Why corruption remains a way of life in the public service in Africa

Members of the press outside Integrity Centre, the headquarters of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, on January 13, 2014. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI |

What you need to know:

  • To eliminate corruption in Africa, we must rethink the African state
  • As long as the public space is seen as legitimate only to the extent it can line private pockets, corruption will remain with us

When the news spreads that a relative has died, Kenyans in urban areas will normally gather together to raise some money for funeral arrangements.

Despite the frequency with which such harambees are held, I have never heard of a single occasion where relatives complained that the money had been misallocated.

Generally, the family that receives the funds will do their best to run a smooth programme.

They will often stretch their own resources to buy a bull or whatever so there can be no murmurs that the dead have not been sent off in the correct fashion.

Turn this situation around and you hear that the chief has called a harambee to fence the local school or that the local factory needs to raise some money to grade the road because of heavy rains.

The moment people hear about such an arrangement, the murmuring begins. This is another scheme to steal from us, people will mutter. Even if they turn up to the fund raiser, they will certainly not give joyfully.

They may chip in Sh50 or Sh100 to keep up appearances, but the zeal and enthusiasm with which they take part in arrangements for the funeral of a friend, the school fees fundraiser of a relative or neighbour, or even the wedding of a colleague will be noticeable for its absence.

To my mind, the difference in the approach to these two issues is useful to understanding why runaway corruption thrives in the public service in Africa.

It is certainly not that corruption is innate to Africans. Graft is a global phenomenon.

Yet what we face in Kenya is a crisis where to receive any form of service from the typical government official or to be awarded a tender, one is expected to offer some ‘tea’.

Ordinary wananchi don’t encounter that in properly functioning societies like, say, Singapore. But why is it that we don’t steal money for a wedding but will loot the last coin set aside to build a road in the village?

The Nigerian scholar Peter Ekeh offers an interesting answer.

He argues that in the West, the way politics evolved was as a public activity that looks after the collective interests of the citizenry.

What an individual cannot do on his own, such as build roads or maintain a police force, was surrendered to the political sphere.

It was the same in Africa before colonialism when the public space––the political space––was occupied by elders and traditional chiefs and other figures of authority.

But then suddenly, the colonial order introduced a ‘second public’. This new ‘public’ was an enemy of the people. It was alien. It collected illegitimate taxes. It punished arbitrarily. In sum, it was not regulated by the same moral codes as the legitimate ‘public’ Africans had grown up knowing.

When colonialism ended, Africans made no attempt to establish a link between the people and the government.

Government remained a hostile entity that has no real attachment to the mwananchi.

Growing up in the village, the other boys and I would run away when we spotted policemen at a distance for absolutely no reason.

That’s because to society, the government, i.e. the public service, is a threat to be feared, not a legitimate entity concerned with the public interest.

This is the mind-set of public servants and elected officials who see ‘public money’ as nobody’s money that is therefore fair game.

It belongs to the ‘government’ not to the people. In Sweden or Japan, on the other hand, every single coin in the hands of a public official is seen as belonging to the society at large and something to be treasured and put to the right use.

To eliminate corruption in Africa, we must rethink the African state. We must ask ourselves how to re-establish its legitimacy and get everyone to understand the link between taxation and delivery of public goods and why stealing public funds is the same as robbing a grandmother in Kangemi who pays a huge amount of tax on her jerrycan of paraffin.

As long as the public space is seen as legitimate only to the extent it can line private pockets, corruption will remain with us.

The writer, an editor with the Sunday Nation, is a Chevening Scholar at the London School of Economics. [email protected]


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