Kenya’s finance minister was arrested on Monday on corruption charges linked to a mega dam project, a rare example of a sitting minister detained on such allegations in the graft-wracked country.
Top prosecutor Noordin Haji had ordered the arrest and prosecution of the minister Henry Rotich and 27 other officials on charges of fraud, abuse of office and financial misconduct in the latest multi-million dollar corruption scandal to rock the east African nation.
Rotich, his principal secretary and the chief executive of Kenya’s environmental authority then presented themselves to the police.
“They are in custody now awaiting to be taken to court,” police chief George Kinoti told AFP.
“We are looking for [the] others and they will all go to court.”
The two dams were to be built in western Kenya to provide much needed water and electricity to nearby residents.
Haji said the conception, procurement and payment processes for the project was “riddled with irregularities”.
“Investigations established that government officials flouted all procurement rules and abused their oath of office to ensure the scheme went through,” said Haji.
He said the contract was awarded to Italian firm CMC di Ravenna in a manner that he said flouted proper procurement procedures, and despite financial woes that forced the company into liquidation.
In addition the company had previously failed to complete three other mega-dam projects.
Top company officials are among those to be charged.
According to the contract, the project was to cost a total of $450-million (401-million euros), but the treasury had increased this amount by $164-million “without regard to performance or works,” said Haji.
Some $180-million has already been paid out, with little construction to show for it.
Another $6-million was paid out for the resettlement of people living in areas that would be affected by the project, but there is no evidence of land being acquired for this, the chief prosecutor said.
“I am satisfied that economic crimes were committed and I have therefore approved their arrests and prosecutions,” said Haji.
Rotich has held the post since 2013.
“The persons we are charging today were mandated with safeguarding our public interest and deliberately breached this trust.
“Under the guise of carrying out legitimate commercial transactions, colossal amounts were unjustifiably and illegally paid out through a well-choreographed scheme by government officers in collusion with private individuals and institutions.”
Rotich has previously denied any wrongdoing in the scandal.
Veteran anti-corruption campaigner John Githongo said he believed Rotich was only the second sitting minister to be arrested on corruption charges, after the water development minister Kipng’eno arap Ng’eny in 2000.
The arrest prompted French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire to call off a planned visit to Kenya on Tuesday, during which he was scheduled to meet with Rotich, according to the embassy.
The dams scandal is one of several in the country that has seen hundreds of millions of dollars of public money disappear due to fraud.
In 2017 Kenya fell to 143rd out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s annual corruption index.
In March 2018, a damning report from the auditor general showed the government could not account for $400-million in public funds.
Dozens of top executives and government officials have been charged since last year as President Uhuru Kenyatta vows to combat corruption.
But with a history littered with unsolved cases and millions of lost dollars, most Kenyans see the scourge as an unavoidable fact of life.