Thieves deserve banishment; prosecution isn’t enough

No one likes to be called a thief. No one wants to live with a thief. No one wants to marry a thief’s son or daughter. So, why do we call thieves corrupt?

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Dr. Tom Odhiambo

It seems as if the term corruption no longer has the desired effect when used in conversation in Kenya. This is a dirty word. It should shock the hearer when uttered by someone. It should scare anyone to be labelled corrupt. The clergy should be using it in the same breath as fire and brimstone, leaving no doubt in the minds of the congregation that the physical body and soul of her or him who is found to be corrupt shall have no eternal peace. It should be the end of any pretence to personal integrity the moment one is deemed corrupt. For the word, as used in Kenya as a synonym for thief, as opposed to its true synonym, immoral, should cause moral consternation whenever it is uttered.

Yet today government officials responsible for prosecuting individuals suspected of stealing or misusing public resources use this word without care, every day. An individual who has siphoned off public money running into millions of shillings is not just corrupt – such a person is a thief; she or he is plundering what doesn’t belong to her or him. Regulations that guide public servants in their duties define such an individual by describing their actions in terms that allow legal prosecution. When such a person is merely deemed corrupt, it implies that they can indeed prove their uprightness.

This is why newspaper pages are full of photos of well-dressed, composed, or even smiling persons sitting in the court docks, waiting to be charged with theft of public resources but who are described as corrupt. Why are they smiling? Because the charge of stealing in the course of duty can be defended by a battery of lawyers – and they often do so successfully, sometimes years after the charge was made. However, corruption is another matter altogether.

Corruption means the individual is smelly. S/he is not worth associating with. It suggests that their family is tainted. Such a person can’t be a church elder. They, in a normal society, wouldn’t dare run for public office. They should be ashamed. They should slinker away like a dog that has stolen meat. The individual lives with the disgrace of corruption. The lawyer can remove the dishonour of theft. Indeed in law, one can apply for one’s name to be expunged from public records that name such a person among other thieves, if and when such a person proves before a court of justice that they are not a thief!

So, if we are to properly fight corruption – I mean this abhorrent embezzlement of public resources – we must reinstate the moral opprobrium that enabled individuals or communities to name, shame, curse and eventually exile (physically or psychologically or even spiritually) people who transgressed public moral codes. In many of our communities, a thieving individual was removed from the community because by stealing, by taking what doesn’t belong to them, their actions challenged the moral code that bound the society together as well as set an undesired precedent. They were deemed to be introducing illness in the society. They were deemed sick. So, if they couldn’t accept and suffer prescribed punishment – if they were hard-eyed as they say in my community – they were expelled.

The claim that is trotted out by lawyers, that the individual is innocent until proven guilty, presupposes that indeed there is a common understanding of guilt and innocence among Kenyans. Yet this is not the case. This claim, based on laws whose foundation is European/English, and which is founded in relations revolving around property, ignores the fact that when public money is stolen, we are talking about collective taxes, drawn from the sweat and toil of millions of Kenyans, who have a right to know, in the end when the accused is found either guilty or innocent, if the situation that led to the charge has or will be rectified.

Lawyers and their clients can seek refuge in archaic words and claims in courts of law but in the court of public morality, both actually fare badly. The point to be made is that in the first place, mere suspicion that a trusted public official or someone holding an esteemed office has behaved inappropriately should be enough to make such a person not only apologise but ‘step aside’, if one allows the Kenyan cliché for resigning or retiring from office. This isn’t even about morality. It is just common sense. It is the right thing to do. It is the expected action.

When one acknowledges that they have done wrong and that they are willing to live with the consequences of the wrongdoing, it restores the implicit – often explicit – covenant that exists between the public and the officeholder. It isn’t just about trust and responsibility, it is also about restoring human trust, a key ingredient of social relations. Yet in Kenya public officeholders behave as if the office are personal, as if public goods are private, as if the individual didn’t swear an oath – this is often implied in the letter of appointment to office – to hold the office and its responsibilities on behalf of the bigger collective, as if they are an royal appointee rather than a public servant!

But probably the nature of appointment to public office in Kenya is innately corrupt. In many cases, public officeholders aren’t necessarily in office because they qualify. They are in office because they are beneficiaries of a skewed system that benefits those directly related to the appointing authority, be it by blood, tribe, social class or friendship. Consequently the individual feels only loyal to the close-knit circle to which she or he belongs. This group, often bound together by its nefarious character and conduct, will forcefully protect one of its own. The media, lawyers, supporters, including thousands of fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen, and family will be marshalled to defend one of our own from ‘unjustified persecution.’

Such publicly performed defence of an accused person prepares the ground for someone else to justify ‘their time to eat’ when they are elected or appointed to such an office. The cycle is endless. Those on the periphery of the ‘high table’ where the eating is happening will in turn create their own ‘tables’, wherever and whenever, to extract their portion of ‘tea’ from fellow Kenyans. This thing is like water hyacinth – it appears harmless and appealing from the outside but it soon envelopes the whole water surface, killing off life. Indeed, Kenyans can’t eradicate hyacinth, a plant that can be removed by bare hands, despite a machine costing Ksh.80 million lacking parts that cost Ksh.2 million!

The public stunts involving arresting, arraigning in court and suspending individuals who are alleged to have stolen public money will have no effect on the culture of corruption unless we first name it as theft. No one likes to be called a thief. No one wants to live with a thief. No one wants to marry a thief’s son or daughter. So, why do we call thieves corrupt?

Check, dear reader, what is the equivalent of the word ‘corrupt’ in your language?   (

— The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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