Last month, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua presided over a harambee to contribute money for the funeral and burial expenses of 53 Kenyans who lost their lives in a road accident at Londiani in Kericho County.
It was a worthy course that should have been celebrated had claims not emerged later that the money meant for the victims had been embezzled by county government officers.
Kericho Governor Eric Mutai dismissed claims by his deputy and a county assembly member that some of the Sh13.5 million raised was pocketed by county officers instead of assisting in burying the dead.
“He did not contribute even a single cent and yet he is making false claims,” responded Mutai to the corruption claims leveled against him by his deputy.
Harambees were popular during the rule of presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi’s Kanu era but were discouraged by President Mwai Kibaki between 2002 and 2012.
The Public Officer Ethics Act 2003, which prohibits public officials from presiding over harambees, was enacted by the Kibaki administration because it was argued the money was being used as a conduit for corruption and money laundering.
Kibaki therefore dealt a severe blow to the practice of using harambees to boost popularity among the voters through the 2003 Act, which banned MPs and Cabinet Ministers from presiding over harambees.
It was argued that in some cases, politicians diverted money collected in fundraising meetings to fund their campaigns while in other cases the money was either embezzled or was never used for intended purposes.
It, however, later emerged that the politicians still managed to flout the law by using their friends or relatives or close allies as chief guests.
But more worrying is the fact that the raising of huge sums of money through harambees has continued in different forms like expenses for weddings, merry-go-round collections, burial and funeral expenses, and school fees among others.
A few days ago, lawyer Danstan Omari told journalists at Milimani court that jealous suitors took his client, a Kenya Rural Roads Authority (KeRRA) official to court over Sh21 million he had received through contributions for his wedding.
He had appeared in court to defend his client Daniel Wambua after the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) got orders to freeze his accounts including one account that has the amount which he claimed was specifically for dowry payment.
The lawyer said the account was opened specifically for dowry payments, and his family and friends had contributed to that kitty.
During President Kibaki’s term, a law was passed limiting cash deposits in banks to not more than Sh500,000 unless the source is properly explained which was still in force until it was recently lifted by the current administration.
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Politicians have over the years used money, especially the hefty contributions they make at Harambee meetings to peddle influence and position themselves as benefactors and not servants of the constituents.
Some powerful people in the current administration have also extended their philanthropy to evangelical churches where they have conducted harambees and raised millions of shillings.
The Catholic church has frowned at such gestures and banned politicians from donating money to the church or speaking at their sacred pulpits.
Nyeri Archbishop Anthony Muheria is among the most vocal critics of politicians who use churches as fundraising platforms and has in the past told them to keep proceeds of corruption away from the church.
He has repeatedly said that the clergy cannot tell the source of the donations once they get to the church: “It is not the amount. It is where it has come from. Don’t bring dirty money in church.”
When President Kibaki took over in 2002, he appointed a task force chaired by then Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere to collect views from the public on whether the country needed harambees at all.
Koigi later wrote an opinion article after delivering his team’s report to the president and said harambees by politicians don’t develop the country but instead, they corrupt voters and buy power.
Koigi says their task included why the Moi administration institutionalised harambees but left the country in financial ruin and the word harambee had become synonymous with corruption and oppression.
“Tragically, when harambee contributions were made, the question of where the money had come from or whether the money was clean or not was never raised,” says Wamwere.
He says with the acceptance of the money irrespective of where it came from, harambees became money laundering exercises for cleansing corrupt money that was stolen from the government.
The task force also reported that churches that were expected to be the conscience of the nation could not take harambee money without questioning its sources.
And so taking the money would amount to cleansing the funds and its contributors and also clergy compromising their own consciences.
“The failure to question harambee money could only encourage corruption. The task force felt no God could sanction contributions of stolen money to church harambees which continue to date,” he added.
He further claims that people who lacked the courage to question the sources of harambee money also auctioned and mortgaged their individual and national morality to the highest bidder.
But as harambee was given an economic and social function, it also has a political function as a political public auction where leaders buy power and people sell leadership to candidates who pay most for their votes during elections.