The huffing and puffing about corruption that inspires little hope

National Youth Service suspects at Mililani law courts where they were charged with conspiracy to commit an economic crime. [Beverlyne Musili/Standard]
Lately, Kenyans have been treated to revelations of the loss of billions of shillings in taxpayers’ money. The disclosures have resulted in tough official stances and the usual promises to fight corruption.

The President and the Chief Justice have made the latest public declarations against corruption, promising that the institutions they head will invigorate the fight against the vice.

The same declarations have come from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Director of Criminal Investigations (DCI), lending some credence to the promises, given that both are newly appointed.

This has been followed by dramatic activity in which some of the suspects of the current spate of corruption have been arraigned.

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Looking at all this, one would be almost convinced that something is finally happening to eliminate corruption. But reaching such conviction would be too optimistic.

All this continuing drama leaves one with a sense of déjà vu, the feeling that we have been here before.

Kenyan scholar Isaac Tarus traces the loss of public funds to the colonial period.

In his magisterial work on the history of taxation in Kenya, he links the rise of prominent families that later came to dominate the country’s public sphere to colonial corruption.

Enrich themselves

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According to Mr Tarus, the heads of these families acted as colonial chiefs, and in the course of discharging their duties, used their positions to enrich themselves.

This happened mostly through the collection of taxes - they collected more than what the colonial authorities had decreed and kept the extra money for themselves.

Using these proceeds, they took their sons to prominent schools, such that when independence came, the sons were among the most qualified people to join the Kenyan public sphere.

Many of Kenya’s first public servants were thus beneficiaries of colonial era corruption. Given this reality, it was a tall order to expect them to fight what they had benefited from.

It is against this background that corruption and the purported fight against it have emerged.

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Keen observers of Kenyan governance will not fail to notice the path that corruption and the purported fight against it usually take.

First, disclosures indicating massive losses of public funds. This is followed by a public outcry, with the media awash with stories of how corruption is bleeding the country dry.

Heads of involved institutions emerge, declaring that no corruption has taken place and that media reports are exaggerated.

Then the head of State comes out, makes the usual tough declarations, and sometimes follows this up by sacking those accused or moving them to less significant public portfolios.

Some of the suspects may even be arraigned, and a laborious process to find out whether they are guilty or not commences. Soon, the whole story recedes from public memory, replaced by yet another major scandal.

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At the end of it all, the public resources are lost, never to be recovered.

The current huffing and puffing against corruption seems to be following this well-beaten path. And as usual, the only outcome from it will be loss of public funds.

Usual path

The way Kenya sets out to fight corruption is problematic. Looking at the usual path this so-called fight takes, one sees a consistent pattern that is the very reason why corruption thrives.

The fight is centralised and top-down, with the country’s top leader expected to decree corruption to an end. The fight itself gives the ruler prominence and control over corruption.

An effective fight against graft will take place only when the ruled elevate themselves above the ruler. This will happen in two ways.

First, through having society, in its various organisational formations, gain the capability to direct the fight against corruption and its outcome.

This is the example US President Barack Obama cited when he addressed Kenyans at the Kasarani Stadium when he visited Kenya in 2015.

He recounted how the US media worked with other sections of society to eliminate corruption when the country’s rulers were too embroiled in it to fight it.

The second way would be to have institutions set up to restrain the Executive.

This would happen, for example, when the Judiciary and the anti-corruption commission gain the courage to jail the ruler himself or herself, or the ruler’s closest allies.

Otherwise, sticking to the old way of fighting corruption is mere noise that is likely to fade away soon.

Mr Muyumbu is a commentator on Kenya’s governance and politics.

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