To bring about real transformation, let’s start by repairing our ‘broken windows’

Why Uhuru should ignore the big graft scandals for now and go for exam cheats and the crooks in the matatu industry


By Kenyatta Otieno

The alleged loss of Sh5 billion from the Ministry of Health was not news to me. After all, President Uhuru Kenyatta recently threw up his hands in surrender to graft cartels. The irony is that he did this right in State House, the seat of the most powerful office in Kenya. He blamed everybody else for not doing his or her job, hence his inability to arrest the vice.
Two things have become malignant in the Kenyan social fabric – tribalism and corruption.

The two symbiotically feed on each other; it is why a look at the names of the masterminds of corruption scandals will point to people from the two communities that form the bulk of the Jubilee Coalition. This complicates the corruption matrix in Kenya because our politics is tribe-based. Power is at the apex of a triangle with corruption and tribalism at the base. Uhuru is right; fighting graft means destroying the base that keeps him in power.

In the eighties, New York was known more for crime than as one of the biggest city in the world and a centre for commerce and culture. Nowhere was crime the order of the day in The Big Apple than at its underground train stations. Almost all of the carriages and most walls were covered in graffiti. People did not pay for tickets and those who wanted to pay found the machines jammed by people who wanted to be tipped to do it. Then at the beginning of and towards the mid-nineties New York became one of the safest cities in America. But let me not jump the gun.

There were several explanations to the rise in crime. There was the dwindling economy and the proliferation of drugs, which led to violent gangs; these were the main factors. Going into the nineties, welfare funds were cut while drugs supply went down owing to efforts by the federal government, but the crime rate still went down. There was a surge in young immigrants coming to New York in search of jobs, which should have led to more crime, but it still dipped.

The Broken Window theory

Two criminologists, George Kelling and James Wilson, argued that crime was the inevitable result of disorder. When a broken window is left unrepaired, passers-by will conclude that no one is in charge. The end result is that someone will break another window or get into the building to see if there is something to loot. The anarchy will spread from this one building to the street where it is located and the message it sends out is that anything goes. The two argue that the equivalents of broken windows in a city are graffiti, aggressive behaviour – like mugging – and general public disorder. These behaviours invite people who would naturally not engage in crime to commit crimes, and encourage crooks to commit more serious crimes.

If people who commit petty crimes (both the opportunists and professionals) know that chances of being caught or beating the system are high, they will operate with confidence. This will send a message to the thief that chances of being identified or even reported are slim. According to Kelling and Wilson, crime is a function of environment.

In 1984 David Gunn was hired to manage the New York Subway system. People urged him to go for the criminals operating in the trains and stations. Instead, he opted for the “Broken Window” theory and decided to fix graffiti. The rule was that no carriage with graffiti was allowed to operate. The moment it was identified, it was cleaned or repainted before it got back into operation. This meant that carriages that could not be cleaned quickly enough were pulled out.

His focus on graffiti when the whole system was crumbling looked like providing pens in a failing education system. Gunn argued that graffiti was the symbol of a failed system. He set up cleaning stations and his main objective was to send a clear message to the vandals that someone was in charge. The clean up lasted six years until 1990 when another ‘Broken Window’ disciple, William Bratton, was hired to head Transit Police.

Bratton decided to crack down on fare beating instead of going for the serious criminals in the subway system. According to him, fare beating, like graffiti, was a symbol of disorder that invited serious crimes. The Transit Police at the time felt that $1.5 (Sh150 today) in fare was too little to bother about when there were many serious crimes happening every day.

Bratton brought plain clothed policemen to stations where fare beating was rampant. They would arrest fare beaters, handcuff them and line them up on the platform for other people to see until they had a full catch. The demoralising point for the officers was the long processing time for fare beaters – which took a full day – and the punishment, which was too lenient. Bratton reduced it to one hour but insisted that a background check be done on all those arrested. It was discovered that at least one out of seven of fare beaters had a warrant of arrest, and one in twenty had a weapon. The policemen became convinced that the effort they put in was worth it after all.

When Rudolph Giuliani became New York City Mayor in 1994, he enacted the “Broken Window” theory across the whole city. He also went ahead and appointed Bratton as head of New York City Police Department. The rest as they say is history.

Matatu and National Examinations

If I were Uhuru Kenyatta, I would ignore the major corruption scandals for now and go for exam cheats, and the crooks in the Matatu industry. And he has a good starting point in Fred Matiang’i – one of his acquaintances once cheekily described as a “focused thug” – who has brought in Prof George Magoha to sort out our national examinations. Now we know that the secondary school fires that welcomed Matiang’i to the Ministry of Education were not acts of God. The best Uhuru can do is to support them to reform the whole education sector.  This is critical because children will grow up with knowledge that the government is in charge and that the system works.

Another area that symbolises anarchy and disorder in Kenya is the Matatu industry. The late John Michuki tried to bring sanity to it but before he could fully settle, was transferred to the Ministry of Environment, and the cartels rushed back in. Even the recent insistence that all matatus must belong to a sacco has not done much to curb the madness associated with matatus.

All that the policy to belong to saccos did was to transfer the madness from being informal to formal. The response by a sacco manager in Rongai route in regard to a matatu that had contravened traffic rules and even killed four people – he wanted it to be allowed to continue operating because the Sacco had guaranteed the loan that was used to buy it – underlines this shift.

Traffic policemen are accomplices in this madness. For now, only matatus in Nairobi and major highways carry the recommended number of passengers. In rural towns, overloading is the order of the day. The recently introduced rules on motorbike transport are not even being executed. All these contraventions happen under the watch of police officers. Their main obsession is speeding; apparently, it is believed to be the cause of most fatal road accidents.

Uhuru Kenyatta does not need to throw in the towel after receiving a few punches from big-time cartels. All he needs to do is to look for symbols of disorder and sort them. The message will go right up that there is a new sheriff in town. Maybe if we cured corruption, negative ethnicity would run out of fuel because the political class use it as a means to the table of power where corrupt deals are cut. This will set up Kenya on the road to social, economic and political growth.

There is a legacy in waiting for Kamwana; he just needs to see it.



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