March 6, 2009 / 2:30 PM / in 9 years

Kenya corruption "back to Moi-era levels"

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya’s coalition government is fomenting graft on a scale not seen since President Daniel arap Moi’s day, and leaders should beware the “revolutionary” spirit among their disgruntled people, a prominent activist has said.

“It’s a kleptocracy, they can’t stop themselves stealing,” said Mwalimu Mati, who runs the Mars Group watchdog, disliked by the government for its analyses of waste and misappropriation in the national budget and remuneration of legislators.

President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga formed a unity government a year ago to end the worst bloodshed since Kenya’s 1963 independence, after a disputed presidential poll.

Despite ending violence that killed at least 1,300 people and uprooted 300,000, their government has done little to bring perpetrators to justice, push forward political reforms, or ease worsening economic hardships for most people here, analysts say.

To the further dismay of Kenyans and foreign donors, a raft of new scandals have come to light under the Kibkai-Odinga coalition -- notably in skewed distribution of oil and maize, but also in the immigration, tourism and financial sectors.

“It looks and feels like during the worst parts of the Moi government, especially from around 1990 when a feeding frenzy began,” he said late on Thursday, referring to the start of Kenya’s biggest scandals, “Goldenberg” and “Anglo Leasing.”

Those two scams -- one involving bogus mineral exports and the other a fictitious company granted inflated tenders -- have held back development in east Africa’s largest economy.

Yet corruption, including the Anglo Leasing saga, continued under Kibaki when he took over from Moi in 2002, and appears to be flourishing again in the coalition, analysts say.

“It’s the same level (as under Moi). You find it hard to think of ministries without scandals,” Mati told Reuters.

Investors cite corruption as a major deterrent to doing business in Kenya, which otherwise has been one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most attractive spots for foreign money.

“BROKE” GOVERNMENT

Government officials, including ministers, acknowledge corruption is still a problem, but say they are doing their best to clamp down and would welcome evidence to facilitate prosecutions. They accuse critics of exaggerating the issue.

Mati, 41, a lawyer and veteran civil society campaigner, said Kenyans’ disgust with government was at dangerous levels.

“There is a revolutionary feeling among the public. Now it is not an issue of tribe. People are starting to talk in class terms ... I am hearing people say they want a ‘barefoot president’, anyone but the ones they have now.”

With little sign of new leaders emerging, there was danger militant grassroots groups like the outlawed Mungiki gang would benefit from the frustration of the poor and jobless, he said.

“Right now, Mungiki is the only viable mass movement in direct conflict with the state,” Mati said. Mungiki protests caused widespread chaos around Kenya on Thursday.

Mati said the pressures building were especially dangerous given the lean economic times. “The government is broke.”

On the international front, the global recession was hitting Kenya, foreign credit was harder to come by, and donors were increasingly reluctant to give budget support -- or even famine relief -- with so much sign of skimming, he said.

“Nobody trusts our government with money or grain any more.”

The situation was exacerbated by the cost of a bloated cabinet and negative economic impact of the violence last year, meaning citizens and businesses were paying less tax.

Mati said Kenya needed a new election, well before its next scheduled one in 2012, to clean the slate. He urged post-election crisis mediator Kofi Annan to pressure the coalition government into following that route.

“The big unknown is that there are no nationally known people saying they want to save this country from these politicians,” he said. “People are crying out ‘where are they?'”

The government has said in the past it will not call a new election before 2012. Spokesman Alfred Mutua was unavailable.

Editing by David Clarke and Philippa Fletcher

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