Grand corruption is back, but no one is willing to rein it in

Pupils of Lang’ata Road Primary School carry a placard during a protest against the grabbing of their school playground on January 19, 2015. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL |

What you need to know:

  • No one is spared the vagaries of graft as all eyes are trained on the coming elections.
  • The solution to petty corruption is simple — improve on service delivery.

Grand corruption is back and practised in such a big scale that no one can ignore its presence.

It is a phenomenon that is slowly getting out of control. There is also petty corruption that you meet when seeking services in government offices as well as in private sector offices.

The causes of these two forms of corruption are also different. This difference is rarely appreciated.

The face of petty corruption is very simple. You meet askaris “eating” from mama mboga.

You meet the traffic police “eating” from matatus or the regular police literary eating from ordinary citizens.

Petty corruption makes the life of ordinary citizens quite difficult.

It makes it very costly for the ordinary person to seek justice or service from public officers.

Petty corruption is the result of two problems. One is poor delivery of services by public institutions.

The second is the failure to punish the corrupt. The corrupt usually get away with it especially if they have influential principals.

Studies now show that poor supply of public goods is the single most important cause of petty corruption.

People have to queue for public goods and services when provision is inadequate or inefficient.

Those at the end of the queue usually jump the queue by paying a fee to the officials providing the service.

They get quick services at the expense of those not able to pay.


Corruption, whether petty or grand, generally hurts the poor more than the rich. It deprives the poor of the little they have. It adds more to those who already have.

For the poor, corruption is such a tragic event that it leaves them mourning throughout.

A particular real life incident some years back illustrates this in a clearer manner.

Dick is a friend who fell sick and was hospitalised. Doctors in this public hospital recommended surgery.

He remained in hospital in pain for several weeks because there was only one surgical bed. There was a long queue of other patients waiting for the bed.

With excruciating pain, Dick approached one of the nurses for help.

She had a very clear and short answer: “Get about Sh50,000 and you will get the bed.”

This money would help secure and hide the bed on a Friday evening and over the weekend until early Monday morning.

This was “facilitation fee” for the nurse and a chain of others including probably the doctor.

Dick raised the money through harambee. The bed was secured and Dick had a successful surgery. He recovered quite well.

Dick benefited at the expense of other patients. Those not able to raise the money remained in the ward for long. The absence of enough surgical beds prompted this corrupt behaviour.

There are instances where officials deliberately undermine service delivery to cause queues.

They may occasion a breakdown of computer systems, the machinery and anything else required to provide efficient services.

In all these instances, no one bears the consequences. Those involved get away with it.


The solution to petty corruption is simple — improve on service delivery. This solution lies at the doorstep of Cabinet Secretaries and Principal Secretaries as well as heads of service delivery parastatals.

Unfortunately very few public institutions have shown improvement in service delivery. Neither is the law effectively applied to punish errant officers.

The face of grand corruption is not complex either. It involves the big and influential individuals. It involves grabbing of public land, inflating prices of contracts given by public offices, and generally stealing from the government.

Here you will meet MPs eating from government ministries and parastatals. They demand award of contracts to their own companies or those owned by friends. Parastatal chiefs are not left out in this too. They eat from where they work.

Grand corruption involves plunder of public resources in a big way and involves “big” people. They are big in economic and political influence.

The causes of grand corruption are few but intertwined. First is greed. This is quite common among the rich and politicians.

The rich fear sliding back into poverty. They keep on amassing wealth especially through public sources to firmly seal holes of poverty.

This is true especially for those who rise from poverty to riches through any way including working hard.

With our weak rule of law and limited sense of accountability, those who steal from the public and have political influence get away with it.

Greed leads to plunder without consequences. In fact, over time, there has emerged a new moral value that glorifies riches through corrupt and other illicit habits. Wealth through corruption is wealth like any other.


The second cause of grand corruption is political. Newly elected leaders usually get to power without money.

Some would have spent lots of it in their campaigns. Once they get into public office, they begin to look for money for another election and to compensate themselves.

They run protection rings around those with wealth but without political influence.

Grand corruption involves just “eating” Kenya. It is done by already rich and influential elites who are keen to secure themselves.

Viewed this way, the spate of corruption scandals witnessed in the last few years has everything to do with the next elections including the 2022 presidential election.

Grand corruption, unlike petty corruption, has huge implications for the economy. It undermines quality of goods and services. It moves money away from public services to private hands.

For example, the Auditor-General’s report for the 2012/2013 budget noted that it is difficult to say whether Sh337 billion was incurred in a lawful manner or not.

This amount represents about 24 per cent of the 2012/2013 budget.

If this money was lost through unlawful means, then we can safely argue that we lost 24 per cent of the budget.

Sh337 billion would have financed the ministries of Education, Water, Agriculture, Medical Services and even Roads in the 2012/2013 financial year.

If this money was to be divided among the 18,000 public primary schools in the country, each school would get about Sh18.8 million. This would have transformed all public primary schools.

Media reports show there is loss of a billion or billions of shillings in procurement scandals. If these were put to basic services, the result would be better access to services by the poor. Corruption simply erases the dream for the poor to live better lives.

A solution to grand corruption lies in a very simple approach. This involves arresting and successfully prosecuting a few corrupt and powerful individuals. If arrests are done in a succession, one case after another, things will change.

But the corrupt usually fight back in an organised manner. They can cause changes in the law. They can also terminate careers of many. The question then is: Who is to bell the cat? And which cat do you begin to bell?

Prof Karuti Kanyinga teaches at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi, [email protected]


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