Of plunderers and sexual predators, how bad can it get? fight corruption
What you need to know:
- So far, the President has, unlike all his predecessors, managed to remain personally untainted by corruption. His sins are those of omission — failing to rein in his voracious troops. But being clean is not enough.
- Why do plunderers who have trillions of shillings steal more? Don’t they tire? Why is it never enough? The answer is remarkably simple. Money and power buy social status and social status is a rat race.
- In Britain, you know you have arrived when you are bestowed a knighthood. Knighthoods are bestowed for services to society. Richard Branson, one of the few who owe theirs to wealth, was awarded for “services to entrepreneurship.” In Germany, money does not wash. You have to be a philosopher and statesman.
Book titles fascinate me. My all-time favourites include the title of Charles Mackay’s timeless classic on greed and human folly Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and the intriguing titles of prolific paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections such as Hen’s Teeth and Horses Toes and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms.
The latest addition to my list is the title of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s multiple award-winning biomedical epic The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
The cancer metaphor is often applied to corruption. It is surely the emperor of all our national maladies. The metaphorical parallel goes beyond that. Cancer treatment is as traumatic as the disease itself. And so it is with corruption. Cancer fights back. And so does corruption.
Cancer has to be diagnosed early for it to be cured. The question we must now ponder is whether we have left it too late.
Mukherjee says the book was motivated by a patient who said to him: “I’m willing to go on fighting but I need to know what it is I am battling.”
Perhaps it is time that we took a leaf from Mukherjee’s patient, dispense with outrage, whether felt or feigned, tone down the rhetoric and seek instead to know our adversary. I endeavour to start this quest with five observations.
First, corruption is human nature. Like cancer, it is in our genes. Second, the corruption epidemic in Parliament could be a good thing, a stage in the recovery.
Third, devolved corruption is preferable than centralised corruption. Fourth, whether the President fights or fails to fight, corruption will elevate or sink the Kenyatta legacy. Fifth, we cannot eradicate corruption — it is human nature — but we can clean up Augean stables.
CORRUPTION IS HUMAN NATURE
I can do no better than to quote my favourite Frenchman Frederic Bastiat, whom regular readers of this column will have encountered.
In The Law, Bastiat writes: “Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labour, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted and unfailing. But there is also another tendency that is common among people.
When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man — in that primitive, universal and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.
Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain — and since labour is pain in itself — it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work.
History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it. When then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labour.”
More from Bastiat later.
A bribery epidemic in Parliament may be a good thing
Parliamentary corruption is anything but unusual. The UK parliament is embroiled in a corruption scandal every so often; the “cash-for questions” affair in the 1990s, the expenses scandal a few years ago and the now raging “cash for access” scandal engulfing two former foreign secretaries.
In the one-party era, Parliament was subservient to the Executive. During the Daniel arap Moi one-party years, this was achieved through the Kanu disciplinary machinery. After multiparty politics arrived, this changed to bribery.
When Mr Moi wanted something passed or opposed, Kanu MPs would be trooped to State House, given a tongue lashing and Sh20,000 each on their way out. At that time, Sh20,000 was the monthly salary of a lawmaker.
The eighth Parliament (1998-2002) liberated itself from the Executive through a constitutional amendment spearheaded by Alego-Usonga MP Peter Oloo Aringo, which granted Parliament financial and administrative autonomy. This enabled MPs to raise their salaries, thus making the demeaning trips to State House less palatable.
The Constituency Development Fund reinforced the independence as the Executive’s ability to leverage budget allocations to keep MPs in line. This leverage is one of the key instruments that prevented MPs from sanctioning powerful civil servants who were named in the Auditor-General’s reports for corruption and other forms of malfeasance.
You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. The new Constitution has turned the tables. It gives Parliament considerable control over the budget. Now, the bureaucrats have no leverage over MPs. The only way they can influence the lawmakers is to bribe them with cash.
