Kenya's graft proceeds are hidden in plain sight

A man pulls his cart along Mudavadi Road. Most Kenyans consider getting money without working for as a virtue. [Boniface Thuku, Standard]
Kenyans have a problem deeply rooted in cultural stereotypes in which success is equated with money or other material acquisitions.

This has fuelled a race to acquire at all costs, the illegality of the means notwithstanding. In fact, for many, getting money without working for it is considered a virtue, giving rise to the proliferation of betting firms.

Author Fitz de Souza traces this problem to the halcyon days of Kenya’s independence from colonial rule. The national obsession with wealth acquisition is understood from an excerpt of his book ‘Forward to Independence’. 

In it, he quotes Jomo Kenyatta, the nation’s founding father, saying “Africans only respect a man with a lot of mali (wealth). If he is a poor man, they will think he is useless. You have to have a lot of hangers-on and your youth wingers going with you, and a lot of cows, houses etcetera, then they will think, ‘Ah, he is a great leader.” ‘

In the African context, wealth is therefore a means to validate oneself and a route to leadership. But for most of Kenya’s self-styled billionaires, the means of wealth acquisition repudiates time-tested conventions in other countries.

For instance, it is now de rigueur to find youth with inordinately flashy life-styles, financed by seemingly endless supplies of money whereas in America, most dollar billionaires only achieve the status in their 50s and 60s. Unlike isolated youthful tech billionaires, these Kenyans cannot give a coherent account of how they came into money.

Creating value

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Joram Mwinano, Managing Director and Founder of WYLDE International has a sceptical view of Kenya’s nouveau riche. He says, “don’t believe any story you read in the Kenyan media that says, ‘I began by hawking, selling chicken or shot a few videos, made a few millions and that’s how I became a billionaire.’

Mr Mwinamo adds that “making a billion isn’t easy, there has to be a traceable story of a company scaling either through financing and investment or being bought out after creating value for a long time.

Many times, longer than 15 to 20 years. It is difficult to reach billions with organic growth in one lifetime. Many of the stories in our media are laced with tax evasion, contraband importation, money laundering and corrupt government deals.”

One easily surmises that many “wealthy” Kenyans are in fact glorified thieves. Even as they try to hide their ill-gotten gains through elective positions in the country’s politics, there are still dubious distinctions that mark them out for who they really are. Unique vocabulary like “tenderprenuer” and “landgrabber” are merely attempts to sanitise blatant theft from public coffers.

As the nation reels and totters along from the effects of corruption, it is easy to see where graft proceeds are. They are hidden in plain sight. Unlike other African states, much of what is stolen from public coffers remains within the country.

Corruptly acquired

For, according to Fritz de Souza’s excerpt, how else does one become a leader without ostentatious displays of wealth, which displays become impossible if hidden in numbered accounts off-shore? Perhaps this is where the corruption fight in Kenya ought to lay the greatest emphasis; in the recovery of what has been stolen from the public over the years.

There is a provision in the Anti-corruption and Economic Crimes Act which allows for wealth, whose procurement cannot be accounted for, to be presumed to be corruptly acquired. Through a legal process, the wealth is then forfeited to the State. For Kenyans, other than public officers, forfeitures can only be done upon conviction.

Where there are no convictions, assets frozen by the Asset Recovery Agency revert to the accused in a zero-sum game. Recovery therefore is a concerted effort between the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Judiciary. Because of the complexity of corruption trials, specialised financial and procurement training is needed within these agencies to ensure conviction of accused persons.

As a referendum on constitutional change is contemplated in the near future, it may be worthwhile to confront the duality of the nation’s being; where corruption is abhorrent in talk only, but thieves are celebrated as national heroes.

Perhaps a stricter application of the dictates of Chapter Six of the Constitution on integrity of public officers, may help resolve that duality. Else, the nation will continue to see an increase in flashy young “billionaires” without the requisite corresponding enterprises, national leaders whose only qualifications are the ability to get away with plunder of public resources.


Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

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Anti-corruption and Economic Crimes ActDirectorate of Criminal InvestigationsDPPGraft proceeds