The word corruption has many analogs, none of them good. Imagine these synonyms for corruption – venal, nefarious, fraudulent, illegal, unscrupulous, criminal, dishonorable, and untrustworthy. I could go on. My point is that I have never heard the term corrupt or corruption used to describe anything good. It’s one of the worst words to use against a person in the English language. In China, they sentence you to death by the gun for corruption. In the US, they jail you and throw away the key. But Kenya – my Kenya – they lionise you for being corrupt and a thief.
In Kenya, you can count on the one hand senior public figures who aren’t corrupt. Virtually the entire political class is corrupt. Corruption is a way of life. It’s now in our bone marrow. I once saw a YouTube clip of middle schoolers in which the cheeky teacher asks the class to name Kenya’s gift to the world. An equally cheeky student – but dead serious – said corruption was Kenya’s gift to the world. He, together with his classmates, then burst out laughing – uproariously. The point was that corruption in Kenya is normal and we can all laugh about it. But corruption isn’t a laughing matter. It destroys and kills millions every year. I call it a crime against humanity.
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In Kenya, most of the leading public figures – including some who are campaigning night and day to occupy the State House – can’t explain how they made their obscene wealth. A true life style audit would send them to jail for several lifetimes.
Yet they seek the presidency and without a hint of shame or irony rail against corruption.
When an accusing finger is pointed at them, they cry foul and say that they are being unfairly targeted and witch-hunted by their political enemies. They hide beneath the tribe’s skirt to neutralise the putsch against corruption. They give out gobs of money and buy MPs, MCAs, and every Wambui. In Kenya, corruption is king and it pays very big.
Our children are corrupt by the time they learn to talk. I swear that I saw a six-year old kid extort a relative. Where do our kids learn to be corrupt at such a young age? How did they become “hustlers” so early in life? I think the answer is in the adults who brought them to this earth. The parents are corrupt. The uncles are corrupt. The aunties are corrupt. The brothers, sisters, and cousins are corrupt. To crown it all, the national leaders are irredeemably corrupt. Our national institutions are corrupt. Let’s focus on Kenya Revenue Authority, Kenya Ports Authority, Kenya Airports Authority, Kenya Bureau of Standards, and others agencies that manage exports and imports.
Sewer of graft
These agencies are the most corrupt in the country, perhaps only surpassed by the Kenya Police Service. We know the immigration and customs authorities are a sewer of corruption. The recent scandals of fake imported goods and the arrests of many officials from these government bureaucracies speak of a nation out of control. Just the other day, Kenya’s CEO Uhuru Kenyatta presided over the destruction of tons and tons of illegal, fake, and substandard goods.
But that’s a drop in the bucket. Our borders leak like sieves. All that unscrupulous importers and exporters need is money – massive bribes – to get anything through. A life style audit of the officials – big and small – of these agencies would reveal massive looting.
But the theft is also petty. Take arriving passengers at JKIA, especially Kenyans flying from abroad. Customs officials lurk in the arrivals halls like vultures. They pull hapless passengers to the side, ask them to open their bags, and without any justification demand a bribe. Kenyan customs officials regard arriving passengers like ATMs – cash-cows ready to be milked. Many people have so despaired that they don’t fight back – after grueling flights – for the extortion to stop. Many just hand over fifty dollars to be let through. It’s a most sickening sight. I have flown hundreds of times to airports abroad and never once have I been asked to open a bag or paid a bribe.
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The same sickness pervades the port authorities in Mombasa and the Internal Container Depot in Athi River. These are the biggest graft dens. They seek bribes whether goods are fake or genuine. If you’ve imported goods into Kenya, you know the drill. Your container is “inspected” by multiple agencies and officials who demand “facilitation” fees at every turn. If you don’t pay enough, or quickly, your goods could be stuck at ICD for months. Inspect the goods expeditiously as required by law without corruption. Otherwise Kenya will never develop. Mr Kenyatta must crack the whip even harder on officials at our airports and ports.
- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua