NOORDIN Haji, head of public prosecutions in Kenya, is the urbane son of one of the country’s most prominent families. George Kinoti, born in the slums, rose from burly beat cop to head the powerful police investigation department.
Together, they are building corruption cases against top Kenyan officials. This week, the finance minister and other officials were charged with financial misconduct, marking the first time police have arrested a sitting finance minister in an east African nation notorious for graft.
Friendship and partnership
Both men credit their success in part to an unlikely friendship forged while working together in the field.
‘We do have a personal relationship as friends, that goes a long way to build that [working] relationship, and I think also the president has picked individuals who he believes can work together. If you look at the Inspector General, he is a colleague of mine. The EACC [Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission] director is a former colleague and we are able to sit down and agree without having tuff wars amongst ourselves,’ Haji told Reuters at his Nairobi office, where leather-bound law books and the graceful arabesques of Islamic art line the walls.
‘He is the first DPP I can say who is a polished field officer, and investigations he knows very well because he was by capacity of his responsibility he was an investigator in as much as he was in the intelligence. He was an operational man. This guy has commanded good operations, which even we did together,’ Kinoti said of Haji, the trim, silver-haired 46-year-old, appointed director of public prosecutions (DPP) last August.
The first big case the two worked on together last year was the alleged theft of nearly $100 million from the National Youth Service. Kinoti hand-picked officers he could trust to work on the case, Haji said.
Prosecutors charged 43 suspects, including a principal secretary, the most senior career bureaucrat in a ministry. The case against them is still ongoing, but five banks have already been fined nearly $4 million for failing to report suspicious transactions.
Not everyone from the police and prosecutor’s offices liked working together, said Haji. Those who didn’t were edged aside.
‘We had to build a team that would gel,’ Haji said.
Kinoti, who bears the scars of numerous shoot-outs – including one where gangsters left him for dead – says he is determined to bring several more people to justice in that case.
‘People may actually, may as well start preparing themselves because more arrests is going to be forthcoming. You can’t call me and stop me, you can’t stop me. Yeah you can’t,’ said Kinoti.
Anti-corruption fight is only getting bigger
Such pronouncements may be met with scepticism from Kenya’s embattled anti-corruption campaigners, who have seen years of official promises to tackle graft come to nothing while police clubbed and gassed demonstrators demanding change.
President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to tackle graft when he was elected in 2013, but results have been slow. Corruption continues to drag down economic growth and investor confidence.
Officials are wary of quantifying the total loss, but a former head of the government’s anti-graft watchdog told Reuters in 2016 that around $6bn, a third of the annual state budget, was lost to graft in Kenya every year.
But Kinoti has a reputation as a courageous and honest cop amongst watchdogs.
After he was appointed head of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in January 2018, Kinoti swiftly disbanded the Flying Squad, a unit formed to combat robberies and car-jackings but accused of orchestrating them. For three months, Kinoti said, his phone buzzed with influential Kenyans seeking to present discreet gifts. But, mindful of the Catholic priests who raised him, he filled his office with crucifixes and refused to pick up.
Haji trained as a lawyer, but after a short stint as state counsel in the attorney general’s office he moved to the National Intelligence Service. He worked undercover against Islamist militants and before becoming deputy director for organised crime.
That’s where he began working with Kinoti, he said, supplying him intelligence for investigations into organised crime. Haji said he was impressed with Kinoti’s work ethic and hands-on management.
The pangs of corruption
Both men understand that corruption kills, he said. It helped al Shabaab militants kill 21 people at the Riverside office and hotel complex in January. They bought fake car license plates, and some had multiple identity cards, Haji said.
He has seen bloodshed like that firsthand. He was among the shoppers who barricaded themselves into bathrooms when al Shabaab stormed the Westgate mall in 2013, killing 67 civilians.
‘Corruption exacerbates everything,’ Haji said, his face falling into the stern lines familiar from press conferences. ‘It made the terrorists able to exploit our witnesses in Kenya very easily. It let criminals operate with impunity.’
He became prosecutions chief because he was tired of observing problems with no chance to fix them, he said. ‘With intelligence … you can only advise or warn,’ he said. ‘You don’t have the executive powers.’
Kenyan ministers have been charged before. A former water minister was accused of abuse of office in 2010. The investigating body was disbanded; he died in bed aged 77.
In 2015, two former finance ministers were charged after hundreds of millions of dollars were paid to foreign companies, including the British firm Anglo Leasing Finance, for services ranging from passports to naval ships and forensic laboratories. Nothing was delivered. The court cases are still ongoing.
Government officials say such cases are complex, the courts overburdened and evidence often tampered with. Campaigners say it’s a matter of political will.
Kinoti and Haji hope for a quicker resolution to the case against Rotich and 25 others, including an Italian construction boss.
A specialised anti-corruption court is now hearing the case, although other judges had delayed the investigation, Kinoti said. ‘They refused us warrants,’ he said. ‘By the time we are succeeding, the documents have … disappeared.’
Haji said such delays should be less of a problem when 15 more anti-corruption courts become operational by the end of the year.
Many Kenyans, however, won’t believe there’s a war on graft until they see top officials in jail.