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In the heady weeks after a new government took power in Kenya in late 2003, a startling thing happened all over the country. Ordinary Kenyans, newly released from the brutal 24-year reign of Daniel arap Moi, began making citizen's arrests. When police officers stopped them and demanded bribes, standard practice during the Moi years, people turned them in.

They had good reason to think they were living in a new Kenya: The government of Mwai Kibaki moved swiftly in its first weeks in office, promising a new constitution within 100 days. Corrupt judges were suspended. A brand new team of prosecutors was hired to investigate all shady dealings.

Mr. Kibaki said there would be a truth-and-reconciliation commission, to unearth the facts about corruption and abuse of power in the past. He appointed John Githongo the crusading head of the Kenyan branch of the watchdog organization Transparency International, as his personal adviser on corruption, positioning him right in the heart of government. Donor countries, who pour money into this largely peaceful East African country, were delighted, while ordinary Kenyans indulged in great expectations.

Two and a half years on, those expectations have been thoroughly dashed. "We were handed over from the crocodile to the hyena," Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, said with a bleak little laugh.

There is no truth commission. Progress on the constitution led to riots yesterday in Nairobi -- Kenyan security forces battled protesters in a second day of unrest touched off by moves to protect the President's power in an overhaul of the country's constitution. The Moi millions in European accounts, which the new government once promised to retrieve, are no longer mentioned. The corruption squad has managed to nail only a handful of minor bureaucrats, while cabinet ministers implicated in corrupt deals sail around town in their Mercedes staff cars. And the police still demand bribes; no one dares a citizen's arrest any more.

"It's surprising how rapidly everything fell apart," said Gladwell Otieno who replaced Mr. Githongo at the helm of Transparency International and was later forced out of the organization. The President was sworn in on Dec. 30, 2003, and by September, Transparency International was calling for investigations into abuse of power by cabinet ministers.

Mr. Kibaki's government put a Moi man in charge of the vast -- and vastly corrupt -- public service and left in place the head of intelligence services from the dictator's years.

"There was almost a seamless handover from the previous administration to this one. Shady characters from the previous government are now sitting very pretty in the new government," said Kwamchetsi Makokha, an editor with the Nairobi daily The Standard.

The moment of certainty that nothing would change came in February, when Mr. Githongo resigned. The appointment of the charismatic Mr. Githongo may have been the single most compelling gesture designed to show this was a new era. But he quit by fax from London in February, and friends say there were threats against his life that made him feel he could not come home.

Even his critics here agree that he probably had good reason to be afraid. "The information he got [on corruption in senior levels of government]was tremendous," Mr. Kiai said. Mr. Githongo will not speak about the affair.

Aron Ringera, a former court of appeals judge who now heads the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, defends the government record: Seven permanent secretaries have been charged with corruption, he said, as have 15 chief executives of public corporations. Cabinet ministers have been investigated, but criminal intent by ministers who do not fill a direct signing role is much harder to prove, he said. He noted that federal revenue collection is up 23 per cent for the latest fiscal year over the previous one -- proof, he said, that the pilfering has dropped and that more people have faith in the state.

But even the anti-corruption czar admitted that many in the government are repeating a Moi-era pattern. "My own assessment is that politicians don't really change. In government, they are faced with the reality of self-preservation and the reality of bureaucracy."

Consensus here is that most members of the coalition headed by Mr. Kibaki were initially sincere about their intention to wipe out corruption, but a combination of factors dampened their enthusiasm. For one thing, they discovered that the country's vast bureaucracy was difficult to change -- and meanwhile they were quickly learning to enjoy the Mercedes staff cars and cabinet retreats on the beach in Mombasa.

Second, Mr. Kibaki suffered a serious stroke just weeks after taking office, and they realized how fragile their hold on power was.

Today, the newspapers report a scam known as Anglo Leasing in which inflated contracts were awarded to a mysterious British company, with millions of dollars kicked back to Kenyan politicians. Donors profess deep disappointment, and the United States has suspended some aid. Canada spent $19.5-million in aid to the country last year.

The human-rights commission says the police still routinely beat, torture and extort prisoners. More than half the population still lack access to safe drinking water and only 10 per cent have access to electricity.

"Impunity will never change in this regime because the government is directly and indirectly involved with crime. And that's why crime is so high: People say if the leadership is breaking the law, why not them?" Mr. Kiai said.