of an oil-rich state over corruption allegations. Mr. Ribadu says he fled Nigeria after an assassin tried to put a bullet in his back. … In January 2009, the Network met in Livingston, Zambia, to show support for Maxwell Nkole, who in 2007 won a $46 million judgment in London against former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba for looting the country and moving assets overseas. … That effort failed. Mr. Nkole was fired in August 2009 after he appealed a different case that cleared Mr. Chiluba of criminal charges—an appeal the Zambian government scrapped—and left for a research slot at the University of Cardiff. … By April 2009, a dozen prosecutors internationally—not all in the Network—had been fired, quit under pressure or forced to leave their countries, and two had been murdered during the proceeding year, according to a Network count. Meeting a month later, at a session in Paris, Network members debated whether to disband. They decided to expand instead by inviting new prosecutors to join.”

I applaud the efforts of corruption fighters and the politicians who have the courage to support them. Corruption is a drain on the economy of every country in the world. Former Miss America and consumer advocate Bess Meyerson once said, “The accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own indifference.” British singer/songwriter Ray Davies wrote:

Money and Corruption
Are ruining the land.
Crooked politicians
Betray the working man,
Pocketing the profits
And treating us like sheep.
And we’re tired of hearing promises
That we know they’ll never keep.

Although Davies’ lyrics are a modern lament, corrupt politicians have been around since governments were first formed. An Assyrian clay tablet written around 2800 B.C., contained the following inscription: “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” The world might not be ending, but when it does, corruption will be one of the last things that die.