Friday, June 12, 2015

Is the problem with Kenya really that it is full of Kenyans?

Lately, many of the diagnoses that have been offered on the causes of Kenya’s problems, from corruption to terrorism, have sought to lay the blame collectively on its citizens. “It begins with you” is a common refrain heard whenever blocked drains and poor city planning cause flooded roads or whenever governmental malfeasance or incompetence permits terrorists to wreak havoc. Last year, a headline to Michela Wrong’s article in Foreign Policy declared, “Everyone Is Corrupt in Kenya, Even Grandmothers”.

Now, of course, we must be wary of national stereotypes which, more often than not, offer few insights and are reflections of the prejudice of those spouting them. After all, the Japanese and German societies were once thought to be lazy, dishonest and poor time-keepers, with cultures singularly unsuited to the requirements of development.

Still, the idea persists that the Kenyan government is reflective of the will, inclinations and culture of the population, and that the reasons for its failures are really to be found, not in the persons occupying high office, but in the society they spring from. So there is talk of corruption being a cultural problem and a bewailing of Kenyans’ laziness, their supposed propensity to litter and their inability to make intelligent choices at the ballot box as the primary causes of their misery.

This idea has several problems. The most obvious is what we mean by Kenyan culture. The country is itself a relatively recent colonial construct with at least 42 communities living within and several dissected by its artificial borders. Clearly, these communities which had varying cultures and traditions, did not voluntarily unite to give birth to the state. Rather it was imposed upon them.

The truth is, Kenyans did not create the state. The state created them. Kenyan culture is similarly a creature of the state, despite the aspiration to ground it in the ancient roots of the communities that reside in Kenya. If, for example, Kenyans are corrupt, it is because their government is corrupt, not the other way round.

But is it true that Kenyans are generally corrupt? In a sense, we are, in the words of Eric Wainaina, “nchi ya kitu kidogo". A 2001 survey by the Kenyan chapter of the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, estimated that the average urban Kenyan paid 16 bribes every month to both public and private sector institutions. However, a closer look at these findings reveals that the vast majority of bribes are paid to state functionaries, with the private sector, at least at that time, recording low levels of sleaze. Two-thirds of interactions with public institutions “involved bribes or costly negative consequences if one declines to bribe.”

According to the more recent 2014 East African Bribery Index, most Kenyans pay bribes to government officials either to access or expedite a service they are entitled to. Only about a quarter are paid to avoid problems with the authorities, access a service to which one was not entitled to or to avoid paying the full cost of the service.

Far from being a cultural problem, so-called “petty" corruption, and its bigger and much more destructive brother, "grand" corruption, are actually a form of extortion by public officials from the populations they are supposed to serve. It is telling that those least able to afford it, the poor, the unemployed, those with low income and low levels education, are the ones significantly more vulnerable to such extortion.

This is hardly surprising when one looks at the origins of the state itself. It was established by the colonial authorities to facilitate and support the extraction of wealth by a few from the many. As the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission showed, it was not fundamentally reformed following independence from Britain in 1963. Instead, one bunch of thieves was replaced by another which retained and even entrenched the system of illegitimate acquisition. Government has thus served as the quickest and most sure route to wealth accumulation, a means of benefitting from, not solving, problems afflicting ordinary Kenyans.

The idea of Kenyans as generally corrupt or of Kenyan society as rotten does not gel with the facts and simply serves to obscure the real nature and source of corruption. As Ms Wrong put it, “although the problem is in fact one of elites writ large, Kenyan corruption is traditionally viewed in terms of economic rivalry among the country’s main ethnic groups.” Blaming Kenyans, or Kenyan culture is in reality blaming the victims for their own immiseration, and must be seen for what it truly is: a cover for impunity.

Similarly, blaming Kenyans for the spike in terror acts or for the flooding in our cities, is meant to shift culpability for failures to act on the intelligence, to enforce the rule of law, to protect the public and prevent the plunder of public resources, from the government to the people who suffer the consequences.

The small and exclusive club of elites who control the state is primarily responsible for the many ills afflicting the nation, not the people they prey on. Corruption is woven into the very fabric of the state they inherited and refuse to reform. It is not just its raison d’etre but also the primary means for rewarding loyalty. In return for their support, politicians, bureaucrats and even police officers get opportunities to line their pockets at the public’s expense.

The most important attempt to reform the relationship between the people and the state was the adoption of a new constitution in 2010. But even that has borne mixed results. While devolution of services has undoubtedly resulted in more services delivered to previously under-served populations, the logic of public office as a means of accumulating wealth and dispensing patronage remains.

Our elites have proven particularly resistant to  constitutional restraint and, in the end, it will be up to Kenyans in general to force them submit to it. It is we who must uphold the constitution's primacy. But we do not achieve this by accepting common responsibility for individual crimes. Instead, we should hold public officials to account, and resist the effort to socialize blame for their sins.


Unknown said...

See it in this perspective, Culture is a "socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. Culture is learned and shared within social groups and is transmitted by non-genetic means." Towards that end, I see it as a culture that we Kenyans have developed and embraced overtime to an extent that seeing a traffic cop take a bribe is more or less a normality. This is how I saw it

Joseph said...

