Obama’s parting shot of hope and tough anti-graft stance

US President Barack Obama showed Kenya tough love on Sunday, telling its leadership to tackle corruption, deepen democracy and end ethnic and gender-based exclusion even as he expressed confidence in the country’s potential to prosper.

Mr Obama described corruption as the obstacle that is blocking Kenya’s progress, saying it was high time the country severed links with the present reality in which pilferage of public resources is considered a normal way of life.

In his speech to the Kenyan nation from Nairobi’s Safaricom Stadium, Kasarani, Mr Obama urged Kenya to fight corruption at all levels and back it up with tough laws in the books.

The US leader said it was hurting to see how corruption was being allowed to squander opportunity, eating away 250,000 jobs annually in a country where overall and youth unemployment stands at a whopping 40 per cent and 70 per cent respectively.

“Every shilling that is paid as a bribe could be put in the pocket of somebody who’s actually doing an honest day’s work,” Mr Obama said, underlining the high opportunity cost of graft to the economy.

Mr Obama said tackling corruption could add impetus to the country’s journey to greatness, noting that a lot of progress has been made over the past decade.

Kenya is at a crossroads, Mr Obama said, insisting that the path chosen by leaders and the people — in entrenching good governance and eliminating discrimination — will determine the country’s future.

Corruption has been particularly rife in the public sector, where taxpayers lose billions of shillings through wastage, pilferage and outright theft.

That reality is confirmed by the fact that the majority of Kenya’s super-rich are former civil servants or entrepreneurs primarily doing business with the government.

Mr Obama on Saturday observed that prevalence of corruption could scare away foreign investment — which is critical for job creation and skills transfer — as it inflates the cost of doing business.

Low-level public servants, including police officers, also ask for bribes in their day-to-day delivery of services to citizens, increasing the cost of living and stifling ordinary people’s potential to prosper.

President Uhuru Kenyatta launched his war on corruption in March with the tabling in Parliament of a ‘‘list of shame’’ that saw him suspend five Cabinet secretaries and senior government officials.

Kenya has over the years struggled in its fight against corruption and systemic exclusion of segments of its population from public goods and economic activity.

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This has generated despondency among the general public, who view every new campaign to get rid of the vice with scepticism.

Mr Obama is the latest to speak out on corruption in Kenya, a vice that has been identified as one of the leading causes of rising inequality and relatively slower rate of economic growth.

The 2014 Human Development Index (HDI), published by the United Nations, found that Kenya’s wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a small segment of the population, placing the country among the world’s most unequal societies.

The report indicates that the incomes of the richest 20 per cent of the population rose steadily in the past decade to stand at 11 times more than the total incomes of the poorest 20 per cent, leaving Kenya as East Africa’s second most unequal society after Rwanda.

The study says that despite improved incomes, access to healthcare and education, only a small portion of the Kenyan population has benefited directly from growth.

Each of Kenya’s 42 million citizens would earn Sh189,624 ($2,158) annually were total income distributed equally, the study says, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon as the rich continue to get richer, widening the gap between them and the poor.

The UN report says the income gap between the two extreme segments of the population (top and bottom) is smaller in three other East African Community member states — standing at 8.7 times in Uganda, 6.6 times in Tanzania and 4.8 times in Burundi.

Ranked by the Gini Coefficient — a measure of income gap that assigns zero to perfect equality and 100 to absolute inequality — Kenya’s score stands at 47.7 behind Rwanda’s 50.8 but 10 points above Burundi, the East African nation with the best wealth distribution at 33.3.

Overall, the UN ranks Kenya at position 147 globally with an HDI score of 0.535 for the period that ended December 2013. 

The HDI is a statistical tool that the UN uses to measure a country’s achievements in social and economic spheres and is computed by tracking changes over time and comparing scores across the globe.

Key HDI score components include the health of citizens, educational attainment and standards of living.

The UN report warns that Kenya’s poor HDI score, which has been improving at a slower pace, would slow down any efforts to move the country to the medium human development status that requires scores of 0.614 and above.

Mr Obama noted that there still exist major gaps in areas like education and life expectancy, which make up the HDI.

He said, for instance, that a girl in Rift Valley is far less likely to attend secondary school than a girl in Nairobi.

Mr Obama was alluding to regional inequalities in Kenya that have been blamed on the previous centralised system of government that was abused by past regimes.

Mr Obama also urged Kenyans to stop gender discrimination and shun ethnic-based politics, which he said risk tearing the country apart.