The move is a "setback" for transparency in Kenya, according to anti-graft campaigner John Githongo, founder of Inuka Kenya Trust, an advocacy group.
"[The suspensions] are unsurprising," he said Friday in an interview from California. "This is what we had exepected. Unfortunately, I have become fairly cynical about these issues in that there hasn’t been any clear expression of serious political will on the part of this government to fight corruption directly."
Samuel Kimeu, head of Transparency International Kenya, told AFP the EACC chiefs’ suspension could hamper the crusade against graft. "It is important that we do not lose the momentum gained in the fight against corruption," he said.
Some activists believe that the EACC chiefs will eventually be sacked. "They will never go back to their jobs," predicted anti-graft campaigner Boniface Mwangi in a telephone interview from Nairobi. "It’s a game of musical chairs, a game that the politicians have mastered."
Their suspension "in the midst of an unprecedented war on graft appears to be a matter of the worst possible timing," The Star newspaper wrote in an editorial.
It comes less than a month after dozens of politicians and civil servants were named in an EACC report – a damning indictment of the scale of corruption in Kenya. A total of 175 people were named, including five cabinet ministers, 13 governors and a string of civil servants, MPs and members of the judiciary.
Kenyatta has ordered those named in the report to step aside while they are investigated, and presidential spokesman Manoah Esipisu has said that the EACC chiefs’ suspension "in no way hinders the work" of the anti-graft body.
Kenyatta has called for an "unwavering war against corruption" in which there will be "no sacred cows". But the now-suspended EACC deputy chairwoman, Irene Keino, complained earlier this month that a "clique" was engaged in a "brazen attempt" to force her to resign. A third EACC commissioner, Jane Onsongo, reportedly fled Kenya a few weeks ago.
The EACC report, released last month, described the Ministry of Lands as "bedevilled with rampant corruption" and run by a "cartel" linked to minister Charity Ngilu. Transport and infrastructure minister Michael Kamau was accused of inflating the cost of Kenya's flagship infrastructure project, a new railway from Mombasa to Nairobi.
Three others ministers – agriculture, labour and energy – have also stepped aside pending investigation.
The governors of Kenya's main cities Nairobi and Mombasa, Evans Kidero and Hassan Joho, are accused of procurement irregularities and land grabbing respectively, while a former auditor-general, Patrick Omutia, is accused of defrauding the World Bank.
The officials' suspensions have been met with some scepticism. Senior officials suspended for various reasons from previous governments have never been convicted of wrongdoing. Some of them were able to return to their positions before investigations were completed.
"Most likely there will be a few charges to please the public," said anti-graft activist Mwangi in a telephone interview from Nairobi. "[The culprits] will go to court and then they will be acquitted. We never jail the corrupt in Kenya. Economic crimes are never punished."
Campaigner Githongo believes that releasing the EACC report "had the political effect of a grenade in a confined space." It’s unclear if the report will be followed by action when the dust has settled.
"It has led to a huge amount of confusion," Githongo explained. "A lot of institutions are being shaken up. Politicians are rallying, organising, defending themselves – instead of the usual quiet investigations that then lead to arrests."
"The whole battle against corruption has become very muddy, very confused and very contentious," he added.
Michela Wrong, the author of It’s Our Turn to Eat, a book on corruption in Kenya, says graft is endemic in both government and opposition ranks – and in business. "It’s always a very complicated thing in Kenya when you’re trying to work out who’s allied with who and who’s interests are affected," she explained in a phone interview from London. "It’s a typically Kenyan story. It becomes very murky, very quickly."