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Corruption in Kenya

Johannes Zutt's picture

On October 26, we learned that Kenya’s rank in Transparency Interational's  Corruption Perceptions Index dropped seven places since 2009.  Kenya now ranks 154 out of 178 countries—well below most of its EAC neighbors.  But how bad is it, in fact?  Will the new Constitution do anything to make the situation better?

In Kenya, no one seriously doubts that corruption is a key constraint to greater growth and prosperity. 

Corruption comes in two forms.  Petty corruption occurs when citizens are asked for kitu kidogo (“a little something”):  to get a document stamped, a service provided, or an infraction overlooked.  The amounts are small, but hardly petty to the many victims living on less than $1 a day.  Kenya also has large-scale corruption—public purchases made at inflated prices; public benefits handed out to people who are not entitled; fictitious companies being paid for contracts that they never executed. 


We read about such things in the paper day after day, and we hear large sums of money associated with behaviors of this kind.  Mention Kenya and corruption, and talk about the unresolved Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing scandals is never far behind.

Corruption is clearly happening in Kenya, and it involves not only the public sector, but also the private sector and civil society.  It is certainly a drag on economic growth and poverty reduction.  But exactly how serious a drag?  How bad is the situation in Kenya, compared for example to the situation in neighboring countries?  The answer is surprising difficult to ascertain.

When people want to answer these questions, they usually turn to corruption indices prepared by organizations like TI.  These indices, which cover many countries and so provide comparability, generally show Kenya ranking much lower than its neighbors.

But how reliable are these indices? 

They typically aggregate perceptions, and perceptions are notoriously difficult to compare.  Is the perception that corruption is really bad in Kenya, and not so bad in its neighbors, partly a consequence of the much higher level of press freedom in Kenya?  Many business leaders in Kenya think so; they believe that the situation for businesses is no worse in Kenya, and in some ways much better.  Are the business people right, or are the indices?

Unsatisfied with qualitative data, some people have tried to obtain more solid quantitative data.  But hard data are not easy to find.  Often we have specific indicators that fraud or corruption has occurred—auditors find companies or contracts that appear to be fictitious; whistleblowers say that contractors are paying bribes or kickbacks; high bid prices suggest that companies are colluding to inflate prices and share the rent gained; civil works exhibit poor quality or lack equipment, suggesting that the contractor has skimmed off the savings. 

These facts are not in themselves proof of fraud or corruption, even if they are often correlated with it.  But even if we investigate and prove the fraud and corruption, it is notoriously difficult to quantify its extent.  If someone pays $500,000 in bribes to get a $60,000,000 contract, and then uses substandard concrete to execute the works, what is the total loss?  Poor concrete on a terrace may not be too serious—but in the walls and ceilings it may impair the entire building and everything inside it.  And if it is difficult to quantify the cost of corruption in specific cases, it is so much more difficult to quantify it across many cases across a whole economy.  Hence, meaningful cross-country comparisons are virtually impossible.

When you look at more objective measures of budgetary management and institutional capacity, there are some well-known objective indicators—and with these indicators, paradoxically, Kenya appears to do quite well.  Kenya’s Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability rating is solidly in line with the other EAC countries. Its Country Policy and Institutional Assessment rating is a bit lower than the other EAC countries—but significantly higher than the average for all IDA countries and for all lower-income countries. 

Kenya scores higher than most of its neighbors in voice, regulatory quality, and budget openness.  Its macroeconomic management has been exemplary—its debt-to-GDP ratio fell from 60% in 2002 to 40% in 2008, even though it has never received HIPC debt relief.  It is hard to square these objective measures of capacity and management with the perceptions of rampant corruption.

Moreover, the Government of Kenya collects about 22% of GDP in revenues—one of the highest revenue mobilizations in sub-Saharan Africa.  I have always been puzzled how that could occur in a country with rampant corruption.  If corruption is so pervasive, why aren’t Kenyan taxpayers using corrupt means to avoid their tax obligations—thereby bringing tax receipts down? And why is tax collection so much lower in ostensibly less corrupt countries?

Another way to compare Kenya’s situation to its neighbors is to look at what the Government is doing to fight corruption. There are three things that any government needs to do to have an impact, and Kenya’s track record is mixed:  strong in two areas, but relatively weak in the crucial third. 

First, a government that is serious about fighting corruption needs to eliminate opportunities for corruption.  This involves reforming institutions to minimize discretion and create checks and balances.  A lot has already been done in Kenya in this respect, e.g., in the road, water and power sectors, and the new Constitution will help to get more of this important work done.

