Uhuru and corruption; the ‘curse’ of the rich president

There is one thing both the enemies and fans of Kenya’s new President Uhuru Kenyatta agree on – he is not a corrupt man.

Of the many nasty things I have read and heard about Kenyatta over the years, not once has anyone accused him of personally being long-fingered.

Indeed I was visiting with my sick old man in Tororo, eastern Uganda a few days. He is unusually cynical about politicians, but even he said the good thing with having very rich presidents like Kenyatta is that “they have no need to steal”.

Of course, there are many who say that Kenyatta’s old man, Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta, leveraged his position to enrich the family, and that therefore the president is heir to an illegitimately accumulated estate.

But, his supporters say, there are many Kenyans and, indeed, other African families who have vast lands like the Kenyattas, as there are other presidents who also used their positions to give themselves an “initial advantage”. However, they are not as wealthy as the Kenyattas.

The point being that the Kenyattas got rich because when they were given lemons, they made a lot of lemonade because most of their wealth today is from modern enterprises like the Brookside milk company, Commercial Bank of Africa, Heritage Hotels, and so forth, and not land rents.

But was my old man right that having a rich president like Kenyatta is good in the fight against the corruption that plagues Kenya? I am not sure.

I suspect that if a poor man became president, was himself incorruptible, and led an anti-corruption campaign, he would meet less resistance.

He could argue that as a poor man, he could easily have stolen from the taxpayer as is the custom, and become rich. But he was giving up the opportunity, for the sake of the country. That can be a powerful argument.

Some would consider Kenyatta, thought to be the richest African president, a man who can afford to donate all of his salary if he wished, “selfish” if he went chasing after the corrupt. He could be accused of trying to pull the ladder of wealth behind him. Also, all over the world people generally resent rich people – see how Mitt Romney was clobbered in the last American elections against Barack Obama because he is rich.

Still, being a rich president presents Kenyatta with a couple of possibilities. Corruption is among the vices that most discredits African presidents. Kenyatta has an opportunity of keeping the job dignified, as he is not the kind of man who dips his fingers in the national Treasury.

Secondly, if he can deliver, then he can prove that just because a leader is rich doesn’t mean he is out of touch and doesn’t care about, or understand, the less privileged.

Thirdly, it means one of the rewards he can take away from the presidency is his reputation. A president, who brings a reputation for not being corrupt to the State House, and worries about leaving office with it intact, is likely to do one or two good things along the way to maintain his image.

That said, it is supremely ironical that a rich president like Kenyatta could actually face more opposition in fighting graft because he is rich and not corrupt. And that a half-crooked president who “eats a little” would probably find it easier to do so.

-By Charles Onyango-Obbo


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