Anti-corruption crusader and Publisher of The Elephant, John Githongo, in the E-review, “Corruption in Kenya isn’t about greedy procurement officers, fiddling civil servants, crooked businessmen, shady bankers, thieving politicians … these players are born of a system of politics and governance that is itself inherently corrupt; one in which the thieves and those who facilitate them thrive.” Understanding this is the key to solving the corruption riddle.
Many times, it has been suggested that graft is a cultural problem that grew out of a supposed “African” tradition of gift giving. Now, it is a good practice to be skeptical every time someone uses the word “African” to imply a uniformity on the continent – and here a healthy dose of skepticism would be justified.
As Joe Khamisi’s history of corruption - – demonstrates, corruption was the gift of colonialism. It was, and still is embedded into the very fabric of the state the British created. The logic of that state was to legitimize the stealing by the few from the many and that is evinced throughout its design.
In fact, Kenya was corrupted even before it became Kenya. By 1907, 13 years before the territory officially became a colony, bribery was already a feature of the nascent state. Khamisi cites Hugh Cholmondeley, popularly known as Lord Delamere, a leader of the British settlers, describing the relations between the public and the new rulers: “Time and time, I have had a native say they were stopped by an Indian policeman. When I asked them how they got away, they always said, ‘Oh, I gave him something.”
Khamisi also describes how corruption seeped from the white colonial establishment down to its African enforcers, the appointed chiefs and policemen. A state built to steal was itself peopled by thieves. As David Anderson says in , “Europeans were as guilty of corruption and malpractice in colonial Nairobi as anyone else, and Africans at the bottom of the colonial racial hierarchy were most often its victims”. The , which was established in 1955 to look “into alleged corruption or other malpractices in relation to the Affairs of the Nairobi City Council” found that “the practice of City Council servants demanding or accepting, and of contractors offering, bribes or, if you prefer, money presents-for services rendered or to be rendered, [was] by no means uncommon”.
Corruption was baked into the state and its templates were established from early on. At the top, the white elite ripped off the state through public projects such as the railway and the construction of public housing, while at the bottom, poorly paid chiefs, members of African courts and police supplemented their incomes by extorting from the people. As Khamisi puts it, citing David Leonard’s , “Through corruption and bribery, chiefs were transformed into willing agents of colonialism and were “implicitly encouraged to use their positions to amass wealth and demonstrate to all and sundry that it paid to cooperate with Europeans.”
In this manner, corruption became institutionalized as a way of doing government business. And when those chiefs and their kids inherited the state from the British, they really did not know any other way to be. Following independence in 1963, the civil service was massively expanded. But the Jomo Kenyatta (Uhuru’s dad) administration was not keen on paying for it. Following the colonial model, in 1971 recommended allowing them to supplement their wages with private business, which had the effect of legalizing corruption. The looting ramped up and it has been escalating ever since.
Understanding the systemic roots of corruption would allow Kenyans to see that successful prosecutions, while a necessary part of a credible anti-corruption strategy, will not fix the problem. Deterring and punishing the corrupt is no substitute for fixing a system that not only permits, but also rewards graft. Convictions, even in the unlikely event meaningful ones were secured, would be ineffective so long as a third of the government’s budget, , continues to be available to be stolen every year.
The fact is, the rewards of corruption far outstrip Kenya’s capacity to punish it. The country’s energies would be better spent in holding political leaders accountable, not just for delivering convictions and harsher sentences, but for shutting down the gravy train. And that will require reforming how the Kenyan state works.