From polls to academia, stealing is now the norm

Students celebrate during a past graduation ceremony. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MAEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Proper functioning of systems is predicated on most people being honest.
  • From money, to elections to qualifications, stealing is now the normative behaviour in our public realm.
  • There is no system or institution that can work when dishonesty is the norm.

A few weeks ago my friend John Githongo and I were hosted to a town hall meeting on corruption and tribalism by the most friendly, graceful people of Taita Taveta, at which I posed the following question.

If during the next General Election Uhuru Kenyatta gets a handful of votes in a polling station somewhere deep in Bondo and conversely, Raila Odinga gets a similar handful in a polling station deep in Gatundu where neither of the two candidates have agents, can either of them be certain that their vote would be protected?

The participants were unequivocal that neither of the candidates could be sure. In fact, there was general agreements that the votes would almost certainly be stolen.

Earlier this week, my good friend and hardworking Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i put forward draconian measures to combat examination fraud, among them outlawing contact between candidates and parents in boarding schools during third term, which seems to me to tilt the playing field in favour of day schools.

The only way we can ensure fidelity of examinations, it seems, is to put all candidates in solitary confinement once the examinations are set.

Proper functioning of systems is predicated on most people being honest. What if all of us were honest people who would feel morally obliged to protect our worst enemy’s five votes, and go as far as swearing an affidavit and testifying in court if the votes were stolen in our presence?

From money, to elections to qualifications, stealing is now the normative behaviour in our public realm. There is no system or institution that can work when dishonesty is the norm.

A couple of years ago, I needed a research assistant to do a fairly sophisticated piece of statistical modelling. I searched the internet and came across a recently completed Masters thesis in one of our public universities on precisely the work I needed.

I tracked down the owner of the thesis to one of our policy research institutions and offered her the assignment which she accepted. It was just before Christmas, and we agreed she would complete the assignment by the end of January. It should have been a piece of cake, since all she needed to do was update the data and replicate the work she had done of her thesis.


She never did the work. I was intrigued. $4,500 (about Sh450,000) was, still is, good money for someone at that level to pass up, and then the boost to her CV. After several evasive manoeuvres, she agreed to meet. I sought to understand what the challenge could be. No straight answer. I then delved into her thesis subject. It was soon apparent that she did not have even a basic grasp of the subject. She could not have written the thesis.

I had not thought it important to interview her at the outset. I had trusted the reputations of both the university and the research institution where she was interning. One thing that had intrigued me was that she was assigned to a different, non-technical department, even though the subject area was more prestigious. But I had let it pass.

I subsequently learned that there is a thriving thesis outsourcing industry in the country. I was recently told an episode of a gentleman who made a living writing MBA theses for working people, who died in a road accident with several theses in his laptop, putting the students into the unseemly situation of enquiring about the laptop from a grieving widow. Unfortunately for them, the laptop had been stolen at the scene of the accident.

They did not graduate.
Debate has been raging recently over two prominent columnists lying about their academic credentials, who have been called out, coincidentally, by fellow columnists Godwin Murunga, a senior academic, and bona fide professors Makau Mutua and Lukoye Atwoli. A rejoinder by Harry Mulama ‘No need for wrangle over academic titles’ (Saturday Nation, May 14) makes very disturbing reading.

Mulama either misses the point, or pretends to justify his sour grapes flavoured tirade against the academy writ large. He exposes himself most when he wonders sarcastically, whether there is any difference between the professorial spat and the Kabogo-Waititu one about the latter’s questionable academic credentials. He is off tangent by a country mile because the issue is exactly the same! It is about academic fraud.

Academic credentials and accolades are EARNED. This is not unique to the academy. Think about the military. If a retired major goes around signing himself of as General so and so, I would expect that other military officers would take offence.

The culprits have been using these titles to command prestige that they have not earned. There is a name for people who appropriate for themselves something of value that they have not earned. We call them thieves.