Second, a government needs to be able to detect corruption when it occurs.  This requires strong auditing mechanisms.  There is no better deterrent to corruption than regular professional audits—particularly when audit results are also shared with the public, which can then help to hold errant officials to account.  We have seen some successes in this area recently in Kenya, for example with the maize and education scandals in 2009.  The new Constitution strengths checks and balances as well as the independence of oversight agencies, so it will help in this area as well.

Third, and most important, a government needs to punish corrupt individuals to the full extent of the law. 

If audits indicate possibly corrupt behavior, the evidence of that behavior needs to be referred to competent investigators, who (as warranted) need to present the results of their investigations to prosecutors, who in turn need to pursue corruption cases aggressively through the courts.  Judges need to have the courage to convict, when the facts and the law require it.  Public officials who are under suspicion need to step aside so that investigations can go forward without interference. 

These steps are critical, and this is where Kenya so far has not met the standards that law-abiding citizens can reasonably expect to be met.  But the new Constitution may change that.  Chapter Six of the new Constitution sets out high standards for leadership and integrity in Kenya, and we have recently seen Government officials acting in accordance with those higher standards. 

In October, two ministers, a permanent secretary and a

facing serious allegations of fraud and corruption have all been forced to leave office.

Successfully fighting a culture of impunity requires visible results, and new results will help to change behaviors and perceptions.  Kenya's new Constitution will help.


Submitted by BRUN on
Dear Johannes, I was very interested in this text. In the context of the StAR (Stolen Asset Recovery initiative, I am currently working on the publication of the Asset Recovery Handbook, which was designed as a tool for practitioners conducting investigations and prosecutions involving corruption and diversion of government resources. Also I am also currently working on an OECD/StAR study on quantification of proceeds of corruption which is trying to provide information on how to solve the problem you highlighted (contractors paying bribes, how to assess their illicit profits or the harm caused to governments). I would be very happy to discuss more about possible actions to use these works in the context of Kenyan realities. For example: dissemination of the Handbook in Kenya, interactions with Kenyan officials.... Let me know if I can provide more information on what we do. Jean-Pierre

Submitted by Robert R. Hunja on
Thanks Johannes for this insightful piece. Indeed, those who have more than a cursory knowledge of Kenya are intrigued by this quandry. In a way, Kenya is a very "transparent" place in the sense that a large number of the massive corruption deals are unearthed, reported upon and widely discussed. Clearly,systemic impunity is not deterring bad behaviour. And yet, precisely because of all this reporting and public discussion, Kenya can seem to be more corrupt than its neighbours (particularly when measured by "perception surveys"). In any case, one way in which pressure can be brought to ensure the corrupt are punished is by empowering an informed and well organized citizenry (CSOs, professional organizations, churches, trade unions, etc) to focus like a laser beam on this missing piece. As to our new and shiny contitution, you are right that we have a right to hope. One key challenge, however, will be to build adequate oversight mechanisms over the large chunks of public resources that will now be managed at the county level. greater transparency, new technologies and citizen groups all need to play a role in this.

Submitted by JustAStudent on
And why is tax collection so much lower in ostensibly less corrupt countries? You are assuming that the only impediment to tax collection is corruption, there may be other factors such as collection infrastructure, tracking of taxes, staff competence etc. that may also be hindering tax collection and there is no reason to think that corruption would be the main reason tax collection is low or high.

Submitted by kiburu murigi on
The above text is a masterpiece on the extent of the reality of corruption in Kenya. I have personally being so disturbed like so many other Kenyans I believe on whether this vice will continue for ever in Kenya. We have seen the likes of KACC formed but as we have all witnessed, the vice continues undeterred. The big scandals like Goldenberg are still in the peoples mind and to me ,the government or these commissions should FIRST of all tackle the small forms of corruption eg kitu kidogo to police.chief, public officers etc. These covers a wide spectrum of the populace and when the AG says there ' no evidence to prosecute' in the likes of Anglo leasing cases, ample evidence is available in the everyday small bribes. CCTV cameras can be used in these and consistently so. One wonders why corrupt traffic policemen are ambushed 'just once' and in the full glare of a public relation media coverage, why not daily with no media. Something must be done and the bodies like TI, Mars Group etc can keep the government on its toes on this.

Submitted by Kenyan Chambers on

Indeed one of the predicaments of every successive governments in Kenya.
Your first proposal however needs some reworking; the government needs to get serious but the checks and balances that have been introduced previously only creates layers of corruption.
Dealing with the core of the issue; the rule of law for all citizens will possibly be a better bet.

Kenyan Chambers

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