Love it or hate it, the bribery epidemic is evidence that the Kenyan Parliament has come of age. There are two good things about this. First, the nature of political competition makes corruption in Parliament more difficult to cover up than corruption in the Executive. And second, we can vote out corrupt MPs if we chose to. We can’t fire bureaucrats.
Devolved corruption is preferable to centralised corruption
“Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organised by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws.
According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it,” Bastiat goes on.
Share in it. For 50 years, our tribal chiefs have battled to capture the big house on the hill to get a turn at the trough. We, in turn, have rallied behind them in the hope that we would get the crumbs. In 2007, they dropped the ball, and now find themselves having to make space at the table. So we now find ourselves at another fork on the road. Which way will we turn?
Bastiat continues: “Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws! Until that happens, the few practise lawful plunder upon the many, a common practice where the right to participate in the making of law is limited to a few persons. But then, participation in the making of law becomes universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests by universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general.”
I am optimistic. Why? Amidst all the hullabaloo about MCAs run amok, we have lost sight that the Kiambu County Assembly impeached its first Speaker for corruption ages ago and Martin Wambora hangs on by the skin of his teeth as Embu Governor. In the national government — both Executive and Parliament — people continue to occupy high offices with drumsticks sticking out of pockets.
The salient difference between centralised and devolved corruption is proximity to the people. There is no direct visible cost of corruption at the national level to constituents.
Much to the contrary, constituents expect their MPs to bring resources from Nairobi and they don’t distinguish between budgetary resources and harambee contributions financed by proceeds of corruption.
The difference with county leaders is that they are right there with the people. Most MCAs commute from their homes. Their corruption has direct and visible consequences to their constituents, including themselves. If money is voted for a road, it is one that they themselves use.
Secondly, as resident members of the community, they are subject to social sanctions that a leader in Nairobi is not. If one becomes notorious, he or she will find their social functions poorly attended and accreditation to important roles like negotiating bride price withdrawn. Unflattering songs will be composed.
Whether Uhuru fights corruption will elevate or sink the Kenyatta legacy
So far, the President has, unlike all his predecessors, managed to remain personally untainted by corruption. His sins are those of omission — failing to rein in his voracious troops. But being clean is not enough.
MUCK IS ALL AROUND HIM
The muck is all around him and rising. Will he drain the swamp, or will he sink in it? What is at stake here for him is more than a personal legacy. It is the place of the Kenyatta clan in history.
If he drains the swamp, he bequeaths the clan a shot at political dynasty a la Indira Gandhi. If he does not, he goes down as the man who took over a country on the mend and slept on the job as it sunk into a crime infested narco-state.
He will have consigned the clan into the dustbin of political history, plumbing the depths with the Duvaliers. We can clean our house if we choose to.
Why do plunderers who have trillions of shillings steal more? Don’t they tire? Why is it never enough? The answer is remarkably simple. Money and power buy social status and social status is a rat race. If you overtake me, I must overtake you. The goal is to be the number one rat. Dumb rats don’t realise that they are on a treadmill.
Who confers social status? Us. To be bestowed the highest social status in the US, you need to be a very successful entrepreneur, make a lot of money and then give most of it away. Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and many others are examples.
In Britain, you know you have arrived when you are bestowed a knighthood. Knighthoods are bestowed for services to society. Richard Branson, one of the few who owe theirs to wealth, was awarded for “services to entrepreneurship.” In Germany, money does not wash. You have to be a philosopher and statesman.
We have chosen to reserve our highest honours to plunderers. We invite them to launder their reputations in our churches, mosques and temples. In Karen and Muthaiga, they welcome their sudden arrival and grotesque nouveau riche mansions because they bring with them government security, and of course the proximity improves the chance of cornering some more government business.
“When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labour.”
We can make plunder more painful than labour. All we need to do is to confer plunder its rightful social status, put the plunderers where they belong — with sexual predators. As we can all see, they are birds of a feather.
David Ndii is the managing director of Africa Economics. [email protected]