DR Tom Odhiambo
Even though corruption has existed for as long as some men – and women – created institutions to rule over others, it has become excessive in this globalised era. It seems as if wherever one looks, there are individuals and groups who are perpetually conniving to steal from the public purse. It is as if these fraudsters, thieves, or as we uncritically call them here, the corrupt, tend to believe that what belongs to the public is actually theirs, to take and keep for themselves, their children, relatives, friends or communities.
Kenya’s list of public scandals often tends to disappear from the public eye and ear whenever the media goes silent about theft of public funds. And Kenyans tend to speak about corruption as if it is the norm rather than the exception. Often, one hears claims that all Kenyans are corrupt; that even those accusing others of corruption are only waiting for their “turn to eat”; that we are naturally corrupt, etc. Even President Uhuru forgot that little dictum about washing the family dirty linen in public and began whispering in Kiswahili to fellow Kenyans in Israel – the land of master spies – that Kenyans are ever scheming to skim off something from somewhere, etc. It is difficult to know whether the President just felt like doing some mucene with homeboys and homegirls. But shouldn’t our CEO be worried that things are as bad as he was suggesting?
In a book aptly titled, “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” (2015) Sarah Chayes argues that even global terrorism isn’t as threatening to the state as corruption. In fact, she sees the rise of terror groups in various parts of the world, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, among others, as the direct consequence of state thievery. She notes that “violent religious extremism is not the only menace to international security that systemic corruption can fuel. It is just the particular variety that dominated the imagination of most Western decision makers early in the twenty-first century.” She elaborates that “other threats to world stability are generated by intense, systemic government corruption. Unnoticed, slike some odourless gas, it fuels these threats without attracting much policy attention.”
The point to note here is the insidiousness of systemic corruption. The fact that the bandits in government have been around those offices for so long, know each very well, have access to unlimited opportunities and have the authority of the law on their side makes thieves of state a very powerful lot. Chayes goes back to ancient writing to show that corruption has been a concern of many individuals in society throughout history. She cites priests, laymen, philosophers, politicians, scholars, among others, writing treatises to warn those in authority about the evil of corruption. She quotes Machiavelli, in The Prince, – a figure much beloved of local advisors to those in power – writing, “The prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he at least avoids hatred …. This he can always do if he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects, and from their women.”
What is the major complaint that Al-Shabaab has against the presence of Kenya’s soldiers – and by extension Amisom – in Somalia? That they have been robbed of their property – ability to impose taxes on traders, especially in Kismayo; that their women have been violated; that their freedom is limited. We seem unable to apply the lessons from The Prince. What complaints does Boko Haram really have in Nigeria? Simplistic analysis would have us believe that Boko Haram just doesn’t want Western modernity and its materialism? That they would want to restore some ancient Islamic caliphate, in the manner of ISIS.
These analysts forget that a cursory glance at the history of Nigeria reveals massive looting of public wealth, which has led to little or no investment in social goods. Much of Nigeria, especially the North, hasn’t had any significant state interventions to provide public goods such as schools, middle level colleges, opportunities for investment in business etc. What option is there for young people who think they have no future? What will stop them from getting “radicalised”?
Speaking of radicalisation. A radical, some years ago, meant that one was progressive, reformist; someone interested in holistic change in society which should improve the quality of life of all. What changed so that these days the youth are radicalised to maim, destroy property or kill? There must be something wrong, in the way we bring up young people to make them so angry. But most important is the fact that many of these young people are poor, jobless, unskilled, poorly educated, without a chance of breaking through the networks of tribe, clan, family or friendships that hoard jobs. The money that would have guaranteed them some modicum of decency, like in the case of National Youth Service jobs, is being ferried around in millions or billions in bags and buying expensive SUVs.
But beyond the frustrations of the youth, we have to seriously note that we are essentially stealing from tomorrow’s children. We are saddling the young and the unborn with debts that they know nothing about. It possibly would make some sense to them – in future – if we were to invest some of the money we are stealing from them today. There may be some mitigation if we were to build roads that last, schools, hospitals, research institutions and invest in some education, research and skill development – possibly through some philanthropy as several corporations that are ripping off Kenyans today – are doing.
Yet we are nothing no such things. The loot from public coffers is building private apartment blocks and villas, which are priced beyond the reach of non-thieving Kenyans. The stolen wealth is behind high cost academies and private golf courses and exclusive clubs and high end medical clinics and four star hotels and holidays in exotic places et cetera. Yet Kenyans continue to speak about corruption as if it is a moral issue to split hairs over its goodness and badness. Kenyans refuse to simply call these public servants and politicians what they are: thieves.
Our Kenyan “thieves of state”, the fellows whose names are scattered in the various affidavits recently sworn and released to the public or still locked in lawyers’ cabinets, accused of pilfering or claiming millions of public money for no or little service or laundering the millions etc., are the major threat to our security, today and tomorrow. It isn’t the young men proclaiming some Islamic statehood or membership of some amorphous “militant” group or the so-called “idlers” in mtaa waiting to pinch a shirt left on the clothesline to dry.
Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi