Why the fight against corruption has never been on government’s agenda

Dr Nelson Githinji, the NYS director-general. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |

What you need to know:

  • Our fight against corruption has been more about form and less about content.

When writing about development, Prof Claude Ake famously argued that the problem is not that development has failed, but that it was never really on the agenda in the first place. I want to submit that the problem is not that Kenya’s fight against corruption has failed, but that it has never really been on the agenda.

Now, I can hear you saying that this is not true. Don’t we have the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions? But Prof Ake’s candid assessment has reverberated in my mind this week partly because of the difference between form and content.

Our anti-corruption fight is more about form, less about content and results. It is a circular fight that has no head or tail. As I observed the commotion on the public scene about corruption this week, I confirmed that we are not really interested in fighting corruption.

Kenya is a country with immense resources, but also the place where corruption thrives. It is a country where impunity fuels corruption and where the corrupt are heroes. Whistle-blowers against corruption are villains who have died, been buried and forgotten. We also do not care about the damage corruption has inflicted.


What worries me is that we know the pattern and behaviour of the corrupt; we whisper their names every day, and mock but admire their lavish lifestyles. The pattern is simple. We identify a corruption scandal, write about it in the newspapers and report it on radio.

The Cabinet secretary or any other person in charge holds a press conference to confirm that a scandal was uncovered before money was lost. He or she might even confirm that the relevant agencies have been called in to uncover the real culprits.

But the culprits remain forever nameless. By inviting the agencies to investigate, the Cabinet secretary takes credit for unveiling corruption. Second, the reporters report it but it remains clear they did not break the juicy story. Third, more information is unveiled about the scandals that simply sobers our senses. Four, the story repeats itself again next time.

Meanwhile, politicians swing into action either to defend or condemn the Cabinet secretary or whoever else is identified as guilty. By this point, the original issue, corruption, ceases to command attention. We focus instead on the political slugfest. Soon, what was a corruption issue becomes a political contest between contending political parties.

If you doubted it, we Kenyans have a unique art of trivialising things where the fight against corruption is involved. It always amazes me how fast we do it. And the eventuality is always clear; the allegation dies just as easily as the accusations and counter-accusations took over. This is why the result has remained pretty much the same; it has remained that our way of fighting corruption is a lame public spectacle of shouting at weekend political rallies.

The public spectacle has acquired a new dimension recently as the NYS saga confirms. Soon after the revelation of corruption is made, the camps mobilise youths to protest either in support or against those involved. I am told this week, NYS youths joined in, carrying their spades and related work equipment. Who mobilised them, and why were they mobilised?

The greatest waste in the anti-corruption drama are the institutions created solely to fight corruption. They come with heavy budgets and security of tenure but little to show in terms of outcome. They are in themselves the very reason why the anti-corruption battle has become more difficult. We are happy to have them, but we never really demand or expect results from them.

The faster Kenyans realise that the fight against corruption has never really made it to the agenda, the better for them. At least, we might accept that the fight is simply a guzzler. We must save money by acknowledging it.

Godwin Murunga is senior research fellow, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi.