As long as poverty is widespread, fight against graft will be in vain

Last week, as Christians around the country geared up to mark the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and Muslims continued to mark the holy month of Ramadhan, it was revealed by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) that 2023 had seen an unprecedented increase in the paying of bribes in exchange for government services. In fact, not only was the figure shockingly high, it was nearly double the amount of bribes paid in 2022.

How paradoxical, it would seem, for a country as religious as Kenya to be in this position. As we continue to fight corruption, the situation seems only to be worsening. But a closer look at where the most corruption lies, compared to the economic situation in the country, answers the question of why corruption is worsening.

The EACC report revealed that the healthcare and police service sectors are where one is most likely to be asked to pay a bribe to receive services. Doctors are currently on strike and talks have stalled between the government and the medics' union as the government insists that its coffers are empty. It would appear that healthcare service providers have found a way to supplement this deficit, much to the disadvantage of those who are unwell.

The police force, on the other hand, is notorious for poor pay and squalid living conditions that the officers are subjected to, as well as for its penchant for bribery. Traffic police are ranked number one in seeking bribes on the road. The profession of police officer is perhaps one of the most puzzling, with the requirement that upper classes be protected, whilst the officers themselves live from hand to mouth.

Lastly, and perhaps most unsurprising, the highest percentage of Kenyans confessed that they are more prone to pay a bribe to access passport services than any other governmental service. Since it came into power, the Kenya Kwanza government has encouraged Kenyans to seek employment abroad due to both a shortage of jobs locally and a purported abundance of jobs abroad.

Desperate Kenyans are applying in their hordes to leave the country. Every weekday morning, endless queues can be found outside Nyayo House as job-seeking Kenyans apply for passports that they will need in order to seek better opportunities abroad. The desperation of these job seekers is an excellent opportunity for bribe-seeking, and the speed of passport issuance is now dependent on how much you can cough up to expedite the process.

How then does one reconcile this rampant corruption with the unwavering faith of Kenyans? Karl Marx once noted that “Religion is the opium of the people. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions.” Marx understood that a society that is floundering under the oppression of punitive economic systems, poverty and repression would look to religion as a soothing balm and a source of hope. Kenyans are evidently doing their best to survive, thereby resorting not only to paying bribes so as to access services, but also turning to religion for some hope of redemption from suffering.

Indeed, no other sector of society understands the role of religion as an opiate as do those churches that preach the prosperity gospel. By targeting the poor with hopes of prosperity through giving, these churches can attract thousands through their doors. It is also no coincidence that this same week saw the first Shakahola massacre bodies being released for burial. Shakahola holds up a mirror to Kenya, showing us the extent of our financial desperation, and the drastic measures that we are willing to take to experience reprieve.

There is no solving the problem of corruption without healing the economic conditions of the poorest. That the EACC is occasionally headed by religious leaders shows a further lack of understanding of the situation, as religion is already entangled in the battle of survival, just like corruption is.

Ms Gitahi is a researcher and PhD candidate