Kenya donors threaten travel bans on 'corrupt' officials

Nairobi (AFP) - Kenya's biggest donors on Thursday issued a fierce rebuke to rampant corruption in the east African nation, warning it weakened economic growth and security and threatening to impose travel bans.

In a rare joint show of force, a dozen ambassadors from key donor nations -- including the United States, Britain, the European Union, France, Germany and Japan -- together visited Kenya's Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EAAC) for talks.

"Corruption is undermining Kenya's future," said US ambassador Bob Godec, reading a joint statement by senior foreign diplomats, including from Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

"We share the concern of Kenyans at the ongoing problem of corruption," Godec said, warning that "corruption threatens the country's economic growth, the provision of government services, and security. It deters investment and costs jobs."

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

Newspaper front pages this month have been dominated by a string of graft allegations.

They include a parliamentary inquiry into the devolution ministry, where officials are alleged to have massively inflated government purchases, including claiming to have bought simple pens for $85 (79 euros) each.

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 (930 euros) each.

- Corruption undermining security -

On Thursday a new report by Nairobi-based rights group Journalists for Justice, said Kenyan soldiers in Somalia were involved in a $400 million sugar smuggling racket that also funds the Shebab, the Al-Qaeda militants it is supposed to be fighting.

Godec said Kenya was facing a "corruption crisis".

"All allegations of corruption must be investigated. When evidence of corruption is found, those responsible must be prosecuted and, if guilty, appropriately punished - regardless of position or wealth," he said.

The diplomats threatened "to impose travel restriction on those responsible for graft."

Britain's high commissioner added that the proceeds of corruption stashed abroad would be traced and seized.

"People should not be allowed to enjoy the ill-gotten gains of corruption in London, New York, Geneva or anywhere else," said Christian Turner.

The latest scandal to emerge involves the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) which was deployed to fight the Shebab in Somalia in 2011.

But far from fighting the militants, KDF are "in garrison mode, sitting in bases while senior commanders are engaged in corrupt business practices," said the Journalists for Justice investigation.

The report said a smuggling network run by senior KDF officers with political protection earns $50 million a year in taxes on illegal sugar imports and charcoal exports, with Shebab earning much more from the same illicit trades.

Kwamchetsi Makokha of Journalists for Justice said both Kenyans officers and jihadists were sharing profits.

"KDF has been eating with the enemy," Makokha said, using a common Kenyan idiom for graft.

The report also accused Kenyan troops of "widespread" human rights abuses -- including rape, torture and abduction -- and conducting air strikes "targeting crowds of people and animals" rather than the militant training camps it claims to bomb.

Kenyan army spokesman, Colonel David Obonyo, denied the allegations.

"We are not involved in sugar or charcoal business," said Obonyo. "How can you sit down with Shebab one minute, and the next you are killing each other?"

Nevertheless, George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, said the report was "extremely worrying", showing that Kenya was in Somalia "serving the personal interests of political and military elites."

Veteran anti-corruption activist John Githongo, said corruption was "hollowing out" Kenya's security apparatus leaving the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

"Our elites are undermining our security and empowering Shebab," said Githongo.

Godec urged the Kenyan government to investigate the smuggling allegations -- and other graft claims -- and prosecute anyone against whom evidence is found.