Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-KENYA: Civil Society Scores Victory Against Corruption

Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Jul 8 2008 (IPS) - Two days after publicly vowing to die rather than resign, Kenya's powerful finance minister, Amos Kimunya, announced he was resigning to allow an independent investigation of corruption charges against him.

The minister's resignation came a week after Kenya's parliament passed a censure motion against Kimunya. The censure, a first in the country's history, was prompted by the report of a committee headed by Attorney General Amos Wako, which had questioned the role of the finance minister in the sale of Grand Regency, a publicly-owned five-star hotel in central Nairobi.

At about the same time, police beat and arrested a group of about two dozens human rights activists who were marching towards the parliament building to protest Kimunya's stubborn refusal to quit despite pressure from hundreds of civil society organisations and an almost unanimous censure by members of parliament. Those arrested belonged to the Name and Shame Coalition Against Corruption, a group of NGOs, lawyers and citizens, who have led the campaign against Kimunya.

At a brief press conference, the minister – a close ally of President Mwai Kibaki – said his conscience was clear and he was stepping aside only to let the investigation take its course. However, he obliquely admitted that he was forced out when he said that the decision was taken after "several consultations with President Kibaki" as well as his family and friends.

"This has never happened before," Dr Ekuru Aukot, a prominent human rights lawyer and head of Kitua Cha Sheria (Legal Advice Centre), said in an interview with IPS. "It's very significant because now it is possible to call ministers of cabinet to account and impeach them."

Dr Aukot's organisation is one of around 300 civil society groups that launched a sustained campaign following the sale of the hotel in May to uncover the shady hotel deal and expose massive high-level corruption in the Kenyan government.

The Attorney General's committee had also recommended that the head of the Central Bank of Kenya and the chief of the National Security Intelligence Service step aside to ensure a free and impartial inquiry into the hotel sale which Kimunya had claimed was sold to a Libyan investment company for $45 million.

The Libyan embassy swiftly distanced itself from the deal and Kimunya's fellow cabinet ministers also challenged his story.

The minister for land, James Orengo, a member of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) which governs as part of the grand coalition formed with President Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU), provided the media with documents relating to the hotel transfer which indicated that it had actually fetched $28 million, far less than Kimunya had reported. Orengo also challenged the identity of the buyer and said the hotel was not sold to Libyan investors but to a Kenyan company whose owners' names are missing from the transfer documents.

The sacked minister repeatedly argued that the bid to oust him was politically motivated by his rivals in the Orange Democratic Movement. In his last few statements before quitting, Kimunya accused Prime Minister Raila Odinga of fomenting the crisis.

A matter of rights

Corruption, especially when committed on grand scale, is a human rights issue, says Dr Aukot. "When state resources are diverted away from public services and people are deprived of basic amenities because the government has no money, grand corruption becomes a direct abuse of human rights of the people of Kenya," Aukot observes, explaining why lawyers' groups, human rights campaigners and women organisations chose to pursue this case.

"Our aim is to bring the notion of rule of law in our society. The hotel deal violated numerous laws of the land and could not have been ignored. It is a small step towards attaining our democratic ideals," says Aukot.

He referred to the live telecast of the debate on the censure motion which gave Kenyans the opportunity to see and directly judge for themselves what their representatives were doing in parliament. "It was the voice of democracy," Aukot remarked who found the experience of watching the debate live ‘inspiring’.

Though the parliamentary censure did not carry any legal weight and was not binding on the president who is the appointing executive authority, the cumulative pressure of civil society and media exposure, the president was forced to act.

"The minister's censure showed that even when there is no official opposition—as is the case since the formation of the grand coalition—parliament can act as a check on cabinet ministers and other government officials," says Aukot.

Doubts persist about the viability of a coalition of parties as opposed to one another as PNU and ODM have been for the last year. As the Grand Regency case gained media attention and elicited public outcry, many expected polarisation in the coalition along party and ethnic lines – Mr Kimunya is a Kikuyu, as is President Kibaki. Even as the two main parties continue to indulge in sabre-rattling and proffer divergent policy positions on many key issues, minister and MPs from both sides spoke with one voice.

Dr Aukot observes: "On an issue of such magnitude and public interest the parliament showed unity. I can only speculate about their motives and I hope it is not because the minister had proposed a tax on their salaries. But the timing of this episode is critical. It's been 16 years since multiparty democracy was introduced in Kenya and this is the first time it has taken such a unanimous initiative. I take it as a sign of Kenyan democracy maturing."

Flora Terah of the Centre for Multiparty Democracy believes that the minister's resignation was overdue.

"He should have done that long ago for the sake of transparency and to pave the way for a proper, independent investigation. But he dragged other cabinet members into the controversy," Ms Terah said.

More severe examinations of the coalition's durability lie ahead. The two principal parties will have to resolve the question of amnesty for those arrested for violence after the 2007 election and draft a new constitution. But the grand coalition seems to have survived its first major test.

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