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Embassies scam: The Sh2.5bn question

Friday October 22 2010

Foreign minister Moses Wetang’ula will face MPs on Tuesday in the most critical confrontation of his public career. Photo/FILE

Foreign minister Moses Wetang’ula will face MPs on Tuesday in the most critical confrontation of his public career. Photo/FILE 

By SAMWEL KUMBA, [email protected]

Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula sank deeper into trouble on Friday after anti-corruption authorities expanded their investigation of embassies to include the purchase or sale of four more, bringing the total of public money in question to Sh2.5 billion.

The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC), which was investigating the fishy Sh1.75 billion purchase of land for an embassy in Tokyo, Japan, is now also investigating embassies in Islamabad (Pakistan), Brussels (Belgium), Lagos (Nigeria) and Cairo in Egypt.

The report of a parliamentary investigation into the transactions is being debated in the House. KACC boss PLO Lumumba said a final report would be handed to Attorney-General Amos Wako soon. The Saturday Nation was informed that investigations were targeting top officials at Foreign Affairs and the Treasury.

Dr Lumumba, speaking at the launch of an anti-corruption campaign walk that started at Integrity Centre and ended at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, said his commission, having dealt with the “small fish”, was now turning its attention to the “big fish”, a reference to prominent personalities.

The function was officiated by Regional Development minister Fred Gumo. A parliamentary committee report described the Tokyo embassy deal as an outright rip-off and claimed that more than a billion shillings was paid out in cash.

The Foreign Affairs ministry, the report said, inexplicably refused the offer of land by the government of Japan in the diplomatic district of Tokyo and instead chose to spend nearly Sh2 billion on a fast-depreciating lot in a backwater and undesirable part of the city.

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Debate on the report was initiated by the chairman of the Defence and Foreign Relations Committee, Mr Adan Keynan, on Thursday. If the report, which recommends that Mr Wetang’ula and permanent secretary Thuita Mwangi, step aside, is adopted by Parliament, it is unlikely that the minister will find much sympathy with his boss, President Kibaki.

He will be in the same position as Transport minister Amos Kimunya, who was forced to step aside after Parliament passed a no-confidence motion in him. In the Tokyo transaction, the committee estimated that the land cost Sh450 million and not the Sh1.6 billion that the government paid.

In Lagos, the ministry sold two plots said to have been in “one of the choicest areas” of the former political capital of West Africa’s largest country. The plots were next to the homes of former Nigerian president Ibrahim Babangida, the residence of the British High Commissioner and the residence of the governor of Lagos, among others.

A government team had recommended that Kenya retains the properties but the ministry sold them, claiming they wanted to build a new embassy in Abuja. In the end no embassy was built in Abuja; the government rents premises in Lagos for the embassy.

Over Sh80 million from the sale is not satisfactorily accounted for and a lawyer who acted for the ministry in the transaction is still demanding millions of shillings as legal fees. In Brussels, the ministry lost an estimated Sh84 million by asking the owner of a building, more than 90 years old, to include the cost of valueless furniture in the price.

Although a Kenyan valuation put the property at nearly Sh300 million, about Sh85 million more was paid for second-hand furniture. The property is a Belgian national treasure which “we cannot use as we want.” In Cairo, some of the money used to buy Kenya’s embassy could not be accounted for.

In Islamabad, the construction cost that was slated to be Sh366 million has been varied twice to Sh523 million, yet the contractor has only done 40 per cent of the work and was not on site. The two variations violated public procurement regulations.

Talking about the “big fish” he is going after, Dr Lumumba said: “You should not be surprised when you see some of them retreating to their villages arguing that their community is being targeted.”

He said corruption had to be eliminated if the country’s development plan – Vision 2030 – was to be realised. Mr Gumo blamed the country’s leadership – him included - for failing Kenyans in the anti-corruption crusade.

“If you remember in 2003 when the Narc government was elected on a zero tolerance to corruption premise, Kenyans were up in arms arresting all corrupt officials, but we failed them,” said Mr Gumo. If those found guilty were effectively prosecuted, the corruption would be dealt with once and for all, he argued.

Transparency International director Samuel Kimeu said Kenyans could deal with corruption if they were convinced that the new Constitution marks the country’s new beginning. “Those implicated in corruption should always step aside to pave way for investigations in accordance with the new constitution,” he said.

Mr Wetang’ula and Mr Mwangi have been questioned by KACC over the transactions. The KACC investigations, which started in May, have involved fact-finding missions to embassies concerned, Dr Lumumba said.