Why praise of Jubilee plunder is a sign of rise in immorality

President Uhuru Kenyatta delivers his closing remarks during Ticad in Nairobi on August 28, 2016. Jubilee took over when the wage bill and debt service were of the same order of magnitude. PHOTO TONY KARUMBA | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Once we start engaging in economic calculus, we must be prepared to entertain the possibility of benefits exceeding costs.
  • There would be no point building health facilities without providing the recurrent budget to run the services.

What is the economic cost of corruption?

Last week, I was invited to the People’s Anti-Corruption Summit to illuminate this question.

It is not the first time the question has been posed to me; it happens quite often.

I find the idea of applying economic calculus to corruption disturbing.

It disturbs because it shifts corruption from the moral-ethical realm of right and wrong, justice and injustice to the morally ambiguous domain of cost-benefit analysis.

Once we start engaging in economic calculus, we must be prepared to entertain the possibility of benefits exceeding costs.

In this calculus, we would be compelled to deduct the amount of corruption proceeds donated to churches that actually goes to good causes.

I have recently come across the concept of “political vernaculars” in a literary essay of the same title by Keguro Macharia, which he defines as “words and phrases” that assemble something experienced as the political but which also “disassemble people around the political as in ‘I don’t want to discuss politics’”.

In the vocabulary of our political vernacular, he puts impunity, corruption, negative ethnicity, graft, tribalism and development, among others.

Of these there is, in my view, none as devious as development.

The term pervades our political life. The opposite of development is politics.


Politics is a bad thing that interferes with development.

The irony is seldom observed, if at all, that the people who berate and condemn political interference with development are politicians.

It is an article of faith that as much of the public budgets should be spent on development.

Conversely, spending too much money on recurrent budget is unquestionably bad.

There cannot possibly be a more opportune time to slaughter this sacred cow as now.

As I write, our public service doctors and nurses are on strike.

The media have been awash with heartrending stories of the suffering that the ailing and their families are going through.

It is obvious that a good health care system requires well-trained, highly motivated health workers and well-stocked health facilities — drugs, syringes, gloves, chemicals, x-ray films, blood and so on.

All these are paid out of the recurrent budget.

There would be no point building health facilities without providing the recurrent budget to run the services.

Quite often, you will find big crowds of people in market centres being provided health services in temporary medical camps.

Why then, have so many people been led to believe that the development budget is more important than the recurrent one?

The simple answer is patronage and corruption.

Politicians must be seen to be delivering development which means cutting ribbons, unveiling plaques, and immortalising themselves in railway lines, superhighways, airports and iconic bridges.

Recurrent spending for essential services, that is good pay for teachers, health workers and adequate operations and maintenance (O&M) budgets does not lend itself to such self-aggrandisement.

Equally important, recurrent budget is more difficult to steal on a large-scale.

Stealing whole payrolls means public workers go unpaid.

Sooner or later, they will down tools. In addition, they are voters, and some, such as teachers are extremely influential.

I need not belabour the infrastructure — corruption nexus, one case will suffice.

From the Ministry of Health’s “mafya house” scandal, we have learned that the money used to buy the contraptions referred to as mobile clinics was diverted from the budget set aside to reimburse the counties for free maternity services, a Jubilee flagship.

For the money to be stolen, it had to be re-allocated from recurrent to development budget.

But for an unusually brave and determined internal auditor, the fraud could have flown under the radar as many others do.

Early in its term, the Jubilee administration manufactured a wage bill crisis.

Going by the hysteria that they generated, the wage bill should have bankrupted us by now, seeing as there is no evidence of drastic action has been taken to contain it.

Much to the contrary, teachers and other cadres of public workers have been given pay raises. How does the situation look like today?

In 2015/16 financial year, the national government reports its wage bill, which includes teachers, at Sh307 billion up from Sh281 billion two years ago.

The key parameters for the affordability and sustainability arguments are the wage bill as a percentage of revenue and of the economy (GDP).

The recent figure works out to 24 per cent of revenue, down from 27 per cent, and 4.7 per cent of GDP, down from 5.6 per cent.

The benchmark figures for middle-income countries are seven per cent of GDP and 28-30 per cent of revenue.


We have vexing equity and efficiency issues but we did not and still do not have a wage bill crisis.

Why then, was the Jubilee administration fanning wage bill hysteria?

I speculated at the time that the motive was to divert attention from the huge disparities within the public service, for instance, the fact that a handful of senior bureaucrats earn Sh1 million and over, 25 times the starting salary of an interning doctor.

I am compelled to revise this prognosis.

