Full disclosure

October 06, 2003

IT WAS AN odd rite of national purification. Thousands of Kenyans - including government officials, employees of state corporations, military personnel and teachers - complied last week with a presidential order to disclose not only their own incomes and wealth, but also those of their spouses and dependents.

"Nothing is going past us unnoticed," vowed President Mwai Kibaki. "Any crooked thing will be known."

Requiring Kenyans on the government payroll to turn their pockets inside-out is among several measures designed to impress the International Monetary Fund, which is to decide Nov. 3 whether to resume lending to the East African nation.

Three years ago, the IMF got so fed up with corruption that it froze $200 million in loans to Kenya. Other international donors embargoed hundreds of millions more.

This response was more than justified. According to the Transparency International watchdog group, Kenyans - and presumably foreigners as well - were asked to pay a bribe in two out of every three encounters with public officials.

An official investigation committee alleged last week that half of the East African country's judges were corrupt.

The panel's chairman likened graft to a dragon: "It is bound to snort, jump, kick and even attack, for corruption always fights back."

President Kibaki's bravado alone won't be enough to slay this dragon.

The most glaring weakness of his wealth disclosure policy is that the information is kept secret. Thus, there is no way for citizens to know about the holdings - or conflicts of interest - of their public officials to even determine whether such declarations are accurate.

The questions start with the president himself. Did he declare his interest in 12 companies trading in textile, art and farm products, or property owned by his wife, Lucy? That's confidential. The same goes for Cabinet ministers, whose positions tend to be a ticket to immense wealth.

President Kibaki's anti-graft campaign is a promising but flawed attempt to deal with a shameful aspect of Kenya's everyday life. He deserves kudos for trying. But if he is really interested in curbing corruption, he ought to make it easier for the public to monitor when powerful people start living beyond their means.

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