“A politician… must be prepared to go to jail”. That was the message from Paul Ongili, affectionately known as Babu Owino, the Kenyan MP for Embakasi East. To the unaware observer, such a poignant verse attributed to an East African politician could be indicative of an activist struggling for justice against the machinery of the state.
But Babu Owino currently stands accused of attempted murder, after CCTV footage captured the legislator propped against a nightclub bar at seven in the morning, raising a gun and shooting the DJ in the neck. He denies the charge.
Perhaps then, these are the prophetic ramblings of a condemned man consigned to his fate?
Neither could be further from the truth. Babu Owino will, in all likelihood, never spend another night inside a jail cell. This is Kenya after all.
Having served just 10 days in prison, he was released on a cash bail of US$100,000, which was ordered to go towards the victim’s medical bills (Kenyan MPs earn around US$140,000 a year). And now, in the latest turn of events, the presiding judge has recused himself from the case citing objections raised to these very bail conditions.
Owino is a free man, and he will remain so, most likely, indefinitely. His trial will no doubt go on for years, bogged down in a legal system designed to protect those of his ilk. Eventually, once the media attention has died, and all credible delays have been exhausted, the case will be dropped.
Kenya has a terrible track record of successfully convicting high-profile lawmakers. Chris Okemo, the former energy minister, and Samuel Gichuru, a former head of Kenya’s state power company, managed to forestall their extradition trial to Jersey for nine years before it was quashed.
The President, Uhuru Kenyatta, lays blame at the feet of the judicial “crooks” that preside over these cases. But that is an oversimplified answer to a complex question.
Failed prosecutions and collapsed trials benefit everyone for two reasons. Firstly, lawmakers can wax lyrical about how hard they are coming down on the “cancer” of corruption. They can point to the arrest of Henry Rotich, the erstwhile finance minister, implicated in a US$450m procurement scandal last year. Or that of Nairobi governor Mike Sonko, indicted for a litany of crimes including money laundering and the appropiration county funds.
High-profile arrests look good for a president eager to leave an honest legacy, something no doubt in the forefront of his mind given how divided opinion was over that of Daniel arap Moi.
Secondly, an arrest followed by an acquittal is a great way of keeping someone in line. With the threat of prosecution hanging, those implicated in various scandals will think again about questioning government policy.
In stark contrast, three street vendors were arrested in Nairobi last week for using plastic bags. The men, selling sugar cane, passion fruit and plums, either face fines of up to US$40,000 or serious jail time.
So long as the lawmakers are permitted to live with impunity, it is the poor who will continue to suffer.