It came as no big surprise. “I will not resign”, declared the new chair of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, Philip Kinisu, regurgitating what has become a stock phrase in the vocabulary of all Kenyan public officials. Barely six months after he was appointed to head the country’s premier public ethics agency, Kinisu has been accused of ethical violations of his own, after his family-owned firm was found to be transacting business with entities he was meant to be investigating.
There is nothing new in his claim that “resigning would be setting a terrible precedent because any person can fabricate a claim against a public official”. It is the same excuse we have heard before most notably from the embattled commissioners of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. The defiant language is reminiscent of similar statements from cabinet ministers such as Anne Waiguru and Amos Kimunya, who memorably declared that he would rather die than resign. In fact, there is a long and unsavory history of refusal to resign, or to step aside, whenever the integrity of public officials is questioned.
Professor J. Patrick Dobel, of the University of Washington in his article entitled The Ethics of Resigning published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, states that “resigning from office is a critical ethical decision for individuals. Resignation also remains one of the basic moral resources for individuals of integrity. The option to resign reinforces integrity, buttresses responsibility and supports accountability.”
The impetus for resignation flows from the understanding that public office is held on trust, the belief that what matters more is safeguarding the faith that the public has in the mechanisms and systems of democratic governance rather than the individual culpability of office holders. In fact, a principled resignation is paradoxically a reflection of the abundance, not of the lack, of personal ethics among such officials.
Kenyans yearn for such displays of integrity from the folks they pay to manage their affairs. But sadly for a country where the abuse of public office for private gain has been elevated to an art form, personal interest has always seemed to trump public interest. Whether it is as a result of principled policy disagreement or because of allegations of wrongdoing, politicians and bureaucrats alike have been loath to let go of their jobs, many time preferring to be pushed rather than to jump.
One can take lessons from the resignation of the immediate former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, over the loss of the Brexit referendum. It did not require the hullaballoo of street protests or parliamentary committee decisions to force him out. The decision was personal, the stinging rebuke delivered by the electorate sufficient. Contrast this with the actions of then President Mwai Kibaki, who after losing a referendum on a new constitution in 2005, chose to fire those whom the public had sided with. It is clear that he did not think his mandate to govern was in any way affected by the fact that the people in whose name he claimed to do so, had disagreed with him on such a fundamental issue.
On the other hand, one could also question the actions of the “rebels” in Kibaki’s cabinet, led by Raila Odinga, who, despite their disagreement with the official government position on this most basic of all issues, would themselves not contemplate principled resignation, but rather, opted to hang on till they were fired.
The fact that resignations from office are so rare in Kenyan history is thus a telling indictment of the logic that permeates our pretend democracy where government is divorced from the consent and will of the governed. As Kinisu’s explanation demonstrates, it is a system that privileges the position of officials above the credibility of the institutions they lead; one that is less concerned with what the public thinks than with the private tribulations of the elite that lords it over them. This is the real and far more terrible precedent that Kinisu seeks to preserve by his refusal to jump.