Times such as the ones Kenya is going through remind us of French economist, Claude-Frederic Bastiat (1801 – 1850), who famously lamented the parallel universes in which we live in times of plunder.
Plunder can become a way of life, Bastiat said. When this happens, the lords of theft create for themselves a legal system that authorises robbery. They also cultivate a social moral code that justifies theft by giving it a sense of nobility. Hence, there is the theoretical universe of the law and the real universe of impunity.
It is not just easy to steal. Stealing also becomes admirable. Soon everyone wants to occupy a position that can be used to steal. People lobby for such posts. Those who don’t get them want to be close to a lucky thief.
Government becomes a gravy train. Society is essentially in the hands of glorified thieves. Everyone knows this and accepts to live with it. While everyone knows you are a society of thieves, you don’t use the word “thief.” Such words are not politically correct.
You tone it down to make it not so glaring. You gentrify theft by using the word “corruption.” Basically, however, we are talking about naked and raw theft. The things that high-level thieves do with our money make stealing admirable. They furnish the most admirable lifestyles.
They own prime property and live in the most luxurious and exclusive places. They drive in the latest state-of-the-art machines. They eat what is considered the best food, in high-end places. Their children waste time in academies for the rich and “come through with flying colours.”
They splash ill-gotten public funds on all manner of luxuries, at home and abroad. To crown it all, they are politically and economically powerful. They are simply untouchable. And so the system authorises plunder and the moral code glorifies it.
Today, accordingly, Kenya is the home of “honourable criminals.” Our moral code is such that when the law seems to catch up with them, it is easy to scuttle it with diversionary tricks. The country has these past few weeks been treated to shocking revelations of theft of billions of shillings from a cocktail of public institutions. It is clear that this is not incidental theft.
The stealing of Sh9 billion through the National Youth Service has the mark of clearly planned and intentional theft. From the very start, the funds were budgeted and allocated for the express purpose of stealing. It did not even pretend to have been earmarked for anything else.
There are similar scams virtually everywhere else – in water and irrigation, in the energy sector, in mining, education, health, public works, industrialization, housing – everywhere. The thieves are known by face and name. Three years ago, President Kenyatta told Kenyans that some were even in State House and in his Harambee Avenue office. Yet the most we have seen is occasional rounding up of level two suspects.
They are paraded before press cameras and may once in a while be taken to court, purely for drama and for deceiving the public that something is happening at last. A majority of the cases will slowly fade out of public limelight while the rest will secure some kind of acquittal. The plundering goes on, until the day another scandal is unmasked.
There are at least two challenges here. First, the level one thief remains safely insulated by the level two suspects in the limelight. It is not possible, for example, that Sh9 billion can be stolen without the knowledge of the Cabinet Secretary. You should not be surprised that the secretary is still sitting pretty in the Cabinet, alongside other persons of questionable integrity. S/he possibly knows who else has stolen what. Nobody around him or her has the moral authority to point fingers.
The second challenge is an unnecessary witch-hunt. A general massive crackdown on procurement officers and accountants in the public service has the face of diversion.
While we should be arraigning known thieves in court, we are diverting attention from them to minions we have no case against. We are fishing for crime and bringing family lives to a standstill, in what is clearly a diversion from the great questions of the day.
The procurement function is a whole chain of activities. Removal of the head of procurement, or the accountant, alone is a big joke. If we are looking for thieves, we have the Auditor General’s reports. Implement them.
Going forward, each Kenyan must ask himself about his or her role in this mess. Are we a part of the authorising legal system, or do we belong to the glorifying moral code? The church minister who invites the thief to raise funds for the church glorifies the plunder. The voter who elects the thief from his clan glorifies theft. A private citizen who admires the luxurious proceeds of the heist is in the glory brigade. A court system that gives orders for the suspect not to be investigated or prosecuted authorises plunder. So, too, does a presidency that diverts attention from the thieves to minnows. Where is public outrage?