Fighting a pandemic in a money-first-lives-later society: A call for transparency in Kenya

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The case of a young medical ‘martyr’

On 9 December 2020, Kenyans mourned the passing of a young physician who died of the COVID-19 virus. His death sparked an outcry from the public and from his colleagues in the medical profession, who decried the circumstances leading to his death—especially considering he was a frontline healthcare worker.

The young doctor was employed on a contract basis by the national government and had been posted to a COVID ward in the outskirts of Nairobi. When he contracted the virus, he was admitted to the same hospital. While under treatment, the late-doctor, father to a 5-month-old daughter, had intimated to close friends that he was unable to afford diapers for her because he had not been paid his salary in five months. This was confirmed after his payslip went viral on social media.

As his condition deteriorated, he was referred to a better medical facility in Nairobi, but was not admitted because his family did not have the approximately 1500 euros required as deposit for admission. He finally succumbed to the virus, dejected and disappointed with his profession. In a note he left for his colleagues and future doctors, he wrote “It’s not worth dying for this system. If I could tell anything to my younger self, it would be don’t join the medical profession.”

According to the Secretary General of the Kenya Medical Association, his case exemplifies how the government treats frontline workers in Kenya. Sent to COVID wards without proper protective equipment and no safeguards for their well-being, they have had no other choice than to call for a boycott.

Budgetary allocations and international aid

When the first case of COVID was announced in Kenya, the government realigned public budgets to respond to the pandemic. It enlarged the universal health coverage (UHC) programme and took measures to address the needs of poor and vulnerable populations. The government earmarked 40 billion Kenyan shillings (Ksh) (about .4 per cent of GDP)  for the fiscal year ending on 30 June 2020, while for 2020/2021 it has set aside Ksh 56.6 million (about 0.5 per cent of GDP) for an economic stimulus package and other COVID-related expenditures.

According to Transparency International’s Kenya COVID Tracker, by December 2020 the government also received grants from World Bank, IMF, other foreign missions and the private sector estimated at around 194.6 billion Ksh.

Opportunists and serial cronies

The vast amount of money poured into COVID relief efforts seems to have given rise to significant corruption.

A probe by the Parliamentary Public Investment Committee has revealed that a number of fictitious companies were awarded tenders to supply COVID-related supplies at extremely inflated prices, without due diligence on the financial capacity of the companies to deliver the supplies or the identities of the real owners of the bidding companies.

KEMSA, the Kenyan Medical Supplies Authority Offices, is now under investigation for its practices in awarding contracts related to COVID equipment. During the ongoing Parliamentary probe on the use of COVID funds, the Committee learned that on 6 April 2020, a 27 year old woman representing a company called Kilig was able to walk into KEMSA with a letter of intent to supply Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), and obtain a tender worth 4 billion Ksh by evening. As the Committee has tried to get to the bottom of the scandal, the company has refused to divulge its real owners, and it appears to have changed hands multiple times from January to May. It also emerged that the KEMSA contract was the first business Kilig had conducted since registering as an enterprise in January 2020.

KEMSA’s  procurement manager stated on record that the now-suspended CEO of the Supplies Authority Office had intimated to him that he had had received threats menacing that he would be made to disappear if he failed to approve contracts to certain companies of well-connected individuals within and outside the Ministry of Health. Indeed, documents submitted to the Committee and subsequent probes reveal prominent businessmen and politicians, including the Senator of Nairobi, vindicating the assertions made during the probe. Unfortunately, to date, even after investigations by the anti-corruption agency in Kenya and the Presidential directive to have culprits prosecuted for the same, no one has been charged for what has become to be known as the ‘Afya House Heist’.

Global cronyism

Corruption regarding procurement of COVID-related materials may not be unique to Kenya. In the UK, Labour MPs have cried foul as the government scrambled to procure the PPEs, ventilators, coronavirus tests and other supplies critical to containing the surge. The New York Times observed that about $11 billion went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience. Meanwhile, smaller firms without political clout got nowhere.

The desire for transparency has stimulated innovative efforts to trace corruption. For example,  Harvard researcher Sophie Hill created an app called ‘My little Crony’ which illustrates the connection between Tory politicians and companies awarded government contracts during the pandemic. Such initiatives have consequently led to probes; sanctions will likely follow should any irregularities be proven.

Anti-corruption interventions in Kenya

Kenya was the first country to sign the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and has so far domesticated the Convention by developing various polices and legislation. Kenya adopted the concept of beneficial ownership and has set up the Beneficial Ownership Register. This should diminish the hitherto opaque corporate structures that have allowed public officers and politicians to profit from government business without disclosure and in violation of established provisions of the law.

However, the Registrar of Companies in Kenya has postponed the obligation for all companies to register electronically to June 2021. Thus, until then it will remain an uphill task to identify who is irregularly trading with and benefitting from government contracts, and why the government is losing so much money through procurement.

The need for a climate of trust

Public trust is a crucial element in the fight against corruption, as it enhances confidence in reporting cases of poor administration.

Unfortunately, public trust can dissipate quickly. The death of the young doctor in the introduction of this article, a frontline healthcare worker who had been sent to treat COVID patients but without adequate PPE, and without having received his salary, is cause for outcry—especially since the funds allocated for those purposes were misappropriated.

Kenya must win the trust of its citizens by demonstrating that it will not tolerate corruption. It should prioritise the completion of the beneficial ownership register, pursue probes into the irregular allocation of tenders, prosecute illegality, and demand restitution of lost funds.


Philip N. Gichana is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, a champion for good governance, an experienced Legislative drafter and a human rights activist. Currently, he is an EUI STG Policy Leader Fellow.

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