NAIROBI, Kenya — When Kenya promised free primary education in 2003, Peter Nyagilo thought he could afford to send all his kids to class. Years later, he’s struggling to pay fees for tuition and textbooks, and he blames a familiar foe here — corruption.
Kenyans have been inundated with news over the past month about shady government dealings: A well-publicized audit showed that Agriculture Ministry officials wasted $26 million through corrupt deals in a program meant to provide maize for the poor.
Auditors also recently found $1 million in fraud at the Education Ministry, and that was on top of a 2003-09 textbook scandal in which teachers colluded with publishers to inflate book orders, causing donors to withhold education funds and parents to pay for textbooks.
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The scandals sparked a power struggle in the top levels of government this month. But for ordinary Kenyans like Nyagilo they cause deprivation and hardship, and one leading human rights official said the situation may lead to an explosion of violence.
Corruption has cost Kenyan taxpayers tens of billions of dollars over the last several decades. Some of the money could have been used to prop up schools so families like Nyagilo’s don’t have to pay for education. Lacking the promised state funds, some schools have had to introduce fees.
“I walk to work more than 15 kilometers (10 miles) away so that we save money to pay school fees,” said Nyagilo, adding that the family already eats only porridge and vegetables cooked with firewood from a nearby forest and cannot afford meat.
The strain that school fees place on poor Kenyan families can be enormous. Earlier this month, a Kenyan mother of six children committed suicide when she could not pay for her daughter to attend secondary school, according to Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation.
Transparency International says Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Graft has created a class of super-rich while more than 60 percent of Kenyans live on less than $2 a day.
That disparity is easy to see in the Kibera slum where Nyagilo’s family lives. A paved road separates the maze of rusty tin roofs that make up Africa’s largest slum from newly erected luxury apartments. Slum residents pay $15 a month in rent. Across the street, housing costs thousands.
Experts say such income disparity combined with anger over corruption could lead in the 2012 election period to a repeat of election violence Kenya suffered two years ago.
“What will happen is that the masses will rise up against those who have benefited themselves irregularly. This class will then try to protect their positions of power and privilege,” said Hassan Omar Hassan, the vice chairman of the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights.
More than 1,000 people died and 600,000 were forced from their homes following violent protests in late 2007 and early 2008 after allegations of fraud when President Mwai Kibaki quickly declared victory in his electoral battle with now-Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The violence ceased only after former U.N. chief Kofi Annan brokered a power-sharing deal.
When a spat broke out last week between Kibaki and Odinga, many worried that their coalition government could break apart, leading to renewed bloodshed. Tensions appear to have cooled for now. Kibaki and Odinga have met at least twice this week.
Mwalimu Mati, the head of an independent anti-corruption watchdog called The Mars Group, said only international pressure, particularly pressure from the United States, will force Kenya’s government to reform. After allegations about the textbook scandal emerged, the U.S. and Britain suspended yet-to-be-disbursed aid.
For his part, Nyagilo blames the government for many of his troubles.
“It is these politicians who are hurting us,” the unemployed mechanic grumbled.