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Corruption in Kenya — blame it on shopkeeper

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By XN Iraki | Mar 31st 2015 | 4 min read
By XN Iraki | March 31st 2015
FINANCIAL STANDARD

Kenya: Corruption has become the hottest topic in Kenya. Economists prefer giving it swanky terms, like rent seeking.

From boardrooms to churches and pubs, we are all preoccupied with who is eating what and how much. But do we ever wonder the origin of Kenya’s corruption?

Some blame the end of the old order, when we cared for one another. That was replaced by well-educated men and women who worry more about how their friends and peers perceive them than how the next generation will remember them.

ECONOMIC SUFFERING

We cannot fail to blame insecurity — not from terrorists, but from economic suffering. Lots of corrupt people are rational; they are trying to ensure they will live well into old age, and if possible, ensure their next generation will not suffer like them.

One approach to reducing corruption is to ensure Kenyans are economically secure in their old age. They can then spend their money buying the niceties of life, from cars to holidays, without worrying about retirement.

That’s what the US did. They ensured retirement benefits are secure, the so-called social security, so that one can squander their salary over the weekend and keep the economy humming. We copied senators and governors from the US, but not this.

There is another cause of corruption that is less talked about — the shopkeeper or kiosk owner.

Most Kenyans grew up when there were no supermarkets, just shops. These still dominate rural areas where a majority of Kenyans were born — including some Nairobians who pretend they were not born there, despite their accents, and look down on watu wa shagz — and still live.

If you recall, you went to the shop to buy everything, from sugar, sweets and bread to cooking fat and flour. You found a guy sitting there and you gave him your cash, hard earned digging a grave or planting two acres of potatoes in a day.

To most Kenyans, that guy overpriced things, though most of us did not know where he bought his products from.

We grew up believing he had an easy life; he just sat there to collect our money. We admired him, with some envy, and longed for the day we would do the same thing as he. Few of us knew the concept of value addition and wondered why this guy had so much money and never shared it with us.

 

Once we left the village, we got jobs in various places and for once had salaries. We soon realised the money was not enough; we still could not drive cars or frequent five-star hotels.

We realised further that there was ‘free money’ under our custody, just like the money in the shopkeeper’s cashbox.

We learned we could realise our long-held dream of becoming ‘rich’ like the shopkeeper — we were not stealing, we were picking the money that was there.

We are unable to see the value chain and understand the simple fact that money is a medium of exchange for work done, risk taken and value addition.

We soon realised that you could use the stolen money to silence others, either by sharing the loot with them, or showing off with big cars and other conspicuous signs of affluence.

Soon, it became part of our culture and we justified it by saying everyone else was eating.

Deprived families

You don’t believe me? Just do simple research and you will find that most corrupt people grew up in deprived families.

Deprivation may not be just about money, but also attention and love. Why else does corruption involve sexual affairs? They are trying to make up for the lost opportunities.

Such people are not more corrupt than others — the circumstances they grew up contributed to making them more corrupt. Education made them more efficient in carrying out corrupt deals.

We misunderstood capitalism from day one. There are very few illiterate people in corrupt deals, unless they are victims.

Religion was supposed to tone down these excesses, but we realised as we grew up that pretence can be a powerful tool in our quest to reap where we never sowed.

Where do we go from here?

A simple solution to reducing corruption is to ensure we reduce inequality and extreme poverty so that we grow up without pent-up anger and the urge to make up for lost opportunities through graft.

Second, ensure there is security in old age and teach children the value of hard work. Does the term ‘Protestant work ethics’ appear anywhere in the primary or high school CRE syllabus?

It is no wonder that philanthropy is still nascent in Kenya, despite the number of well-educated and affluent Kenyans. As they grew up, they never learned to share because they had nothing to share!

Policy mistakes

The corruption we are witnessing today is a culmination of years of policy mistakes, neglect of the rural areas, lack of social security, lack of recognition for achievers and — I will say it loudly — the failure of lots of people to mature. You cannot claim to be mature if you cannot see the effects of your actions on other people and on other generations. There is no heroism in reaping where you never sowed. Must you be punished to do what’s right, even in adulthood?

Maybe with supermarkets and malls, the perceived power, envy and influence of the shopkeeper will be dispersed and the next generation will grow up less deprived and with fewer grudges against society.

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