Grand corruption is back in the headlines. Newspapers and broadcasts today are full of unsavoury details about accusations of bribery bedevilling the committees of Parliament, questions on the Nairobi Governor’s past as CEO of the troubled Mumias Sugar Company and the infighting at the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Authority over the alleged tampering with files relating to the Anglo-Leasing scam. However, my question is: Why did the issue ever leave the front pages?
The fact is, graft, the single issue which has been the scourge of regimes since independence, never went away. We simply stopped paying attention. Sure there have been indicators of its ubiquitous presence all along but we have been encouraged to see these as isolated signs. President Uhuru Kenyatta has urged us to focus on “development” and declared the existence of the mythical “War on Corruption.” And most have seemed content to take him at his word.
No longer. It is increasingly clear that the vice has infected almost every aspect of public life. Even the institutions meant to fight it have themselves not been immune. This is proof positive that the problem is not one of a few bad apples but is systemic. Corruption is not just deeply ingrained in our modes of governance. The misappropriation and theft of public resources for private gain is part of the entire ethos underlying the system we inherited from the British.
That failure to fundamentally reform that system is at the heart of our current woes. However, we have steadfastly refused to consider our past as a nation, the choices that were made and the consequences they have borne. We keep demanding investigations and prosecutions but are constantly at a loss to explain why these, even in the rare occasions they actually happen, never lead to satisfactory outcomes. Or why they only seem to serve as smokescreens behind which records are sanitized.
The Bible tells the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the salvation of the righteous. As they flee from the destruction being wreaked on the wicked, they are warned not to look back. One, however, is unable to resist one last glance at the burning hell that she once called home and is instantly turned into a pillar of salt.
Kenya, too, is in flight. We are running from our past and from the iniquity of the last half century. And just like the Lots, the tribal gods who have afforded us escape have warned us not to look back. And so, most are focused on getting as far away as possible, not wishing to disobey, to look back lest the flames consume them. Few harken to the voice described in Anna Akhmatova’s poem, Lot’s Wife, still rings in their ears: "It's not too late, you can still look back.”
The fate of the unnamed spouse has come down in history as a cautionary tale. She has been dismissed as a vain and materialistic woman who, because of her character, deserved her punishment. Similarly today, those insisting on an examination of the past are branded as self-indulgent narcissists who insist on dragging us back into the mire.
Despite all the justifications offered for the righteousness of her demise, it is not inconceivable that Lot’s wife was punished for expressing her outrage at the injustice occurring behind her, for daring to question the judgment of Heaven. “And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human,” said the late American novelist, satirist and graphic artist, Kurt Vonnegut.
Many of those looking back in modern day Kenya are also doing so out of outrage. For me, it is inconceivable the system we so like to defend is anything but flawed, that our terror of the past is anything other than indicator of the superficiality of our nationhood, of the hollowness of our democracy. I am outraged that despite the talk of reconciliation, we were still frightened of truth and that the systems we today employ to ensure the transparency and accountability in our governance arrangements do little to enhance either. I am outraged when the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which represents country’s best hope for beginning to confront the reasons for that fear, is systematically perverted to protect the interests of a powerful elite and to cover up their crimes. But most of all, I am outraged at the lack of outrage, that we can so easily give up, that we are so quick to forget, to “accept and move on,” so afraid to demand an accounting.
For those who do turn back, there is a swift rooting to the ground, an inability, even unwillingness, to look away, to ignore what has been seen, to keep silent. Yet most of Kenya ignores their voices and keeps running. But what we are running from –and where we are running to- we cannot say. We can only mouth some vague ideas about “development”. Is it a better place? How can we know? Are we “moving on” to a place of incestuous tribal worship, where we bear new generations only for them to be again attacked further displaced by the very monsters we refused to confront?
There is a need for us to discard the narratives that keep us from recognizing and dealing with the truth. Our inability and refusal to deal with roots of the economic and human rights violations of the past half century and beyond is the context within which the current orgy of looting and corruption must be seen and addressed.