Corrupt officials at the Department of Civil Registration colluded with private hospitals in Nairobi to build a multimillion-shilling syndicate that took over the issuing of birth and death certificates and forced millions of Kenyans to pay huge bribes to acquire the crucial documents.
They also deliberately slowed down the information and communication system at the registry’s headquarters at ACK Bishop House in Nairobi, creating an artificial backlog that meant Kenyans who could not bribe their way through the criminal system waited for as long as six months before they could get birth or death certificates for their loved ones.
Those who could pay jumped the queue and got these documents within hours.
Following a public outcry and a presidential directive, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i and his Information counterpart Joe Mucheru on Friday afternoon staged a sting operation at the civil registry that led to the arrest of more than 20 suspects.
Four other suspects were arrested about 10 kilometres away on Thika Road at St Francis Hospital, while many others were said to be on the run.
Detectives told the Saturday Nation last evening that the syndicate had recruited key contacts in several private hospitals in Nairobi who fed it with fake birth notifications. The officials then used these notifications to issue birth certificates to their clients, including foreigners. Once one is issued with a birth certificate, one is deemed a Kenyan national and can go ahead and obtain a national identification card or passport.
Among those arrested in the swoop were deputy registry director Paul Kagiri, principal records management officer Charles Akwoni, principal civil registration officer Charity Mwadime, her assistant Jane Wangari Maina and several clerical officers.
Mr Kagiri was last evening being interrogated by detectives at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations off Kiambu Road in Nairobi while his juniors were taken to Nairobi area police divisional headquarters for questioning and detention over the weekend.
They are all expected to be arraigned on Monday. Police believe Mr Akwoni and Mr Kagiri were the masterminds of the syndicate, and claim the two ran a parallel registry from one of their homes.
The system had been interlinked with some county civil registry offices across the country as well as the central registry.
This allowed brokers and officers at the grassroots to even bypass their superiors and access the central registry system at will, and under the protection of their bosses.
To maximise the proceeds from their parallel system, Mr Kagiri and Mr Akwoni are also said to have commissioned some of their officers to travel around the country and co-opt employees and brokers from registry offices in Eldoret, Kisumu, Nakuru and Mombasa.
Apart from Nairobi, the four towns have the highest birth registrations across the country, and so there was a lot of money to be made.
Telltale signs that there was a problem with the birth registry system appeared in January last year, but at that time everyone thought it was just a normal delay occasioned by an unusually high demand for birth certificates.
Parents seeking birth certificates for their children were either told that the government had run out of certified printing paper or that there was a delay at the Government Printer.
What they did not know was that the printing paper was being hoarded at the central registry and in some private hospitals that had been turned into registration centres.
One such medical centre is St Francis Community Hospital in Kasarani, where detectives from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, led by Kilimani DCIO Fatuma Hadi, arrested several administrators after spending hours combing through birth registration records.
Dr Matiang’i and Mr Mucheru, in a joint statement to the media later in the day, described the rot at the registry as “a deliberate effort to subvert services to genuine citizens so as to create avenues for corruption”.
They said that by creating an artificial crisis at the registry, corrupt officers were taking home hundreds of thousands of shillings every month in bribes from desperate Kenyans.
“It is embarrassing to discover that a large number of Kenyans have to encounter indignity in the hands of selfish and dishonest public servants before receiving their birth or death certificates,” the two ministers said, adding that “these are two very critical documents in the life of citizens”.
Dr Matiang’i said desperate parents were being forced to pay corrupt hospital administrators exorbitant fees for the birth certificates of their children, which were then being “processed and distributed without scrutiny or authentication”.
While Kenyans have been bribing to get these documents, the primary targets of the hospital-based syndicate appear to be illegal immigrants seeking Kenyan citizenship through crooked means.
At a glance, Bishop House looks like just another tedious, wearisome government office where hordes of brokers mill around like hungry hyenas.
But, in its silent grandeur, Bishops House is the epitome of everything that is wrong about service delivery in Kenya.
So brazen have the cartels become in recent years that Dr Matiang’i lamented that for many Kenyans, “corruption starts at birth”, as they have to fork out bribes to get birth certificates.
Inside the building on Friday, the Saturday Nation found dumbstruck employees attempting to remain focused in the wake of the security operation chaos around them.
As Dr Matiang’i, Mr Mucheru, Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho and Police Inspector-General Hillary Mutyambai scurried around the building, the workers craned their necks to catch a bit of the action.
Most of them were new here, recruited from the National Youth Service, the Prisons Department and the Information ministry to oversee the transition.
Outside, under the watchful eyes of warders, prisoners laid bricks on what will be a new public ablution block, while, inside, the rows of ageing wooden benches that had served as waiting bays for decades had been replaced with new cushioned seats.
Police officers had surrounded the registry’s headquarters as early as noon Friday before detectives moved in and arrested the suspects.
Dr Matiang’i and Mr Mucheru, speaking exclusively to the Saturday Nation, said the new team would completely take over the registry by Monday next week, and that the operation will be supplemented by Huduma Centres in Nairobi, which have now been equipped to print birth certificates.
A source said all registry staff who had not been arrested would be transferred to other stations around the country.
Announcing the arrest of the suspects earlier, Mr Mutyambai had said others were on the run and should present themselves to the nearest police station.
He did not provide the details of those who had escaped the dragnet, but warned that “government services are not conduits for brokers and criminals to enrich themselves by conning members of the public”.
Dr Matiang’i said that the operation had been prompted by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who a month ago instructed him to reorganise the processes of data collection and collation at the registry after Kenyans complained about incessant delays, inefficiencies and outright corruption.
Warning that “there will be no room or tolerance for corruption”, he said that while many public servants are committed to the “calling of public service”, those who break the law will have to live with the consequences of their actions.
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