Will Ruto be true to his word and launch war on corruption this year?

President William Ruto during the official laying of foundation stone at Kamagut primary School ,Uasin Gishu County on January 08, 2023. [PCS]

Will 2024 be the year we get to pursue a credible war on corruption?  Or is, as feared in my previous article, going to be a year of “rhetoric without results”?  Was President William Ruto being genuine when last week he aggressively accused the Judiciary and its judicial officers (judges and magistrates) of frustrating his development agenda “on account of corruption”?

 And what about this week’s more formal presidential communication to the press that “no arm of government will be spared in the fight against corruption”?  A statement that says the President “is ready to offer leadership to fight incompetent leadership, vested interest(s) and corruption to transform the country” and “he will fight the three vices whether they are in the Executive, Legislature or Judiciary noting that they have delayed the country’s transformation”.

Let’s be clear.  It’s great that the President is angry about corruption.  In fact, we should all be angry.  But there is a framing to this anger.  The best I have seen recently on this vice comes from the USA’s December 2021 Strategy on Countering Corruption which states: “When government officials abuse public power for private gain, they do more than simply appropriate illicit wealth”.

“Corruption robs citizens of equal access to vital services, denying the right to quality healthcare, public safety and education.  It degrades the business environment, subverts economic opportunity and exacerbates inequality.  It often contributes to human rights violations and abuses, and can drive migration.  As a fundamental threat to the rule of law, corruption hollows out institutions, corrodes public trust, and fuels popular cynicism toward effective, accountable governance”.  So it’s a bit more than roadside “mambo ni matatu” declarations and generalised accusations with no follow-up action.

Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves, as said previously, that Kenya Kwanza campaigned in 2022 on an economic agenda, not a governance and rule of law one.  But that was for crowds.

A glance through the KK manifesto (“The Plan”) speaks to several points on the anti-corruption (and rule of law) front.  On constitutional implementation, we had electoral promises to stop the weaponisation of anti-corruption efforts, grant financial independence to EACC, the police and the Judiciary, bolster the financial and technical capacity and independence of Chapter 15 independent offices and institutions and promote accountability and openness in public affairs.

 There is even a promise to publish an annual State of Openness Report.

On the administration of justice (given current accusations against the Judiciary), there is a  promise to determine – in 60 days – all court judgements and orders against the government, and create a plan “to make sure government abides by all court rulings”.  A related promise is to restore lost public interest as a result of executive disregard for court orders, and the signing of treaties and contracts “that go against the law, the interests of the country and foreign policy”.

Then there are those famous promises to end state capture.  First, a quasi-judicial public inquiry to establish the extent of cronyism and state capture in the nation.  Second, implementing Section 93A of the Companies Act and its supporting regulations to make public the beneficial owners of all organisations doing business with the government.  Third, strengthening mutual legal assistance agreements with our partner states on sharing information and repatriation of stolen assets.

Other than the manifesto, Kenya Kwanza still hasn’t published an official policy document on its agenda, but it would still be interesting to see progress reports in these areas as part of the ongoing Government Service Delivery Roadshow that is probably also not looking at the state of our fiscus (lower tax collections and higher borrowing than planned), steepening domestic interest rates and a flaky shilling.  But let’s stick with this war on corruption as a new idea.

 If we ignore the irritating impressions on social media concerning the “bling bling” of new found wealth senior members of our Executive seem to be accumulating in toys and trinkets, here are three unusual angles to this graft war.  Let’s start with corruption and the economics of crime.

Academic work shows that the first part of corruption as a crime scene is that the probability and benefit of crime is greater than the probability and severity of sanction.  This is pure cost-benefit analysis; the likely benefit exceeds the likely cost.  We call this is “uta/mta do” impunity.

The second part is the probability and magnitude of social harm as well as the cost of criminal justice is perceived as less than the probability and severity of sanction.  In other words, our “mtu wetu” ways collectivise corruption as a crime despite our criminal justice system.  This is about our primordial and civic publics; the idea that public and private good are not one and the same.

The next angle comes from reported plans by the Executive – with development partner support - to commission a study to confirm whether or not Kenya loses Sh2 billion a day of the budget in waste, mismanagement and corruption.  As said before, here’s a baseline scenario that works.

At national government level, take 5 per cent of the payroll as ghosts, 50 per cent of O&M (goods and services) as undelivered, 80 per cent of the locally-funded development budget as stolen and 30 per cent of its foreign equivalent as bribes.  Add 30 per cent of everything that we transfer to parastatals.  That’s Sh1.8 billion in daily “eating” at national level based on 2023/24 budget data.

In the counties, take ghosts at 30 per cent of a bloated payroll and add a copycat of national-level 80 per cent of the development budget that’s eaten.  At lower service delivery levels, assume 60 per cent of O&M disappears into thin air. That’s Sh600 million “eaten” across all counties daily; about Sh12 million per county per day.  Remember, we have a Sh10-12 billion a day national budget.

In case you are wondering about debt service, this happens after the money is already eaten but we still have to pay it back.  Which is probably why we really need an audit of our debt register.

The third angle is a profound statement from former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga that I love to reflect on.  That “corruption has its own Vision 2030”.  Not that Vision 2030 envisaged a corruption-free Kenya, but that corruption, as a well-oiled criminal enterprise (or better still, ecosystem) with strategies, structures and standard operating procedures, has its own vision.  Think about this with his other perspective about our bandit economy which one could view in three parts: an upper class casino, a middle class bubble and the kadogo economy we call hustlers.

There are no easy answers here.  If the President is serious about addressing corruption, he needs a better framing that goes beyond kicking and screaming and avoiding, as we love, more legal instruments or multi-agency efforts.  That’s the tactical part of the game.  So let’s conclude with a four-part framing that may better help this conversation at a strategic level across government. 

We are not being naïve here.  Our politics is an important driver of our state of corruption.  As we sit here today, resources must be mobilised for the 2027 election, by hook and/or crook.

But let’s stick with our technical framing.  Government has four essential roles.  Policy.  Planning.  Budgeting.  Service Delivery.  The State Capture inquiry into how the state has been repurposed for private benefit would address what I prefer to call policy capture (controlling the rules), mostly manifested in our cronyism (or better still, crony capitalism).  Then, we tend not to look hard at planning capture, but this is the first transactional stage that leads to a plethora of projects.

Budgeted corruption – budgeting for stealing rather than stealing the budget – is the next port of call.  That this administration is not dealing with budget impunity (why do sector resource bids always exceed the actual resource ceiling communicated by Treasury?) is particularly worrying.

Finally, we have the service delivery element where petty bribery has an equivalent cumulative effect to grand corruption and looting at the planning and budgeting stages, and state capture at the policy stage.  The current drive towards government service digitisation (of content), then digitalisation (of processes) will help at this final stage.  But it is at the top level of policy where, to repeat, Kenya Kwanza’s necessary policy adventurism is at war with traditional primitive accumulation in an inherited environment of cronyism, that the war of corruption will matter.

 Yes, no easy answers.  One is reminded of Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka’s observation that “a tiger does not pronounce its “tigritude”, it pounces”.  Unless this is “rhetoric without results”.