Kenyan Corruption Undermines Fight Against Extremism

A survivor of an attack by islamist gunmen claimed by al-Shabab on a university campus in Garissa, northern Kenya is comforte
A survivor of an attack by islamist gunmen claimed by al-Shabab on a university campus in Garissa, northern Kenya is comforted by a colleague after arriving in Nairobi on April 4, 2015. Kenya's President, Uhuru Kenyatta vowed Saturday, to retaliate in the severest way against Somalia's al-Shabab islamists after they massacred nearly 150 people at a university. AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI -- Parts of Kenya's capital are having a dramatic makeover in the weeks before President Obama's arrival at the end of the month. The pope is also due to travel here in November, and workers are sprucing up the route from the airport to the central district by laying stones and grass in anticipation of these high-profile visitors. While there is general excitement about President's Obama's visit -- the first by a sitting U.S. president to the country -- there is some grumbling about the extra traffic problems the trip will cause, and about the suspension of Nairobi's cellphone networks for the duration of the visit, for "security reasons."

Some are worried too that Obama will adopt a "preachy" tone with Kenyan officials about human rights abuses. This undoubtedly won't go over well in a country fully aware of the record of Guantanamo, CIA torture renditions, and other U.S. failures.

But civil society leaders insist he must raise issues anyway in a diplomatic manner, especially the endemic problem of corruption. In 2006 then-Senator Obama spoke at Nairobi University and told Kenyans they were facing a corruption crisis, that "corruption ... erodes the state from the inside out, sickening the justice system until there is no justice to be found, poisoning the police forces until their presence becomes a source of insecurity rather than comfort."

Things aren't much better these days. Nairobi human rights activists revealed to me the exorbitant bribery standards for those arrested to pay their way out of trouble, with fines such as Kenya Shillings Ksh2,000 (US$20) for a drunk and disorderly arrest, Ksh10,000 ($100) for robbery with violence, and Ksh40,000 ($400) for rape. These sums, in a country where 46 percent of people live on less than $1 a day, are astronomical, but many people would rather find a way to get the money than go to prison.

Corruption is undermining the country's efforts to counter extremism. Since 2012, at least 600 people have been killed in Kenya by terrorist group al Shabab, including at least 67 at Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in 2013 and 148 at Garissa University College in April 2015. There have been attacks in the coastal area and in other parts of the country. However, police corruption destroys trust in the government's ability to fight terrorism properly.

In February this year, at a White House summit on countering violent extremism (CVE), President Obama spoke about the danger of corruption as a driver of violent radicalism. "When people, especially young people, feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities ... where there are no ways to support families and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption, that feeds instability and disorder and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment."

In June 2015 Kenya hosted its own regional CVE Summit, which I attended. The level of discussion at the four-day conference was frustratingly inconsistent. A series of speeches reiterated the same points -- that explanations of extremism cannot be reduced to religion or poverty, and that young people and civil society needed to be engaged in efforts to counter terrorism, despite the fact that there were very few young people or civil society representatives invited to the event.

In a speech to the conference plenary, Professor Ludeki Chweya, Director of the Kenya School of Government, disconcertingly suggested that contributing factors to extremism include a breakdown in the traditional family structure, single-parent families, a lack of old-school discipline, and the new unacceptability of flogging the neighbors' misbehaving children.

Too many of those with real expertise were not invited to the conference, raising questions about the Kenyan authorities' approach to effective CVE work. The United States can't afford Kenya to be a half-hearted partner in the fight against CVE, but the signs of Kenya's lethargic commitment are unnerving. Kenyan authorities have targeted NGOs offering legitimate criticism of its counterterrorism efforts.

The United States can do its part by helping tackle corruption in Kenya. Jedidah Waruhiu is a Commissioner for the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "President Obama needs to say something very strong on corruption while he is here and say what action the U.S. is going to take against corrupt Kenyan officials stashing their money in American banks," she told me.

"We need investigative capacity to get to corruption," said veteran Kenyan civil society leader Maina Kiai, who is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. "The FBI could help with that," he said.

The challenge for Obama is to strike the right note in Kenya but nonetheless insist that corruption can't survive if terrorism is to be defeated. As he said here in 2006, "we've seen with Islamic extremists who promise purification, but deliver totalitarianism. Endemic corruption opens the door to this kind of movement.... In the end, if the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists -- to protect them and to promote their common welfare -- all else is lost."