NAIROBI, Kenya – An agitated police officer ordered a minibus to stop and its passengers to disembark, saying the vehicle was not roadworthy. The officer got into the bus, then jumped out moments later, merrily swinging his baton.
The passengers re-boarded the rickety minibus, and the driver offered an explanation.
"He wanted lunch money," the driver explained in a scene witnessed by an Associated Press reporter in Kenya's capital last week.
Similar scenes play out every day in East Africa's largest economy, where corruption has become a way of life.
Patrick Lumumba, the head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, told the AP that corruption in Kenya — if left unchecked — could lead to the types of anti-government revolutions seen across North Africa and the Middle East.
"The lesson learned is that if we allow corruption to grow into a monster then insecurity will come in and unemployment will come in and the young population who are young and restless and who cannot find employment will vent their anger in a manner that would threaten the rule of law and democracy and would lead to chaos," Lumumba said.
Lumumba said that corruption kills, and he called graft "worse than AIDS."
Millions of dollars in taxes meant for roads, health care, free primary school education and clean water projects are stolen from public coffers every year. The theft of drugs meant to fight diseases or money meant to build safer roads leads directly to deaths, Lumumba said. Police officers allow ill-maintained vehicles to continue driving for a small fee.
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe did not answer calls for comment concerning allegations of corruption among the police.
Transparency International, in its 2010 corruption perception index, ranked Kenya close to the bottom — 154 out of 178. Kenya was listed as more corrupt than Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt — all of which have seen recent anti-government protests, fueled in part, but not entirely, by anger over corruption and government ineffectiveness.
Social inequality caused by corruption in part led to Kenya's 2007 to 2008 postelection violence that left over 1,000 people dead, according to a government report on the events. Frustrated, unemployed youth were behind most of the violence, joining tribal militias and gangs at the behest of politicians fighting for power, the October 2008 report said.
No firm figures exist on Kenya's unemployment rate, but it is estimated to be more than 40 percent.
Lumumba said corruption is the reason Kenya has stagnated. He said owners of minibuses — the most common means of public transportation here — say they pay up to $21 million in bribes to traffic policemen and judicial officers in order to keep their poorly maintained vehicles on the road. Deadly minibus accidents are common.
George Nyongesa, an official with the National Youth Forum — a youth empowerment group — said a pledge by Kenya's coalition government to tackle corruption and reduce unemployment has failed.
"The same triggers that led to the political revolutions in the Arab world, those same triggers are here. They just need an instigation, and the way I see it is that the wind of change is blowing from the Arab world southwards. I think that wind is gaining momentum," Nyongesa said.
On Tuesday, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki told parliament that the government will create laws as required by the country's new constitution to ensure that younger Kenyans have access to employment, education and training.
"I have decided that this matter must be addressed urgently," Kibaki said.
Kibaki won the presidency in 2002 by promising to root out the corruption that had become endemic under the 24-year rule of his predecessor, President Daniel arap Moi. In the early days of Kibaki's tenure, Kenyans made citizens arrests of traffic police officers demanding bribes from minibuses, signaling their hopes for change.
However, two years later, a major scandal tainted Kibaki's reformist credentials when it emerged that key members of his Cabinet were implicated in a scam where Kenya paid millions of dollars in security contracts to fictitious companies.
Violence erupted in late 2007 after Kibaki was declared the winner of an election that international observers and Raila Odinga, his main challenger in the presidential race, said was flawed. An agreement to bring peace, mediated by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, formed a coalition government in which Odinga became prime minister.
Lumumba said that since taking up his post in August, he has instituted changes that have resulted in the prosecution of a serving Cabinet minister for the illegal importation of used cars and the prosecution of Nairobi's mayor.
Still, critics say that prosecutions mean nothing if they do not result in convictions. Lumumba says one challenge he faces is that his organization lacks prosecutorial power and must hand over cases to the Attorney General.
Lumumba, a respected lawyer by profession, said he has received deaths threats.
He said the government needs to start making serious long-term investments by opening industries to create jobs. He said a presidential initiative — Jobs for Youths — in which young men are given temporary jobs such as garbage collectors is a stopgap measure that will not have a meaningful impact.
Ultimately, Lumumba said, the fight against corruption will be won when Kenyans change their value system.
"We have no national ethos. We celebrate thieves and give them elective positions," he said.