NAIROBI (Reuters) - Whichever way Kenyans vote in their elections, most are united by one concern — corruption.
Eighty-nine percent of Kenyans regard graft as a greater problem in east Africa’s biggest economy than unemployment, poverty or insecurity, according to a survey ahead of December 27 parliamentary and presidential polls.
There is a long-standing perception that corruption — which began with land-grabbing during British colonial times and became institutionalized in successive post-independence regimes — is endemic in Kenyan life.
And nowhere is it more blatant than on the campaign trail.
With 210 parliamentary seats up for grabs, candidates are handing out cash, snacks, T-shirts and promises of jobs and title deeds in an attempt to get elected.
Almost half the electorate would accept a gift from a candidate vying for public office, according to the survey by the Africa Centre for Open Governance, although 80 percent of those polled denied it would sway their voting intention.
“Corruption has been the main ill in our African society and I think it should be the number one priority at the moment,” said John Mbugua, a 29-year-old trader.
Kenyans lost hundreds of millions of dollars in state money when government contracts were awarded to fictitious firms in the “Anglo Leasing” scandal which started under former president Daniel arap Moi and carried on under his successor Mwai Kibaki.
The country lost even more in the “Goldenberg” saga of the 1990s — an estimated $1 billion through bogus gold and diamond exports. None of the high-ranking officials implicated in either case has been prosecuted.
But it’s not just grand theft that leaves a bitter taste.
Most Kenyans are fed up with the petty corruption that worms its way into their daily lives, from bribery by traffic police and the judiciary to unscrupulous civil servants.
So, are the politicians prepared to change their ways?
In Nairobi, banker Jane Wachiuri doesn’t think so.
“Most of the leaders are corrupt. I don’t think there is anything they will do about it,” she said. “The candidates are only talking about it to be voted in.”
Critics say Kibaki has been mute on the subject, largely because of the damage Anglo Leasing dealt his credibility, while his main challenger Raila Odinga has sent out mixed signals.
Odinga wants to establish a truth, reconciliation and restitution commission with the aim of recovering some of the stolen funds that may have been funneled abroad.
But he appears to have backed away from a pledge to implement the so-called Ndung’u report on land-grabbing because critics say he and a close aide are named in it.
The 2004 government-commissioned report concluded that top politicians, including Kenya’s two first presidents, illegally grabbed huge tracts of public land for political patronage and recommended they be tried and the stolen land returned.
Little wonder then that many are skeptical about the political appetite in Kenya to fight graft that deters foreign investment in Africa’s top tea-grower and preys on its people.
“Are we going to see a vast improvement? No. Do we believe a truth and restitution commission would be serious about retrieving stolen funds? Seeing is believing,” said one political analyst.
“Are ministers from the government in 2008 going to steal or attempt to steal money from Treasury? Yes.”
The absence of a younger generation of politicians untainted by sleaze dampens hopes of rapid change, critics say.
“It seems both parties are hell-bent on inaugurating a parliament in which two-thirds will be resident experts on grand corruption with hands-on experience,” Abdulahi Ahmednassir, a commentator and lawyer, said in a recent editorial.
Yet there was a time when Kenyan politicians were expected to line their pockets and ridiculed if they did not “eat” or use their public office to enrich their constituencies.
In one famous episode, founding President Jomo Kenyatta was said to have mocked Bildad Kaggia, the late freedom fighter who became an assistant minister, for refusing an offer of a farm.
Kaggia had deemed it an insult to landless Kenyans and was sacked for questioning the government’s nationalist credentials.
Activists say the seeds of corruption were not planted by Kenyatta but long before, by the British colonialists. Having grabbed huge swathes of land, they sold much of it when the country gained independence in 1963.
That legacy has lingered but perceptions may be changing.
Take the example of former internal security minister Chris Murungaru who failed to secure a parliamentary nomination representing Kibaki’s Party of National Unity.
The one-time member of Kibaki’s inner circle was accused of involvement in Anglo Leasing and last year Kenya’s anti-graft body recommended his prosecution. He has denied wrongdoing.
Anti-corruption campaigner Mwalimu Mati said the Murungaru case suggests Kenyans are moving away from the idea of voting in an MP on the understanding he would loot for them.
“With every election, we’ve got more questioning voices.”
Additional reporting by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Robert Woodward