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It’s time to shift our public consciousness

By Irungu Houghton | January 12th 2019

“What’s your salary expectation?” is one of my favourite job interviews questions of all time. Every time I ask it, I know I am probing the very conscience of an applicant and the country at the same time. On January 24 and 25, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance are co-hosting a National Anti-Corruption Conference. The interview question is not as far from the conference topic as one would think. 

I like the salary expectation question because the answer is always predictable. Everyone will have a minimum figure, but no-one will have a maximum figure. Occasionally for fun, I have offered double figure proposed and watched an applicant calmly agree. If people were more honest, I suspect what they would say is “I just want more.”

We are so immersed in our ever-expanding self-interest that we have lost a sense of personal value. Given the opportunity, most of you will inflate your incomes and benefits even at the expense of your workplace or the country, for those in public office. It seems so ingrained in us we can only see it in the conduct of others. In this regard we are like fish in water. We breathe and swim around corruption without the consciousness of being wet.

In this context, what can the conference hope to achieve as a repeated set of Tsunami like corruption waves rock the country and most citizens continue to behave like fish? The conference must comprehensively discuss the cause of corruption in the state, civil society and the market. It needs to ask the inconvenient questions and be practically disruptive. The Judiciary has come under fire over the last few months. Judges and magistrates have issued anticipatory orders and light “chicken theft like” bail terms including allowing accused state officers to access their offices. Cases drag on in courts with no sign of the continuous case management promised by the Chief Justice.

Perhaps the Judiciary could consider announcing new judicial policy and practice guidelines for pre-trial and trial processes, sentencing, asset freezing and recovery. Is it time to shake up the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and free it from the allegations that it too, has been captured by state and cartel interests. Perhaps Law Society of Kenya members should demand of all interested in a JSC seat to declare that they will not practice at the same time and avoid the conflict of interest we have seen in the past.

Judge Nyakundi made an important judgement this week. He ordered six police officers to personally pay 19 citizens Sh7.8 million for unlawfully arresting and detaining them. Imagine if all public, private and not for profit organisations followed this lead and routinely surcharged all who abuse agency resources. The conference comes in the wake of the reorganisation of the National Police Service. Perhaps the Service could use this moment to declare new radical strategies that can lift it from the bottom of those embarrassing Transparency International and EACC ratings.

Like chickens coming home to roost, civil society causes like #AfyaHouseScandal, #WarioMustGo and #RedcardKE have finally yielded public prosecutions. Ironically, the influence of CSOs has shrunk almost as much as the court cases have grown. Hammered by an autocratic state in the past, reduced foreign funding and limited public support, CSOs seem quieter and increasingly helpless. In line with President Kenyatta’s appeal to CSOs for help on Jamhuri day, is it time to re-energise the sector by pressing for a new policy framework, funding and the commencement of the Public Benefits Organisations Act?

The national conference will find the political class in disarray and desperately trying to arrange the chairs of power ahead of 2022. The fundamental question of whether the next generation of leaders will operate from an ethical or predatory mindset is at the heart of their contest. While getting the right individuals matter, it also matters how the parties will control greedy mindsets in future.

Besides the politicians, pop singers, priests and public relations experts also have the capacity to shift our public consciousness. They too must come and propose new strategies to change public behaviour. Only then will our very fishy personal interest evolve into a national culture informed by humility and the public interest.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton

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