What we could not have foreseen is the Jubilee administration’s looting agenda, such as have been revealed by the NYS scandal and the mega-infrastructure project mania.

What now looks more plausible is that the purpose of the hysteria was to nip wage demands in the bud to create headroom for looting.

Here is why.

The first claim on revenue is the Consolidated Fund Services (CFS) comprising primarily debt service, pensions and salaries of constitutional offices, already 35 per cent of revenue when Jubilee came into office.

The second claim is the wage bill, another 27 per cent.

Devolution, the new kid on the block is mandated 15 per cent but realistically a minimum of 20 per cent.

That leaves 18 per cent of revenue for the national government’s discretionary spending, that is both operations and maintenance and capital spending.

The Jubilee administration must have been taken aback to realise that there was very little headroom in the budget for their nefarious schemes.

It is noteworthy that it was former Devolution Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru whose docket turned out to be the main looting conduit that was fanning the hysteria, even though macro-economic stability and sustainability is principally the Treasury’s headache.

Even then, the administration’s appetite quickly outstripped our resources, precipitating a borrowing spree the likes of which we have never seen.

In four years, Jubilee has doubled our public debt.

While the wage bill has been held down to 24 per cent of revenue, debt service has rocketed.

This year the provision for debt service is Sh466 billion, up from Sh250 billion when Jubilee took over, just under 40 per cent of last year’s revenue.

Jubilee took over when the wage bill and debt service were of the same order of magnitude.

Today, debt service is one-and-a-half times the wage bill, and rising.

With looting on the scale of Sh25,000 for a sack of ndengu (three times the market price), and Sh10 million for container clinics listed at $3,000-$5,000 (Sh300,000-Sh500,000) on the Chinese e-commerce portal, Alibaba (20 times), we can conclude that at least half the borrowed money has been stolen.

Next year, principal payments on foreign debt will jump threefold from Sh43 billion to Sh128 billion, pushing the total debt service outlay to Sh540 billion and the total Consolidated Fund Services (CFS) budget to Sh610 billion.

Between CFS, the wage bill and county allocation, we are talking Sh1.25 trillion of non-discretionary outlays, against a realistic revenue of Sh1.40 trillion.

That leaves Sh150 billion for the national government’s non-wage operating budget, which is presently in the order of Sh500 billion.

Even if we allow for rolling over of domestic debt to the tune of Sh160 billion, we are still looking at a recurrent financing gap of Sh190 billion.

There is, of course, nothing left for domestically financed development budget, that will have to be fully debt financed.

In short, the Jubilee economic legacy is a fiscal straightjacket.

This has happened with our acquiescence by and large, mesmerised by development rhetoric.


This is the financial backdrop against which President Kenyatta is running round the country dishing out development projects, including launching medical equipment in a hospital whose doctors and nurses are on strike.

Mr John Githongo reminds us often that corruption does not translate easily into our vernacular languages, and that this might explain why we do not stigmatise the corrupt.

This is true, but only because political vernacularisation has entailed porting it out of the moral domain, and circumscribing its meaning to the economic and financial.

In plain English, corrupted means someone or something that is “messed up”.

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines corruption as “impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle”.

Synonyms include depravity and debasement.

In computer applications, we talk of a corrupted disk or software to mean that the proper functioning of the thing has been interfered with, often by a virus.

Reclaimed from our political vernacular, we can see that corruption does translate.

A corrupt person is a morally impaired individual.

We consider a person’s morally impaired when he or she consistently engages in behaviour that is taboo.

Such a person may be subjected to cleansing.

If that fails, the person is declared an outcast, and exempted from both responsibility and social sanction, tolerated as we do stray dogs.

In Gikuyu, we call such a person kîugu (pl. “ciugu”), and the condition itself as uugu.

The term also refers to mental retardation although the precise name for a retarded person is kîrimu, but this of itself suggests that Agikuyu equated moral depravity with mental deficiency.

Its not difficult to see how paedophilia, incest and unnatural acts with animals would lead to the conflation.

In Gikuyu and other traditional societies, well-to-do people who would habitually eat food set aside for children and meat for midwives entrusted to them would not be considered ordinary gluttons, but as morally impaired—ciugu.

To break taboos and proceed to show one’s face in public without shame, and even dare express aspirations for leadership would qualify one for the most potent cleansing, for only possession by the most insidious spirits (“ngoma”) or terrible curse (“kîrumi”) could explain such social maladjustment.

That we are now feted by and sing the praises of ciugu is testament how far from our cultural roots we have wandered.

Truly, mkosa mila ni mtumwa (to lack culture is to be a slave).

[email protected] @DavidNdii


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