By James Macharia
NAIROBI (Reuters) - The removal of Kenya's anti-corruption tsar and weakening of the country's graft watchdog's role by parliament shows a lack of political will at the top level to fight a vice that has dogged the nation for decades.
Patrick Lumumba, director of the Kenya Anti Corruption Commission (KACC) and his top deputies were kicked out of office after parliamentarians -- some of whom were in the watchdog's crosshairs -- voted in a new commission.
No senior politician or cabinet minister in east Africa's biggest economy has ever been jailed for the vice, but Lumumba came closest by hauling cabinet ministers to court to face corruption charges.
"There has never been political will to fight corruption in this country, because the major players hold the levers of power. It is mere posturing, a game, a pretence by the political class," said former legislator and prominent lawyer Paul Muite.
Lumumba's exit is seen as a setback from an already pretty dire position which has seen east Africa's biggest economy ranked as the most corrupt nation in the region.
"It is hard to see how the removal of the director will speed up the fight against corruption," Lodewijk Briet, the head of the European Union's delegation to Kenya, told Reuters.
"There are too few demonstrations of the existence of political will to fight corruption," Briet said.
This March, Britain -- Kenya's biggest bilateral lender -- cut off aid for free primary education after 4.2 billion shillings ($45 million) disappeared in a scam that highlighted corruption in the fractious coalition government.
So far, not a single official has been brought to account for the scam. Lumumba's demand that the education minister and his top officials take responsibility for the scandal and quit their jobs to allow for investigations was met with derision.
"ALL TALK, NO ACTION"
Lumumba, who had completed one year of the five-year term, was accused by critics of being "all talk and no action," and had not notched any convictions despite major investigations.
Supporters say his stinging anti-graft rhetoric -- delivered in a tone reminiscent of Martin Luther King's oratory -- made many Kenyans believe change would come, in due course.
"There was no compelling reason to keep him. He spent more time giving public lectures than taking those fellows who he was investigating to court," MP Jeremiah Kioni said.
"However, I must admit some of my colleagues who had cases under investigation by Lumumba were very enthusiastic in voting to have his office abolished. This made me a bit uncomfortable, it seems they saw this as a chance to get off the hook."
Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo is concerned the new authority will not have the same graft-busting powers as KACC to keep graft cartels at bay and clean up Kenya's sullied reputation. Worse still, he said, is the fact that the cases Lumumba was investigating may not be taken up by the new body.
"You have to fight corruption but you cannot fight it with a wounded limping institution," Kilonzo told Reuters.
"(The lack of a transition clause) is the greatest damage of all. It is unforgivable because anything that Lumumba had done toward investigations is dead. You cannot now use whatever he had done for prosecution, unless (the investigations) had been completed ... but if it was still on his desk, forget it."
Kilonzo has cut a sometimes lonely figure in government in standing up to be counted on legal issues and his backing of the new constitution in so far as the fight against corruption goes.
To many Kenyans, this going round in circles on the fight against corruption is not what they expected when President Mwai Kibaki declared at his 2002 inauguration: "Corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya."
Lumumba's fall mirrors that of John Githongo, the former head of Transparency International-Kenya (TI-Kenya) and anti-graft chief in Kibaki's government. He turned whistleblower and fled to London after uncovering major scams within Kibaki's inner circle.
Lumumba's exit before the 2012 election has raised concern that politicians want to clear the way for a repeat of major financial scams that have bank rolled past campaigns.
Politicians have perfected the art of defrauding the Treasury to bribe voters, run campaigns and then maintain their influence once in office by rewarding key supporters with government contracts, said Samuel Kimeu, head of TI-Kenya.
"There is a pattern every election time. The question is not whether there will be a scandal, but how big and where? There is no doubt people will be trying to pull off a scandal," he said.
Political commentator Kwamchetsi Makokha said parliament had left the door open for politicians seeking to fund election campaigns through corruption by deleting clauses in new laws to have the state regulate funding for political parties.
"The next elections are, as usual, likely to be a competition of expenditure rather than a contest of ideas, it will be a matter of who will outspend the other," Makokha said.
In March, Lumumba told the Reuters that Kenya risks Egypt-style protests if corruption went unchecked.
He still believes that could be the only option left.
"In my view there must be a mental revolution at all levels, in leadership and at a personal level. The people must rise up. People need to demonstrate on the streets that they are resolved against corruption, but we are not there yet," he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Wangui Kanina; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by David Clarke)