Your money or your life chances?

Pay bribes or risk your education and even face jail: everyday corruption in Nairobi.

Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya

Corruption effectively fuels Kenyan society but the poorest suffer most [EPA]

Kenya is the third most corrupt state in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the latest report by corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Andrew Simmons, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Nairobi, has been out on the streets of the Kenyan capital to assess how endemic corruption has become.

The woman in a bright yellow jacket had a beaming smile as she made her cut-price offer.
It was an ordinary day for hundreds of parking attendants posted all around Kenya’s capital, taking money for the city council in car-parking charges.

In video
Billions lost in Kenya bribes

To park short term she offered to take cash – with no receipt. At half price, 70 Kenyan shillings – just under one US dollar – would go straight into her pocket.
“Some money for lunch,” she told me. This lady is hardly greedy. Poorly paid and charming in her approach, corruption to her is a means of getting by.

It was one petty snapshot of how corruption has become a way of life in Kenya at every level of society.
Nearby, weaving through the traffic in Nairobi’s chaotic rush hour, were the “matatus” – minibuses that provide a cheap means of transport for Kenyans.

Easy prey
They are often poorly maintained – and easy prey to a dishonest police officer.
One driver, Daniel Odhiambo, described how allowances have to be made for bribing the police. He sets aside up to 25 dollars a day.

“There was one time when I had no money with me for a bribe,” Odhiambo said. “I was locked up for six months because I couldn’t even afford the bail money.

“Other drivers who were arrested with me had cash and they simply bribed the police and didn’t go to jail.”

It’s unlikely his story is exaggerated. Sometimes the charges are trumped up by the police, regardless of whether they are genuine or not. It is a fact that many of those tasked with imposing the law routinely break it.

Kenyans say they have to pay bribes to get hold of school scholarship forms [EPA]

On another level, many who might be deemed fine, responsible citizens actively use bribery as a tool of convenience – to get off the hook, whether it’s to escape a minor traffic violation and a mandatory, time-consuming visit to court or something much more serious.

Either way, the system is fuelled by such actions.

But it’s the poorest who suffer most.

Only a few kilometres from Nairobi’s city centre, a woman fans charcoal to cook maize as she crouches in one of the muddy alleyways that make up the biggest slum in Kenya – Kibera.

Selling maize is Lucy Odhiambo’s only source of income. Without corruption her prospects would be brighter.

Lucy’s husband was killed in the violence that followed Kenya’s 2007 elections. With one baby daughter and no money for child minding she sells her maize in the evenings.

Her hopes rest with her 17-year-old son Nelson. If he can complete his education he may have a hope of finding work.

But corruption stands in the way of that happening. Under a government scheme, bright teenagers like Nelson should be entitled to a scholarship for secondary education.

Scholarship bribes

“Only people who have the money for the bribes get the scholarships,” Lucy said. “I can’t even afford the first bribe – to get an application form. I feel so bad.”

Nelson, a well-mannered teenager, wants to qualify as an engineer. He looked sullen as he told me in good English that he had been sent home from High School several times and kept missing out on studies.

His mother is reliant on the goodwill of school teachers and loans from friends. But she fears his schooling may end completely unless she can afford to bribe for a scholarship.

So why has corruption become so endemic in Kenyan life?

The answer lies in the higher echelons of society, according to one of the most effective watchdog organisations within Kenya.

Mwalimu Matu runs the anti-corruption watchdog Mars Group Kenya, and has tirelessly monitored a stream of scandals and scams in which billions of US dollars have left the public coffers.

“We have a police department with no interest in fighting fraud … and an anti-corruption commission … with no powers of prosecution”

Mwalimu Matu, anti-corruption campaigner

“Grand corruption can trigger corruption throughout society by way of example, negative example,” he said. “Kenyans need to be careful about how they choose their role models.

“We have a failure of the law and order system. We have a police department that doesn’t have any interest in fighting fraud and graft from within its ranks, and an anti-corruption commission that produces reports it cannot, and will not, take any further as it has no powers of prosecution.”

Mutula Kilonzo, Kenya’s justice and constitutional affairs minister, agreed to be interviewed on the issue that has provoked worldwide criticism of Kenya.

He was appointed in May and, rather than take up a defensive position, the minister agreed that corruption impacted on every Kenyan citizen.

“The public is hurting,” Kilonzo declared.

Well, wasn’t he horrified by the scale of corruption?

‘Horrifying’ corruption levels

“It is horrifying,” Kilonzo replied.

“If there was a bigger word than horror I would express it, because I am a lawyer and I believe that justice demands proper investigation and due process and due process means that during the process of investigation or even the trial, the person is innocent until proven guilty.”

Pressed on the failure of successive justice ministers to see through any high-profile convictions for corruption he declared: “I will bring people to book, cleaners, messengers all the way from the top, everybody has got to be below the law, not above it.”

But was he really talking about prosecuting the big players who have evaded the law courts for years?

Kilonzo’s warning was stark. Yes, he said, although changes in the laws of Kenya enshrined in the constitution, which he is working on changing, had to be a fore-runner to a total crackdown at all levels.

Yet he made an assurance to the people of Kenya: “What is required in this country is a change of attitude.

“Once the public believes that the government will fight impunity and corruption, it will trickle all the way down and the corrupt policeman who thinks he can solicit bribes or the misguided person who thinks they can offer bribes will face a serious immovable object called public opinion.”

The average Kenyan may well be cynical about those words given the government’s record to date.

Corruption is undoubtedly a cancer within Kenya’s system, entwined in every level of society.

The jury of public opinion already has its verdict: The politicians and legislators have to clamp down soon, starting at the top.

Al Jazeera examined the impact of corruption on the world’s poorest in a series of reports broadcast between Friday, June 26 and Sunday, June 28.

Source: Al Jazeera

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