NAIROBI, Kenya — When it comes to honesty, politicians here don’t usually win many awards.
But even for Kenyans, who have witnessed countless corruption scandals over the years, the graft coming to light now is almost too outrageous to believe.
This week, a parliamentary committee was given a document detailing millions of dollars that disappeared through some very curious government spending. It included thousands of dollars for simple condom dispensers and, apparently, $85 for ballpoint pens — that is, $85 each.
“A pen?” said John Githongo, a leading anticorruption activist. “More than $80 on a single pen? Come on, this is the biggest bunch of crooks to ever run a government in this part of Africa. This is literally the rape of the country, everything from the poaching of our wildlife to the accumulation of debt at an extraordinary level.”
“This is the biggest bunch of crooks to ever run a government in this part of Africa,” said John Githongo, one of Kenya’s leading anticorruption activists.
SIMON MAINA / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE — GETTY IMAGES
“It’s scandal after scandal,” said Mr. Githongo, who was once a senior government anticorruption official but had to flee Kenya because of death threats. (He returned a few years later.) “We don’t have a government. We have a scandal.”
Prices of staples are going up. The currency is tanking. Kenya, historically considered one of the most stable and strategically important nations in Africa, is going deeper and deeper into debt.
Just a few months ago, the government refused to give public schoolteachers a court-ordered raise, saying it had no money, which resulted in an acrimonious strike with children out of class for weeks.
At the same time, the daily newspapers are filled with allegations against ministers and high-ranking officials accused of everything from trying to steal playground land from a primary school to skimming millions off a pipeline contract.
Kenya recently raised $2 billion in a Eurobond, which was supposed to be used for new infrastructure. It is unclear what happened to all that money.
“Can you imagine? We pay taxes, I can barely afford flour, and now this?” said Boniface Wanyama Wekesa, a security guard, looking at a front-page story Wednesday about the $85 pens. “If you’re going to steal,” he said, echoing the famous words of Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), “please, just steal a little.”
The implicated officials have denied any wrongdoing. Manoah Esipisu, a government spokesman, said in a text that “allegations are being investigated.”
“In Kenya,” he wrote, “we believe in our institutions. Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission; director of public prosecutions, judiciary, etc.”
Kenya is a vital Western ally, home to a large Western intelligence community and several Western military bases, overt and covert. It is seen as a reliable bulwark in the battle against the Islamist extremism that troubles neighbors like Somalia. The United States has a tricky line to walk here, because while it needs the Kenyan government’s cooperation for counterterrorism operations, it does not want to be silent on runaway graft.
In July, President Obama, spoke strongly about corruption during a visit to Kenya, saying it “holds back every aspect of economic and civil life.”
The United States announced a joint anticorruption commitment with Kenya and recently pledged more than $1 million to set up a specialized Kenyan investigative unit to uncover public corruption connected to transnational crime. The American ambassador to Kenya, Robert F. Godec, said Wednesday, “The United States is deeply concerned by recent allegations of corruption and the misuse of public funds.”
But the West seems to be banging its head against a wall. Activists say that Kenya’s corruption is only getting worse and that the West needs to say less and do more, like denying visas to any Kenyan official accused of stealing public money. Kenya, after all, is still a poor country where many people don’t have clean water to drink or access to electricity. It is not a stretch to say that many lives are made much harder — or even lost — because of all the stolen money.
Even Robert Mugabe, the longstanding ruler of Zimbabwe, hardly known for good governance, was quoted as saying this past weekend, “Those people of East Africa shock me with their wizardry in stealing.” He added, “You can even think that there is a subject in their universities called Bachelor of Stealing.”
Mr. Mugabe told his countrymen to be on “high alert” in case they visited Kenya. “They might infect you with that disease.”
Kenya is often ranked as one of Africa’s most corrupt nations. Since it has no major oil industry or trove of diamonds or gold, public looting here is usually done through clever and opaque schemes. Big scandals have involved a tangle of companies or complicated currency deals.
But today’s apparent looting spree seems more blatant and desperate, and there may be a few reasons. Already, analysts said, Kenyan politicians are trying to build war chests for the national elections in 2017. The economy is also growing fast, making real estate in Nairobi, the capital, suddenly incredibly valuable, leading to illegal land grabs by those in power.
But Mr. Githongo said it went even deeper than that. He pointed to the fact that Kenya’s two top leaders came into office in 2013 under a cloud, having been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity tied to the violence that broke out after the disputed 2007 election. President Uhuru Kenyatta was eventually cleared, though the case against the vice president, William Ruto, continues.
“This has a major existential impact,” Mr. Githongo said. “It creates a bohemian, permissive atmosphere from the very top to the bottom. People at all levels of government are saying, ‘If our leaders can get away with it, why not us?’ ”