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US accuses Kenyan officials of corruption in contract awards

 Demonstrators run from tear gas fired by police at a protest against corruption, in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, on Aug. 21, 2020. [AP Photo]

American firms are losing out on business and contracts in Kenya because top government officials demand bribes, the U.S. trade office said in a report released last week, warning that corruption will hurt foreign investment.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, American businesses are finding it hard to secure Kenyan government contracts meant to develop the East African nation because senior government officials seek a bribe before awarding such jobs.

The 2024 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers said that the contracts are going mainly to foreign firms willing to pay the bribes.

This level of corruption, say the authors of the report, will cause Kenya to lose future investment from businesses and countries that shun or punish corrupt activities.

Cleophas Malala, secretary general of Kenya’s ruling party, acknowledged that Kenya's procurement and payment system has been a problem but said President William Ruto and the government are working to solve the problem.

"We know it's a challenge to us, but the president is keen on fighting corruption. You’ve seen how hard he has been. He moved very swiftly when the KEMSA saga came up,” Malala said, referring to a corruption scandal last year involving a $28 million contract that led to the dismissal of the top officials at Kenya’s Medical Supplies Authority.

“He has been steadfast in ensuring that any public officer who gets involved in corrupt activities languishes his position and faces the rule of law,” Malala said. “As a political party, we've said time and again that we are not going to defend anybody."

According to a survey by Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the country’s interior, health and transport ministries are the most corrupt. The survey showed that the size of the average bribe doubled in 2023.

Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi told VOA that American businesses are simply being asked to follow what has become a standard procedure in Kenya.

"Kenyans pay bribes every day, not because they want to, but because they are forced to,” Mwangi said. “If you want to apply for an ID, you need to pay a bribe. You go to the police, you tell them to investigate a crime, you pay a bribe. You want to ask for a passport, you pay for a bribe. We are a bribe nation.

“One of the reasons the Chinese succeed in this country very well in doing business is because they are able to pay to play,” he said, adding, “The Americans are not told to do something that is not common. They've been asked to do what's been the norm in this country. ... Corruption is a way of life in our country."

Last year, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission said the lack of transparency, accountability and public participation in some government projects creates a breeding ground for corruption.

That aligns with the U.S. trade office report, which said American firms complained of excessive complexity and inefficiency in the procurement process for contracts.

Malala said the government is working to change some of the procurement laws to help fight corruption and allow investors to compete fairly.

"We would want to ensure that all our investors get justice when it comes to the procurement system," he said.

Kenya finished low on the Transparency International corruption rankings for 2023, ranking 126th out of 180 countries measured for perception and prevalence of corruption.

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