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Role of democracy in corruption

By Njeri Thorne | Updated Thu, March 16th 2017 at 00:00 GMT +3

Conventional wisdom suggests that democracy is a powerful tool in reducing corruption.

Mature democracies, or what we colloquially refer to as the ‘West’, have lower levels of corruption than new democracies. A further inspection of this relationship between democracy and corruption suggests that there is an inverted 'U' relationship between the two.

This means countries with no democracy have less corruption than countries going through the democratisation process.

Empirical evidence shows that levels of corruption typically increase in the initial stages of a country’s democratisation and then decrease again as democracy is consolidated and solidified.

This is explained by the fact that openness encourages more public political participation, but simultaneously increases opportunities for ‘rent-seeking’.

Furthermore, members of the public are given more access to politicians and the dispensation of public funds, increasing the opportunity for corrupt dealings.

Then, as a democracy matures and there is adequate economic muscle and sufficiently strengthened institutions, the levels of corruption reduce.

This trend is illustrated in Kenya’s recent history. As Kenya became a democracy, corruption increased as evinced in scandals such as Anglo-Leasing, where Sh56.3 billion was misappropriated, and Goldenberg, which cost the taxpayer $600 million.

As our democracy solidifies under the current administration, the scandals (for example, NYS) are of significantly lower figures, showing that corruption is decreasing, at least in terms of monetary value.

That corruption is more widely reported, the Government is more transparent and the citizenry more educated might create the impression that corruption is on the whole more rampant under this administration.

This however, is not the case. Not in monetary terms anyway.

So, what role does democracy as a tool play in the fight against corruption? If we juxtapose some basic pillars of democracy, for example, representation and justice, against the mechanisms and structures in place to fight corruption, a clear picture of the effect democracy has on corruption emerges. Representation equals free and fair elections.

From a theoretical perspective, there are several reasons why we might expect the notion of representation to reduce corruption.

Elections encourage corrupt officials to be exposed and punished given the Opposition has an incentive to uncover corrupt activities by the incumbent, and the electorate has an interest in not re-electing politicians that favour their own private interests.

Justice is a fundamental pillar of democracy but it serves as an obstacle in the fight against corruption.

If we are to work on the premise that prosecuting and convicting those responsible for corruption would act as a deterrent and hence advance the war against graft, then securing as many convictions as possible would be central to any government’s strategy in fighting corruption.

The right to justice has however been abused by individuals accused of corruption. By stalling trials though legal technicalities, suspects have frustrated the whole process and in doing so, hindered the fight against corruption. Cases in point are the numerous injunctions obtained by persons accused of corruption to stall their trial.

“The weakest link (in the war on corruption) is the court,” said the Attorney General during the State House Summit on Corruption last October. “Who releases suspects on bond?” wondered President Uhuru Kenyatta, who regretted that the Judiciary had done little to dispense justice to the suspects.

Another basic principle of democracy is the separation of powers into three arms; the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. This structure of government should, logically, through checks and balances act as a safeguard against corruption.

The hindrance in the fight against graft posed by this doctrine is that of perception. Most people, although they voted for this in the 2010 Constitution referendum, fail to understand that the President simply cannot direct or interfere with, in any way, shape or form, the Judiciary.

Consequently, his goodwill and ambitions in the fight against graft leave many unsatisfied as they perceive he should be giving orders to jail suspects of corruption. This perception is further exacerbated by the fact that we are accustomed to previous regimes and their propensity to direct the Judiciary.

Any such action by the current Executive would be a violation of the Constitution and would grossly undermine democracy.

The manner in which President Kenyatta has responded to the issue of corruption is evidence that Kenya is a functioning democracy. This administration has successfully developed laws and institutions that have formulated a response to corruption.

In line with our constitution and the democratic ideals vested therein, he has not, and cannot, use heavy-handed means to fight corruption. The rule of law prevails and so it must, because democracy is a system of rule by laws not individuals.

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