Little wonder then, that one of the culprits features prominently in one of the Jubilee administration’s mega corruption scandals. The culprits are in fact quite academically and intellectually accomplished, but they have not earned those credentials. Yet they are not satisfied with what they have achieved and are entitled to.


Like the dog with a bone lusting after the one in its own reflection, they want what others have also. We have a name for this too. It is called greed.

Mulama’s worldview and defence of the indefensible is emblematic of a fatal social malaise that is a recurring theme in this column — the loss of a public moral compass.

Nowhere in his article does Mulama acknowledge wrongdoing by the culprits he defends. He goes as far to suggest that one of the culprits may be justified in conferring himself the fraudulent title. Right and wrong are words that are no longer in our public lexicon.

Of all our moral ethical scourges, corruption of qualifications is in my view the most deleterious. My would be research assistant could have been a medical doctor. We read about rising incidence of medical malpractice but we do not connect the dots.

One of most influential papers in economics is a 1970 one by George Akerlof titled ‘The Market for Lemons’ with a subtitle ‘Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism’. Akerlof (who is also husband to Federal Reserve Governor Janet Yellen) shared the 2001 Economics Nobel Prize for his contribution to the economics of information.

“Lemon” is an American colloquialism for a car that has a factory defect. Akerlof used the analogy to demonstrate the economic cost of dishonesty. Think of a used car bazaar where most cars on sale are reliable but there are a few troublesome ones that have factory defects. Owners know their cars but buyers cannot tell them apart.

Let us say the good ones are worth between Sh750,000 and Sh 1 million and the faulty ones are worth at most Sh500,000. Now, given the risk of ending up with a defective one, buyers are likely to discount the price of any car bought in the bazaar.

For argument’s sake, the discounted market price settles at Sh800,000. At this price, sellers of the best cars will be getting a raw deal, but sellers of faulty ones will be getting a premium. Instead of getting a raw deal, sellers of the best cars are better off withdrawing them from the market.

As good cars are withdrawn, the percentage of defective cars will increase. The risk discount will increase also, bringing the market price down further, driving more quality cars out of the market.

This process will continue until no one brings good cars to the bazaar, causing it to either collapse as a market, or deal only in lemons, hence Akerlof’s conclusion: “The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost also must include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.”

Replace cars with academic qualifications.


Each year our universities churn out several thousand graduates, many of them have earned their degrees and a small percentage with fraudulent ones, like my would be research assistant. It is costly for prospective employers to determine which ones are genuine, but failing to do so runs the risk of ending up in my situation or worse. What can prospective employers do? There are different strategies.

One is to shun local graduates in favour of ones from reputable foreign universities. Another is to poach proven workers from competitors. This is reflected in employers paying a premium for experience in what are ordinarily entry level jobs, bank clerks for example.

Another strategy is to offer local graduates casual employment at very low pay and observe which ones prove themselves. All these strategies are evident in our labour market (a good thesis topic if you are looking for one)

Education is the bedrock of social justice. The most egalitarian, stable and indeed prosperous societies are those that offer the most equitable access to quality higher education. Our relatively equitable, meritocratic public university education has been doing exactly that. It is the only reason that ordinary kids from the back of beyond like Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohammed (El Wak Secondary— Kangaru School — UoN — PWC/Shell— Havard) and this columnist (Nyahururu High — Kangaru School — UoN —World Bank— Oxford) to be who they are today.

What happens when that system is corrupted? It will be the international school and foreign university educated children of the who-is-who that will be getting the high-flier jobs. And who do you expect them to recruit when they in turn get to the top? Look no further than Uhuru Kenyatta’s appointments. That is how class cultures are created.

Albert Hirschman, economist and moral historian who I have quoted before observed that “Each society learns to live with a certain amount of such dysfunctional or mis-behaviour; but lest the mis-be­haviour feed on itself and lead to general decay, society must be able to marshal from within itself forces, which will make as many of the faltering actors as possible re­vert to the behaviour required for its proper functioning.”

As to the fate of societies that are unable to marshal those forces, read history.