UK to Kenya: Repay us for stolen school funds

AP News
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Posted: Jun 22, 2011 11:49 AM
UK to Kenya: Repay us for stolen school funds

Revelations that $45 million meant to pay for elementary students education was stolen is turning into political poison in Kenya, where activists on Wednesday locked themselves in the education minister's offices to demand his arrest.

The U.K., a major donor to Kenya, told the government that the portion of stolen funds that Britain donated must be repaid. Britain said on Monday it would not give the Kenyan government any more money until there is "convincing evidence" of substantial improvements in the government's integrity and financial management.

Kenyan leaders so far have passed the blame despite calls for officials at the Ministry of Education to resign. The department's minister, Sam Ongeri, told parliament last week that he is not to blame because he was not in office when the thefts began in 2005. Ongeri said he came to office in 2008 and helped in detecting the fraud.

"My conscience is free and clear because I have done my duty to the best of my ability," he told parliament.

President Mwai Kibaki received praise from around the world when he implemented the Free Primary School Education Program in 2003, a top election pledge. The program enrolled more than 1 million children who had never sat in a classroom.

But Kibaki's failure to keep another election promise _ to fight corruption _ has seen those gains tarnished.

The U.S., which provided funding for Kibaki's education program, suspended funding last year, following the lead of Britain, which stopped donating in 2009. Before the suspension Britain gave nearly $90 million over five years.

In 2009 a government audit found that education officials had stolen more than $1 million. But last week a more thorough audit found that roughly $45 million was taken.

Britain said that those officials who stole the funds, mostly from Kenyan government coffers, must be held accountable.

"Kenyans must be aware that (the) majority of the stolen money was from Kenyan taxpayers," the British government said in a statement. "The U.K. shares the outrage of Kenyans and their strong desire for greater accountability and transparency in the use of their hard-earned taxes."

The stolen money was meant to construct classes and purchase desks, among other advancements. Lawmaker Isaac Ruto told parliament last week that construction of extra classes has stalled in the area he represents in rural Kenya.

"This program had actually started assisting the construction of infrastructure in the schools in rural areas, and there are very many classrooms that are now abandoned and we do not know what to with them," Ruto said.

Civil rights activists say the fraud is encouraged by a culture of impunity in Kenya, where government corruption is a part of life. Okoiti Omtata led five activists who locked the metal gates to Ongeri's offices with a chain and padlock Wednesday in the protest to demand his resignation. Police arrested the activists but later released them.

"The least Ongeri can do is to take moral and political responsibility and resign from office so that we can have an independent team coming in to take up the issue," Omtata said. "For as long as he is there it looks like nothing bad has happened."

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga seemed to express helplessness when asked in parliament last week what action he would take against the top officials in the Ministry of Education.

"We are in a coalition government. Managing coalitions is not the easiest of things. There is need all the time for compromises, consultations and so on," Odinga said.

In February 2010, Odinga attempted to suspend Ongeri after the government audit revealed the $1 million theft, but Kibaki overruled the decision. Ongeri is a member of a political party allied to Kibaki's Party of National Unity, which makes one half of Kenya's coalition government. Odinga's Orange Democratic Party makes up the other half.

Odinga said last week's audit revealed that a large number of officials were involved in irregular activities such as making payments without supporting documents, irregular banking practices, improper withdrawals and facilitation of payments. He said the auditing team received limited cooperation from the Ministry of Education's accounting department.

"This reflected a deliberate attempt to limit the potential for the audit to uncover accounting operations, unethical behavior or inappropriate behavior or spending," Odinga said. "This is dreadful."