Nairobi — Finance permanent secretary Joseph Kinyua recently told a parliamentary watchdog committee that between 25 and 30 per cent of the national budget, or about Sh270 billion, is lost through corruption annually.
This may be the first time that such a senior government official has disclosed the extent of theft of public resources. By putting a figure to it, Mr Kinyua allowed Kenyans to project the loss they suffer every year in the hands of corrupt public officials.
This theft has been going on for a long time and needs to be eliminated. At the core of this loss is the issue of access to information as a critical tool in the fight against corruption. It is recognised that corruption thrives where projects are executed under the cover of secrecy and the public has little access to critical information to enable them question the planning and prioritisation of projects as well as expenditure of public resources.
Unfortunately, restriction of access to information in the hands of public officials seems to be government policy. The Official Secrets Act and official practice not based in any law have cast a long shadow on our public affairs since the colonial and single-party era.
Public servants operate under an inexplicable aura of secrecy that has its roots in a bygone era when government affairs were siri kali, irrespective of the nature and purpose of the information. The result is that the extent and justification of secrecy in public affairs is virtually unknown, and could range from important matters of state security to mundane issues of day-to-day administration.
Legislation and policy have failed to define the realm of secrecy justifiable in public affairs, giving public officials wide discretion that is often abused. Despite the vague nature of our information communication regime, time and again, civil servants have been told by top government officials to uphold state secrets.
These calls, unfortunately, tend to be issued during or after corrupt schemes in government have been unearthed. More importantly, the calls do not define what exactly state secrets are and seem to largely serve the purpose of intimidating whistleblowers and clean civil servants from disclosing information that may embarrass their seniors. It is no wonder corruption has become so entrenched.
The public becomes the ultimate loser by being denied information that may be critical for development or holding government officials to account. Eventually the result is the kind of waste that the permanent secretary decried.
The government needs to facilitate the public and public-spirited civil servants to play their watchdog role and perform the patriotic duty of safeguarding public resources. There is perhaps no better way to do this than to enact an access to information law that enables the public to get information from public offices as a matter of entitlement.
This law needs to be prioritised as it has an impact also on the roles of various commissions established under Agenda 4. For public officials privy to critical information on a matter that is the subject of interest to these commissions, what protection is there that disclosure of that information will not lead to reprisals?
It is instructive that the Waki Commission prioritised the enactment of an access to information law. This, however, seems to have fallen off the table and is rarely mentioned in official circles. Section 35 of the Constitution enshrines access to information as a fundamental right. The Bill of rights came into effect upon promulgation of the Constitution.
While this is now a right enforceable in law, the public can only benefit from it if a legislative framework is created. In the meantime, it would be a good step forward for the government to issue a circular clarifying that matters relating to prioritisation of development projects, public expenditure and who benefits from public resources are matters of public interest that require full disclosure.
This will go a long way in reducing the waste of public resources that has accompanied the administration of devolved funds, the economic stimulus package, and public resources generally. Access to information is the key missing pillar in the fight against corruption.
Mr Kimeu is the executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.