Intelligent way to look at it. But if we are to really access the tragic reality of corruption you'll see that it transcends tribe and religion. Calling it as it is does not mean assigning blame on the citizenship, the government still has a role to play. But I honestly do not see how to kill a monster that we feed in our dinning rooms without first refusing to feed it.
Should we call the government to account? Definately, but lets do so while dealing with our moral compas.
Refusing to do so is courting the death of our society

Joseph said...

Intelligent way to look at it. But if we are to really access the tragic reality of corruption you'll see that it transcends tribe and religion. Calling it as it is does not mean assigning blame on the citizenship, the government still has a role to play. But I honestly do not see how to kill a monster that we feed in our dinning rooms without first refusing to feed it.
Should we call the government to account? Definately, but lets do so while dealing with our moral compas.
Refusing to do so is courting the death of our society

Anonymous said...

Ah Gathara, but it is about the narrative that has been created, and by whom and for what purpose, and who gets to believe it, internalise it and then regurgitates it as reality. To be honest, we are not any more rotten than any other society, we are just more blatant and public about it as a society. Moreover, the purveyors of 'Kenya is corrupt' tend to be at the first level, the corrupt themselves (ergo, the president's statements in Israel). That way it eases the weight in their conscience. It is typical scapegoating behaviour, to collectivise the guilt, and shame so that a person does not carry it alone, and can make excuses not to act, and finds the perfect excuse "Kenyans are corrupt anyway. I am a Kenyan. So I must be corrupt." It means that we do not have to name names (the prerequisite act in a ritual of exorcism. The demons are personalised and have to name themselves, or they hide under the collective excuse 'we are legion). Kenya is not corrupt. The lions and mountains and seas are not corrupt. There are a few people who have chosen the path of rottenness, and the one thing we are also scared to admit to, is that the preponderance for this soul horror is the preserve (in the thought of most Kenyans, I assure you) of two 'certain community', and to dare to say so will unravel far too many myths we have built around our exceptionalism, and it would demand that the 'two certain community', undergo some very serious soul searching that would unravel far too many illusions around which the cultures have built their delusions. We need to have the courage to say, that so and so is rotten, and this is how and why. He or she is hiding under the umbrella of 'Kenyan' in order not to deal with his or her shit. He or she needs an intervention (as is done for the addicted), and this is the therapy required. To cut through the crap and name the demons. And to do that, we would need real Kenyans, the lovers of its best and perfect dreaming.

eworkflow said...

In the world where $1 trillion is spent on bribes, Kenya is nothing special under the sun. The reality is that social psychology is well informed about the mechanisms of corruption but still grossly under-applies its research to this issue. On the most fundamental level, the inter-personal dynamics cause individuals who feel a sense of commitment to their group or person committing the corrupt act feel an obligation to at least remain silent, if not participate. That alone would suggest that any society that is strictly divided into separately identifiable but interacting groups, such as after post-colonial superficial division of Africa or during initial phase of communism-to-democracy transition, are a near-perfect environment to self-corrupt.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Kenyans of 2002, just after Moi left. I remember the rainbow and the light and the joy and the hope. I remember Kenyans arresting cops who demanded bribes. I remember that we were a nation in love, a nation of love. I remember how Kenyan we were and we lost, for a season, the thorns of race, creed and ethnicity. I remember the strangers in our city from elsewhere with whom I spoke who said they would do anything to be Kenyan that day. I remember the laughter and the caring and the taxes that were repaid by those who had never paid taxes in their lives. I remember that season of greatness and immense possibility and the freedom of a society that knew it was beautiful and perfect and created to excel. So that is also why I remember the most terrible betrayal of hope that the Kibaki Government instituted. The tragedy is not that the Government immediately broke our hearts with such cynical deeds and a willingness to crush our imagination of the dream, but that that man wasted the one chance given to him to establish a shining legacy that would have echoed down the centuries. For the rest of us, it was the understanding that for him, Kikuyu came before Kenya. Kikuyu was the priority and Kenya was not Kenya unless it was Kikuyu. This single factor, something we all need to talk about--it is repetition of a pathology that started in 1964--this is the single 'original wound/sin', that the country wrestles with, that denies it the fullness of the love that would destroy the acts of rottenness and death, which is what corruption is. Shall we talk about this? Shall we talk about the Kirubis, Ndegwas, Njonjos, Kairos, of this world? Shall we talk about the robbing of the land and its territories in the 60s? Shall we talk about the removal of Kenyan Asians from their businesses to hand over to the president's select? Shall we speak about the eviction/murder of Kenyans Europeans whose homes and farms were taken over by, again, the president's elect? The state sponsored bank robberies? The Central bank and treasury appointments? Do we dare talk about these things, Gathara? The wealth generation through the looting of the land and its souls in order to justify exceptionalism? Yes others are very much in collusion with this deeds of madness, but if we cannot talk about the genesis of this, we are wasting our time and just venting with no intent to heal anything.