Plunder at the top goes on while the rest told to tighten their belts

President William Ruto. [PCS]

We must learn to live within our means. This is the new refrain from the Kenyan State, in the wake of the current phase of the strike by health workers.

There is, however, a massive gap between word and the practice. The gap speaks of two critical things. First is the traditional attitude we have carried over from colonial times, that public resources should be plundered.

Second is an ethical relativism about who should plunder and why. Prof Ali Mazrui told us of an age when theft of public property in East Africa was openly hailed as heroic. His special BBC TV talks of the 1980s were reworked and published in a book volume, titled The Africans: A Triple Heritage.

The professor of political science said in this volume, “When I was growing up in East Africa, the term ‘mali ya serikali (government property)’ had a kind of contemptuous ring about it as if that kind of property lacked sanctity.”

Mazrui recalled that this attitude among Africans was largely in protest against British colonial rule. The rule was imposed and, accordingly, illegitimate. “The colonial regime was alienated from the population, not only because it was a case of foreign control, but also because it was artificial, and newly invented. It became almost a patriotic duty to misappropriate resources of the colonial government, when this was possible without risk of punishment, or restoration.”

The British left six decades ago. Yet the attitude remains, alive and well. We do not steal from a self-imposed colonial power. We are a country plundering itself. We are at once plundering and splurging. The latest figures on splurge and plunder from the Auditor General show an irresponsible sense of entitlement at everyone else’s expense, in national and county governments.

It speaks to the attitude that public resources belong to the class in power, as loot. The loot is used for neopatrimonialism. That was why a few years ago, the Majority Leader in the National Assembly told off a governor in the words, “Pesa za serikali si za mama yako (state funds do not belong to your mother).” 

The governor had expressed frustration over failure by the national government to devolve funds to counties. Vital county services were taking a beating, while at the national level there was flashy living. The top was at once a splurging public funds and splashing ill-gotten wealth, vomiting on Kenyans’ shoes. Neopatrimonialism is the reason elite thieves and sundry reprobates get away scot-free with mind-boggling plunder. Those who work and deserve good pay get threats and admonition to live within their means.

Do people in high office arrive with express intention of stealing, then? Do rest of citizens seem not to mind, provided that the thief is their kinsman? Are they a kakistocracy? Kakistocracy has been defined as rule by the worst and least qualified citizens, to the disadvantage of fools. 

If the thief in the colonial regime was a hero, today’s thief is an even greater hero. The thief in the colonial age pilfered. Today’s thief pillages. As he goes about this, he finds comfort and protection in a narrow-minded ethnic moral community. That is to say our morals and ethics against theft are not applicable to “our thief.” They are limited to people we don’t could call “our people.”

This limited and limiting moral community is a carryover from traditional Africa. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the tragic hero, a man called Okonkwo, makes a proud display of drinking wine from skulls of people he has killed in inter-clan wars. This macabre drama is admirable and heroic. A good example to the young. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, the clan banishes him into exile. The ethics of killing depend on who is killed. 

The multiple standards in this moral relativism peak when the government is involved. The people in power may decry corruption. Yet their state will also remain the headquarters of plunder of public resources, for self-enrichment. The message is simple, “Do what I say, and not what I do.”

The state will, therefore, talk of economic austerity and cost-cutting. But they will splurge the “scanty resources” on self-serving luxury – anasa za kila aina.

The government condescendingly tells striking doctors and the rest of Kenyans to ‘live within our means.” They say the wage bill is bloated. But the plunder at the top goes on.

Expect, therefore, a massive show of wealth and extravagance by the state at the Bomas of Kenya next week. Officials will gather here in an unashamedly conspicuous anasa style, to discuss the heavy public service wage bill.