Conflict of Interest: The Unholy Matrimony of Politics and Business Deals in Kenya

The firestorm caused by President Uhuru Kenyatta's unconfirmed trade deal with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni is discussed to in my book "Wuodha: My Journey from Kenya to these United States": The unusually strong and incestuous relationship between political power and wealth in Kenya. This phenomenon is illustrated by the number of wealthy Kenyans who also happen to be politicians, family members of politicians and/or friends of said politicians. To be clear, I also point out that this complementary relationship between politics and wealth is not unique to Kenya: America also has its share of wealthy individuals who have transformed their economic wealth into political power and vice versa.

The Kennedys and Bushes parlayed the wealth of their respective patriarchs Joe Kennedy and George Prescott Bush into three occupancies of the White House. On the other end is Bill Clinton who, notoriously less-than-wealthy when he became president in 1992, now sits atop a foundation valued at one quarter billion dollars. Finally, the current occupant of the White House Barack H. Obama (and his wife Michelle) famously paid off their student loans in 2004; the same year he made his well-received speech at the July 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Mr. Obama went on to author the block-buster memoir "Dreams From My Father" and the wonkish "The Audacity of Hope." Royalties from the two books form the basis of the former community organizer's familial wealth.

Unlike the shameless use of political office to enrich oneself commonplace in Kenya, the one thing that most developed countries have that does not make the relationship between political office and wealth accumulation near-immutable is a system of checks-and-balances that tempers the avarice that frankly is a function of being human AND having power. Regulations that require persons seeking or holding political office to create blind trusts to manage their wealth are virtually non-existent in Kenya or if they are, they are flouted with the impunity that is as Kenyan as corrupt government officials! Wikipedia defines a "blind trust" thus:

"A....trust in which the trustees.....have been given power of attorney (and)....have full discretion over the assets and the....beneficiaries (owners) of the trust have no knowledge of the holdings of the trust and no right to intervene in their handling. Blind trusts are generally used.......to keep the beneficiary unaware of the specific assets in the trust, such as to avoid conflict of interest between the beneficiary and the investments. Politicians or others in sensitive positions often place their personal assets (including investment income) into blind trusts, to avoid public scrutiny and accusations of conflicts of interest when they direct government funds to the private sector."

It thus comes as no surprise when the publication "Business Daily" publishes the article "Kenyatta Business Empire Goes into Expansion Drive;" a piece whose message is simple and straightforward: With Uhuru Kenyatta as president, it is indeed the Kenyatta family's turn to eat - again. Underscoring the uniquely Kenyan trait of political power, unabashed accumulation of wealth and unapologetic disregard of conflict of interest protocols is the following quote from the article:

"It also helps that Uhuru is now president, providing the family with a strong shield against any risks arising from unfavorable and unpredictable government policies that send fear down the spines of many investors in Africa."

This marriage of politics and business interests in Kenya was first set in motion after independence when the country's first president and Uhuru's father Jomo Kenyatta allegedly taunted Mau Mau stalwart Bildad Kaggia for having little (material wealth) to show for his role in the struggle for independence. Unlike Mr. Kaggia, Jomo Kenyatta, his family and his friends absolutely, demonstrably AND generously helped themselves to "matunda ya uhuru."

If anyone ever wondered why those in power are willing to go to any lengths to maintain hold on said power, the Business Daily article, summarized by the foregoing quote should put that wonderment to rest. Similarly, anyone who doubted the brutality these paragons of Kenyan society are capable of sinking to just needs to look at the obscene amount of wealth they have accumulated over the years they have been in power or close to it.

While there is nothing wrong with the legal and transparent accumulation of wealth, it is not inconceivable to draw the rather dark conclusion that there are those willing to allow or facilitate death and destruction to amass and protect said wealth. As an example, Kenyans who are quick to point out that the US invaded Iraq to "keep the oil for its economy flowing" are curiously reticent when asked to delve into some of the reasons behind the tribal violence one can almost set their clock by every 5 years. It is equally telling that "Business Daily" can make the assertion that Uhuru's presidency is a boon for his family's businesses without being called out by the parliament or the Fourth Estate.

The claim that Mr. Kenyatta's presidency "...provides the family with a strong shield against any risks arising from unfavorable and unpredictable government policies..." is the very definition of insider trading, a charge the Kenyan-equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Capital Markets Authority (CMA) should be very interested in. It is also abuse of office and use of office for personal gains - actions the anti-corruption commission would be investigating - were it a credible agency.

In the competitive global marketplace, Kenya has little choice but to be competitive or risk falling behind. Expanding trade with Uganda and other foreign markets makes sense. What does NOT make sense and is counter-productive to the country's long-term competitiveness is (i) the secretive manner in which trade deals are negotiated, (ii) the lack of competitive bidding and bias in awarding deals, (iii) the perception that some deals are detrimental to industries owned or monopolized by the opposition even as others seem to benefit industries owned or monopolized by family and friends of those in power.