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Kenya’s corruption crackdown: New era, or political theatre?

A bare piece of land in Kenya's Rift Valley region, where two hydropower and irrigation dams should be standing. Millions of dollars paid out for projects that still exist only on paper. Twenty-eight people charged with financial crimes.

These are the scenes of an international scandal that has roiled Kenya in an extraordinary week that's seen the first sitting minister in the country hauled into court for alleged corruption - and even roped in an Italian executive for good measure.

Financial abuse, graft and fraud have long plagued Kenya, hampering its development, exacerbating inequality and suppressing its economic potential. For some, this week's unprecedented events signal that President Uhuru Kenyatta is at long last winning the war on corruption. But Kenyatta's political rivals are less sanguine, insisting the crackdown is merely a piece of political theatre designed to keep them in check.

Colossal amounts of money have been illegally paid out through a well-choreographed scheme by government officers, private individuals and institutions.NOORDIN HAJI, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC PROSECUTIONS, KENYA

One sitting government minister, two dams, zero work

Of the 27 Kenyan officials charged in the crackdown, the highest-profile is Kenyan Finance Minister Henry Rotich. A Harvard-trained economist, Rotich pleaded not guilty to a raft of charges including abuse of office, conspiracy to defraud the public, failure to comply with guidelines relating to procurement, and financial misconduct, among others.

Rotich was released on cash bail along with his deputy at the National Treasury, Kamau Thugge, who also denied any wrongdoing. On Wednesday, President Kenyatta appointed the country's labour minister to the position of acting finance minister. The chief magistrate presiding over the case, Douglas Ogoti, had ordered Rotich and Thugge not to return to work at the Treasury, describing their offices as a crime scene.

The roots of those alleged crimes stem from the Arror and Kimwarer dam projects in Elgeyo Marakwet County in Kenya's Rift Valley region. An Italian firm, CMC di Ravenna, won the contract to build the dams four years ago. But ground has not been broken on either project, despite $180m being paid out, according to prosecutors.

Kenya's Director of Public Prosecutions, Noordin Haji, alleges that no due diligence had been done on vetting CMC di Ravenna before it was awarded the contract to build the dams. The company - which is currently struggling to pay its debts - has denied any wrongdoing and says it is cooperating with Kenyan authorities. Haji is seeking to extradite CMC di Ravenna's Italian director, Paolo Porcelli, on corruption charges.

The company has not responded to Al Jazeera's requests for comment.

Since complaints were first filed about the dam projects last September, officials from Kenya's Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) have uncovered a litany of alleged irregularities in connection with the tenders.

The original contract, which stipulated that CMC di Ravenna would finance the projects, was restructured to have the Kenyan government borrow the funds instead, according to prosecutors. Though the projects were originally budgeted at $456m, the Kenyan treasury took out a loan for $609m from a consortium of European banks.

Prosecutors also learned that while CMC di Ravenna South Africa Ltd won the bid to construct the dams, the contract agreement was signed by a different legal entity. Yet another entity - CMC di Ravenna's Kenyan subsidiary - received an advance of funds.

The money trail has led investigators to odd places. Earlier this year, DCI officials said that contractors assigned to the projects had used part of the money to pay for industrial quantities of towels, duvets, pillows and bedsheets. A supermarket was awarded a lucrative contract to supply food to the construction site - where no work had ever been done.

"The conception, procurement and payment process for the Arror and Kimwarer Dam projects were riddled with massive illegalities," Haji told reporters in Nairobi Monday.

"Colossal amounts of money have been illegally paid out through a well-choreographed scheme by government officers, private individuals and institutions."

This is a milestone. We have never had such progress in pursuing mega corruption before.ROBERT SHAW, PUBLIC POLICY AND ECONOMIC ANALYST

New era or political theatre?

As recently as last month, President Kenyatta's war on corruption appeared to be foundering.

To date, not a single Kenyan public official charged with graft has been convicted. Nearly all mega-corruption scandals remain unsolved, and over 95 corruption cases are currently pending.

The president has accused the country's judiciary of weakening the war on graft by releasing suspects on favourable bail terms or issuing lenient sentences. In February, Kenya's Chief Justice, David Maraga, added more magistrates to the anti-corruption court and directed them to sit longer hours to expedite the caseload.

But some believe the spectre of seeing the country's finance minister held to account in court marks a turning point for Kenya.

"This is a milestone. We have never had such progress in pursuing mega corruption before," Robert Shaw, a Kenyan public policy and economic analyst, told Al Jazeera. "What is important to watch now is how thorough and watertight the prosecution case will be."

But there are powerful voices in Kenyan politics countering that narrative.

Kenyatta has been accused of using the corruption crackdown to rein in political opponents - most notably Deputy President William Ruto, who harbours ambitions to win the presidency in 2022, when Kenyatta must step aside.

Ruto hails from the Rift Valley. He has, along with Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen, vigorously defended the dam projects, claiming that the investigations surrounding them are being driven by political adversaries who are trying to prevent development in the Rift Valley - and by extension, suppress its political clout.

Murkomen, who stood by Finance Minister Rotich in court Tuesday, described this week's events as "just a PR stunt" to lie to Kenyans that the fight against corruption was gaining headway.

Some observers of Kenyan politics question why politicians from the Rift Valley are not welcoming the rooting out of alleged graft on their home turf.

"The default reaction should have been for them to drum [up] support for an inquiry that would unearth any wrongdoing on the part of the culprits that are now before court and recovery of any lost funds if indeed so that the projects can be resuscitated," said Macharia Munene, professor of history and international relations at the United States International University in Kenya.

"'Whose interests are the politicians advancing?' is the question to ask ourselves here," Munene told Al Jazeera.

On Thursday, a member of Parliament from the Rift Valley called on Kenyatta to resign, saying the political union between the president and Ruto was irretrievably broken.

If precedent is any guide, those charged in connection with the dam projects could yet walk away with little more than a slap on the wrist. But some are adamant that this week's events do mark a new era that is dawning in Kenya.

"The fact that the case has got this far is sending a strong message all around that economic crimes and corruption are going to be prosecuted from now onwards," said Shaw. "The risk factor has become higher."

This article was originally published on Al Jazeera.


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