Corruption 'crisis' in Kenya: US ambassador

US President Barack Obama (L) met Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta on July 25, 2015, during a Nairobi visit in which Obama minced no words about corruption in Kenya -- a state of affairs called a "crisis" by US ambassador Robert Godec November 9 (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb) (AFP/File)

Nairobi (AFP) - Kenya is suffering a "crisis" of corruption, the US ambassador to the East African nation said in blistering criticism Monday, warning that officials stealing from the public purse must be prosecuted.

"Corruption is a crisis in Kenya. As I have said frequently, it is undermining the country's future," Ambassador Robert Godec said at the launch of a $650 million (604 million euro) US-backed programme to buy lifesaving drugs for Kenya's Medical Supplies Authority.

"Corruption threatens Kenya’s economic growth, the provision of government services, and security," he added. "It threatens the country's health care system. It must end."

Newspaper front pages this month have been dominated by a string of corruption scandals.

They include a parliamentary inquiry in the devolution ministry, where officials are alleged to have massively inflated government purchases, including the much criticised case of spending $85 for a simple pen.

It follows another widely publicised case in September, when protesters in the western Bungoma district marched on government offices after officials bought 10 wheelbarrows costing over $1,000 each.

The US is one of Kenya's largest aid donors, and Godec warned that those caught thieving must face the law.

"There must be zero tolerance for corruption. Public funds must go to their intended beneficiaries –- in this case patients suffering from life-threatening diseases –- and not into the pockets of officials who betray the public trust," Godec said.

Kenya, which is placed 145th out of 174 on Transparency International's annual corruption index, has long been blighted by graft.

"The United States’ position on this problem is very clear: all allegations of corruption must be investigated; and when evidence is found officials must be prosecuted and, if guilty, sent to prison regardless of their position or wealth," Godec added.

In Kenya, public office is often seen as a route to personal enrichment, as US President Barack Obama noted in July while standing alongside President Uhuru Kenyatta as he visited Kenya.

"People aren't stupid," the US president said.

"If they see an elected official and they know that their salary is there, and suddenly they're driving through town in a very big car, and they see their cousin driving through town with a very big car, and they're suddenly building a new house, and all that doesn’t seem to match up with their salary, they don't have to be a forensic accountant to know what's going on," he said.