NAIROBI, Kenya -- Carol Wanjiku's latest run-in with petty corruption occurred when a policeman saw her double-park near her house. Instead of issuing a ticket or a warning, she says, the officer demanded "something little." For the $2 or so that she handed over, he let her go.
"It happens all the time," says Wanjiku, a 30-year-old software programmer, who also remembered the final step for getting a license plate for the car. "You want your number plate? You won't get it unless you give 'something little.' You want to get your passport? Same thing."
The day she paid "something little" for parking, she picked up a newspaper and read about something big: allegations of payoffs and kickbacks worth hundreds of millions of dollars that reached through Kenya's government, all the way to the president.
Graft has long been a part of Kenya, but this time it might include a twist: significant penalties for some of those involved.
Unlike in the past, the country's newspapers and television networks have reported extensively on the scandals; thousands of people have marched in the first anti-corruption protests in memory; three Cabinet ministers have resigned under pressure; and prosecutions seem possible.
And that is a glimmer of change for Kenya and all of Africa.
"It's on the agenda more than ever, where there is pressure on government to do something about it," says Princeton N. Lyman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria. "It's a long way from perfect, but there are really some bright spots."
In Nigeria, leaders have endorsed an international audit of the country's oil industry, its main source of income, and the finance minister has created a reserve account through windfall profits from the rise in oil prices.
The former president of Nigeria's Senate is scheduled to stand trial on charges of accepting a $400,000 bribe from the education minister to approve a budget that included unnecessary or unexplained expenditures.
The governor of an oil-producing state is in jail on charges of money laundering. And last year, two Nigerian admirals were court-martialed in the disappearance of an oil tanker filled with stolen crude.
In South Africa, former Deputy President Jacob Zuma is charged with accepting a bribe to thwart an investigation of an arms purchase from France. Eight members of parliament, most of them members of the ruling African National Congress, have pleaded guilty to misusing travel vouchers for luxury vacations and car rentals.
When Zuma's successor, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, spent $115,000 in public funds to use a government jet to travel to the United Arab Emirates, the press dubbed the aircraft the "Gravy Plane" and, atypically, questioned the woman's fitness as a potential successor to President Thabo Mbeki.
In Zambia, former President Frederick Chiluba is on trial on charges of embezzling $500,000 in state funds. The government has also filed a civil claim in Britain, alleging that Chiluba and 17 other former officials stole $23 million during his decade in office.
Graft seems almost endemic to much of Africa. The latest index of perceptions of corruption, compiled by the private group Transparency International, found that 12 of the 22 countries ranked most corrupt are in Africa.
Ranked most corrupt was Chad, in Central Africa, which recently changed a law that guaranteed that most of its new oil wealth would be used to reduce poverty and diverted the money to fight a rebellion in the country's east. The World Bank, which helped finance a $4 billion oil pipeline, responded by suspending $124 million in loans.
Corruption siphons off an estimated $148 billion a year in Africa, or 25 percent of the combined incomes of the continent's nations, according to the African Union. That loss deprives governments of money for essential programs and creates a culture of corruption that trickles down to low-level bureaucrats and police.
Valuable natural resources have fueled the kleptocratic tendencies of a long line of rulers, including Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the beneficiary of an estimated $5 billion in stolen diamonds and other mineral wealth) and Nigerian strongman Gen. Sani Abacha (suspected of siphoning off $3 billion in oil revenues), who died in 1998.
Kenya, lacking oil or diamonds, devised procurement schemes. The government makes payments for phantom goods or services to businessmen who kick back a portion to officials.
That system is at the heart of two current scandals. In what the Kenyan press calls the "Goldenberg affair," the Finance Ministry paid a company up to $600 million in incentives to export apparently nonexistent gold and diamonds.
A commission of inquiry has forwarded to the attorney general for possible prosecution the names of 14 people, including the finance minister at the time, George Saitoti, who recently stepped down as education minister.
In the "Anglo Leasing scandal," officials in the home affairs and finance ministries are suspected of paying a phony company inflated fees to broker major projects for a new passport system and a forensics laboratory, along with other projects.
Those deals were canceled when it emerged that Anglo Leasing & Finance was a shell company. The scale of theft is unclear, but as questions began to be asked, millions of dollars unexpectedly reappeared in Kenya's central bank.
Goldenberg dates to the early 1990s, during the 24-year presidency of Daniel T. arap Moi, and it is the subject of a recently released government report that says it is unclear whether Moi was involved. Anglo Leasing began under Moi but continued after Mwai Kibaki was elected president in 2002, promising in his campaign that "corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya."
Some of the allegations seem ripped from the pages of a spy thriller. Information about Anglo Leasing was contained in secret documents and clandestine tape recordings compiled by John Githongo, Kibaki's permanent secretary in charge of governance and ethics, before he fled to Britain last year after allegedly receiving death threats.
Githongo, whose records made their way into Kenyan newspapers last month, contends that Kibaki knew about the graft but did not stop it. As the pressure from Anglo Leasing built this month, Kibaki released the report on Goldenberg in an attempt to deflect attention, critics say.
Despite questions about Kibaki's involvement, there have been few calls for him to resign.
"His anti-corruption credentials have dropped to rock bottom," says Mwalimu Mati, director of Transparency International in Kenya. "But people are starting to be more cautious about making the conclusion that he's actually part of this big problem."
The ministers of finance, education and energy have stepped aside, though all deny guilt.
In a sense it was Kibaki, 74, who took the extraordinary actions that now threaten his government. He appointed Githongo, encouraged a free press and built hopes for change.
"I believed he would fight corruption," says Wanjiku. "We are not getting what we wanted."
"Kibaki has thrown away the good will the people gave him," says Seth Onguti, a 51-year-old education programmer with the Aga Khan Foundation. "He had a real opportunity. If we had an opportunity right now, we'd vote those people out of office. We are annoyed, frustrated, furious. Our hopes have been dashed. We are almost ashamed."
The scandals are all the more galling, Onguti says, given the poor state of the country's schools and roads. But perhaps all Kenyans are complicit to some degree, he says.
In the meantime, Onguti wants pressure exerted on Kibaki's government to come clean or resign.
One source of pressure is the World Bank, which has delayed $260 million in loans for education and health projects. Colin Bruce, the bank's director in Kenya, concedes that as recently as the early 1990s, the bank did not speak out loudly against graft.
"There was as time when the c-word, corruption, could not be discussed publicly," he says. "There is no question things have changed."
Bruce said the bank has placed stricter conditions on its loans to Kenya since 2001. Two loans that have gone forward are designed to help prevent corruption of the sort now in the news.
One, for $25 million, will help with matters "as basic as ensuring the process of preparing the budget is transparent, that there are no extra-budgetary expenditures, that auditing systems work," Bruce says. The other, for $120 million, is to improve controls at border posts, the port of Mombassa and other places in the transportation network.
Overall, he said, he is encouraged by the country's response to the latest scandals.
"I've referred to this as a high point but not the end point," he says. "The government clearly needs to do more."
Yet Mati is pessimistic about the chances for lasting change. His Transparency organization recently calculated that the Kibaki government had spent $12.5 million on luxury cars, largely for personal use by top Kenyan officials.
That is enough to pay for eight years of school for 25,000 children.