In Kenya a new bill proposes the introduction of lifestyle audits for public servants in a bid to tackle corruption.
Lifestyle audits are a tool that organizations can use to identify potential fraud and corruption. They seek to expose disparities between the income of those under review and the lifestyle they lead, from the property they own to the car they drive. In the process, those who are shown to have a modest salary, but a demonstrably extravagant way of living will be among those flagged as potential targets for further investigation.
The Lifestyle Audit Bill 2019 is being touted as a move which could help expose graft and rebuild trust in public office. The proposal to introduce lifestyle audits in the country was first announce in May 2018 by President Kenyatta. The President said that the process would start from the very top, with himself and the Vice President to be among the first subjected to new levels of scrutiny.
While the Public Officer and Ethics Act of 2003 already requires state officials to file declarations of wealth when they join the public service, and every two years thereafter, setting out their assets and liabilities, access to this information is highly restricted.
Having a system in place for conducting lifestyle audits would be a welcome move, as is the introduction of any additional layer of scrutiny on public officials. For starters, the move could help temper wild speculation and the often-politicised nature of allegations traded between parties and their representatives on the subject. Exactly how effective they would be in tackling corruption, however, would depend on several factors.
First and foremost among these is the question of who will conduct the audits and who signs off on that decision. If the audits are conducted by a potentially biased or compromised outfit then the whole exercise will be undermined from the start. To avoid lifestyle audits from becoming at best an exercise in window dressing and at worst a front for a political witch hunt the independence of the auditor must be assured. Ideally their appointment will be approved by the judiciary.
Secondly, the exercise must be properly resourced. As it stands Kenya has a huge backlog of cases. For example, according to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) CEO Twalib Mbarak there are at least 357 cases worth Sh8.5 billion pending at various Land and Environment Courts in the country. As it stands anti-corruption agencies in the country appear to be woefully underfunded. The budget allocation for the EACC in 2019/20 was just Sh2.9 billion, despite the fact that in the year prior the commission recovered approximately Sh22.56 billion worth of illegally acquired public assets and claims to have averted losses of around Sh135 billion through disruptions.
Thirdly, the results of the audits must be made public in order to promote additional scrutiny and guard against the temptation of selective application.
Fourth, the findings must be followed by action. Lifestyle audits are a helpful tool in the fight against corruption, but they will not produce the necessary evidence for prosecution of allegedly perpetrators. Audits can also reveal disparities that, upon further investigation, have a perfectly innocent explanation, for example in the case of inherited wealth. They represent only the first step towards exposing the corrupt, securing a conviction and recovering the associated assets.
All-in-all the introduction of lifestyle audits should be a positive step in part of a wider move to increase transparency, which is sorely needed in order to rebuild trust in public officials and reduce the space for corrupt actors. With Public Prosecutor Noordin Haji previously stating that the estimated amount of stolen funds amounts to US$2 billion, their introduction must be fast-tracked without delay.