Newly released WikiLeaks cables offer an insight into corruption, collusion and strained relations in Kenya’s power-sharing government while reaffirming the importance to Kenya’s politicians of influencing American opinion.
In one cable, Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Commission Director, Justice Ringera, claimed that “every mover and shaker” in Kenyan politics is corrupt, describing a situation amounting to kleptocracy, while in others, President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga are shown to make efforts to undermine each other.
Michael Ranneberger, the US Ambassador to Kenya, lists a number of cabinet “low-lights”, naming nine cabinet ministers as potentially being involved in previous corruption scandals. Further, Kibaki and Odinga are both explicitly linked to corruption scandals. Minister of Finance Uhuru Kenyatta is the only senior politician not assumed to be engaged in corruption – and it is postulated that this is only because he is wealthy enough to avoid blame through his family’s ill-gotten gains.
Kibaki’s election as President in 2002 was accompanied by a sense of euphoria, and belief that corruption might be brought to a halt. This optimism has long since faded, as it became increasingly apparent that it was just the “time to eat” for a different group of people.
Within the coalition government, corruption is seen to be both a unifying factor and a cause for tensions. It is unifying as politicians have, at times, a vested interest in protecting each other through fear of their own exposure. In June 2008, Ranneberger worried that the coalition government, “Has given some of the country's most egregious thieves a new lease on [sic] life and strengthened their already strong sense of impunity”. Ringera claimed that it was “impossible” for the coalition government to fight corruption because it would be “killing itself". Could any of Kenya’s political elite throw the first stone? The coalition government has emerged as representing “everyone’s time to eat” – every one of Kenya’s political elite, at least. The cables lambast the extent of corruption within the coalition as a “feeding frenzy.”
A propensity among the elite to scapegoat others to save themselves is emerging. Pressure to take some action against corruption during the maize and education scandals led to Kibaki suspending several officials. Odinga, not to be outdone, responded by firing the Agriculture and Education Ministers. Kibaki questioned Odinga’s decision, claiming the Prime Minister did not have the authority to fire ministers. Contestation over who could be seen as taking the most decisive action on corruption in a short-term, highly pressurized situation, revealed the ambiguities of who held authority within the power-sharing, and developed into a “crisis” for the coalition government. Thus, while long-term vested interests in elite collusion over continuing corruption remain, short-term crisis situations have put the government at risk in the attempt to seem committed to the anti-corruption agenda.
Owing to the high level involvement in the maize and education scandals, there was no question of extending the corruption investigation to the principal players. Nor is there much chance of those involved in the AngloLeasing or Goldenberger scandals being brought to justice, although the Americans insist, perhaps wishfully, that it is harder to steal public money in Kenya today than five years ago.
Corruption is nothing new in Kenya, but these cables provide new, dramatic evidence of it. Inadvertently, the leaks also reveal American influence in Kenyan politics. Active intervention in local politics is mentioned, especially around Kofi Annan's negotiations for a coalition government, and clear American interest in corruption, which is thought to increasingly characterise US-Kenyan relations. Yet it is the attempts by Kenya’s political elite to delegitimise their opponents to the Americans which are more telling. The authors of the cables themselves seem surprised at times at the ease with which the information was collected.
Unflattering things that important politicians have said about each other to Embassy officials are also exposed. Kibaki said Odinga was, “impossible to work with”. He was also revealed to have not taken strong action against Uganda for ‘grabbing’ Migingo Island in order to undermine Odinga. Minister for the Environment and Mineral Resources, John Michuki, who was the Internal Security Minister, claimed an Odinga presidency would be ethnically driven, dictatorial, short-lived, and likely to end in his assassination. He also warned American officials that Odinga’s undergraduate thesis was on building nail bombs. Vice-President Musyoka claimed that an Odinga presidency would be a revolution and that he would prefer a Kibaki presidency. However, to give him a clear run in the 2007 elections, he asked that George Bush pressure Kibaki into not seeking a second term on health grounds, claiming, “I don’t know if it’s the drugs they’re giving him, but he’s sleeping on the job”.
Politicians are now frantically backtracking to claim that these statements are only “rumours”. Musyoka has taken particular offense, claiming Ranneberger has wasted his tour of duty in the country by engaging in irrelevant issues rather than the mandate issued to him by his government. One might ask why Kenya’s elite felt the need to share so much of this information with the American ambassador and embassy officials in the first place. The rather desperate allegations of nail bombs and drugs reveal just how influential America is in Kenyan politics, and the importance of courting American favour, or at least being able to cast doubts over political opponents.
The profile of Kenya’s political elite which emerges from cables is thus important. Kibaki is presented as a nuanced character, but as over-reliant on his aides, especially the head of the Civil Service, Francis Muthaura, who is described as a “shadow president”. Odinga is portrayed as weak, unable or unwilling to move the reform agenda forward having lost much of his support, but still a resilient figure. Musyoka is treated especially disparagingly, his born-again Christianity hiding political opportunism, and his designs on the 2012 Presidency laid bare. Uhuru Kenyatta, the Minister of Finance, and another potential presidential candidate for 2012, are considered to be bright and charismatic, but also lazy and a heavy drinker.
American opinions on these politicians clearly matter to the elite, and the leaks give ordinary Kenyans a chance to see America’s candid views of its politicians. A wealth of ammunition has been provided for opponents, and the unity of Kenya's political class will be tested by the revelations. The leaked cables are likely to have an impact in Kenyan politics, especially so close to the 2012 presidential elections.
However, America also appears to be paranoid about losing influence to the Chinese in Kenya, particularly within the information and communications technology sector. Chinese influence is described as “insidious”. China is portrayed as “re-colonising Africa”, buying politicians, and providing goods with poor service. Technocrats are under pressure from their political masters to buy Chinese. Chinese firms play dirty, and the Chinese government is either turning a blind eye or encouraging it.
If it was not so easy to swap “Chinese” for “American” this particular cable would probably seem a little more credible. As it is, the WikiLeaks revelations from the Nairobi Embassy have provided more evidence of corruption and collusion among a tense coalition government, and the importance of the American Embassy in Kenyan politics.