Corruption: Will President Uhuru Slay the Dragon?

Published on 25th March 2014

At face value, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s recent stance on corruption is commendable. It is a good start for anti-corruption efforts which have greatly suffered from the lack of political will from the previous governments. The president has prioritized the vice and it is just a matter of time to judge whether or not he is either on the right track or genuine about it. The intention of this commentary is to ensure that the president and his team do not repeat the mistakes that have been seen in the country or elsewhere in the world.

First, it should be noted that the steps taken by the president are not unique to Kenya. The fight against corruption has been fought for many decades in this country by fine generals who have come and gone uncelebrated. Institutions to fight corruption have been created, recreated, named and renamed since 1960s. The fight has evolved, and losses have been counted and are still being counted. People have become wealthier overnight and have gone scot free. Public institutions have bowed before the kingdom of corruption. Services, as well as justice have only been available to those who can afford to pay an extra fee. Almost every aspect of governance in Kenya is corruption-infested.

As a staunch supporter of President Uhuru’s recent move towards corruption, I will be devastated if these current efforts sublime in the thin air like back in 2002 when Mr. Kibaki took the helms of power. I hope that the President and his government know what they are up against. That is why I want to be part of it in any way I can. There are a few things that our newly ‘awakened’ war against corruption under the leadership of the president should put into consideration.

Firstly; it is important to note that corruption is not a practice that can be eradicated. It is an inherent nature of human character and its occurrence can be regularized to avoid its negative aspects to socio-economic and political development. Corruption, just like any other vice in systems of governance, is an inherent individual or collective excess of those in position of influence in a society where structures of governance are not appropriately organized or designed. Secondly; clear conceptualization of corruption is needed before we can go ahead to formulate laws and design policies to regularize it. This will ensure that we do not end up criminalizing some aspect of our social life or forms of informal interactions in the society. The criminalization approach to corruption has clouded our reasoning and strategies towards anti-corruption efforts. As a result, we have tended to import policies and strategies that are contextually invalid. Thirdly; corruption is not entirely a legal matter and its reduction should comprehensively put into consideration other aspects other than legally defined aspects of corruption. In fact, in as much as the rule of law is very paramount in the fight against corruption, this legal aspect should include social-cultural and economic structures when designing anti-corruption policies.

In this respect, the president’s team should consist of not only lawyers but Anthropologists, Sociologists, Political scientists and Economists. Moreover, the policy makers should revisit the previous strategies and understand why they failed or succeeded. I would suggest that instead of fighting corruption in general, the government should set right its priority areas. That is, the targeted areas should be well defined and prioritized. Anti-corruption effort has proved a sea of uncertainty that requires a compass direction to navigate. Otherwise there are possibilities that we might end up where we started from just like it has been for the past decades. This is what some scholars have referred to as finding entry points in situations where almost every citizen is not spared of corrupt practices. These entry points must not necessarily bring forth big structural changes, but instead inject small necessary changes that may result into big changes towards anti-corruption efforts.

My advice to the president’s anti-corruption team will be based upon these lines of argument. I will start by asking; is the president really up for the task? How can we fight corruption given the history of disappointments of anti-corruption efforts and their current status?  Where do we start from with high prevalence and deeply rooted network of corruption in our governance system? The answer lies in finding out societal, economic and political pillars being eroded by corruption. It also lies with instilling the rule of law in governance processes.

It will be a waste of time to fight corruption in entirety because it is multifaceted, multilevel and complex. Worst still, in Kenya corruption has been institutionalized in the public sector by inter-sectoral cartels that embrace both public and private professionals. These cartels have imposed informal taxes in the public institutions. Apart from this, there are myriad aspects of corruption and not all of them deserve government focus. The president’s team should, therefore, prioritize areas of focus which if fixed; the positive effects may trickle down to affect non-priority areas. Priorities can be given to courts of law, the police, public service commission, and tax authorities. These institutions are key institutions in the life of a state. However, the focus must also be grounded within a complementary and independent institution such as anti-corruption bureau that should oversee the implementation of anti-corruption policies.

Such priority or target areas should be broadly defined under various categories with objectives that should include; reinventing public trust in the public institutions – this may ensure a creation of a bottom-up anti-corruption norm in the society. Such norms are important since petty corruption in Kenya has been largely rationalized by grand cases of corruption that has eroded trust in public institutions. Strong anti-corruption norms among members of the public may make it cumbersome for corrupt politicians to get elected or re-elected. Making corruption a taboo in the society legitimizes anti-corruption policies and creates public trust. Trust in public institutions may, as well create self-perpetuating anti-corruption efforts by increasing their legitimacy and public participation.

Objective number two should be to further reduce public officials’ discretion in service delivery by strengthening e-governance in areas I refer to as bribe zones. These include; the police, immigration department, Tax authority and licensing boards. E-governance has been identified as a tool that can possibly reduce corruption in the public sector. Sectoral reforms such as making police force lucrative by only absorbing, at least, Master’s graduates may change the working culture in the police force. This may create a culture of career consolidation rather than wealth accumulation. The latter is prevalent in the public institutions of sub-Saharan Africa. However, these can be long term objectives of anti-corruption measures. What I am trying to point out is the fact that anti-corruption efforts cannot be entirely detached from institutional reform exercises. Otherwise, it will be like covering a heap of garbage with a polythene cover and claiming to have cleaned it up. Corruption policies cannot be handled like spraying of mosquitoes to reduce malaria or spraying of pesticides to curb the spread of a crop disease. It is an act informed by and embedded in the institutional organization of public institutions.

The third objective should focus on grand corruption. This is because fighting petty cases of corruption is a waste of resources and time for anti-corruption bureau. In other words; with its legally biased conceptualization of corruption, anti-corruption bureau may hardly find evidence for prosecuting petty cases of corruption. Petty cases of corruption take place in the most covert ways than grand corruption. The latter can be easily traced to procurement flaws. It is grand corruption that has been used to rationalized petty cases of corruption in the public institutions. Therefore, by prosecuting and confiscating properties of those senior officials or businessmen found guilty of corruption, the effect may trickle down to reduce corrupt behaviors amongst street level bureaucrats. This is the nipping the bud method which I am afraid might come with making political sacrifices by the president.

If the president is up to the task of reducing prevalence of corruption, the first challenge will be to get prepared to make difficult political sacrifices. It has been historically proven that; for heads of state to fight corruption and instill public trust in their governments, they have sacrificed closest allies or supporters. Facing such decisions may determine whether or not the president is just opening another scene of anti-corruption failures in the country.

The fight against corruption should not necessary be a distinctive government policy as seen in Africa. Public organizations, as well as government policies should be designed in such a way that they take into consideration aspects of corruption that are inevitable to public management. The governance structures by their design should be able to stall corruption. For example, if public institutions are so bureaucratic that they do not effectively deliver to the public, then they should be restructured. A case in point can be legalizing some informal payments meant to quicken service delivery process. That is, if a passport or an ID takes thirty working days to process, an extra fee should be legally introduced for those who would like to have it before then. However, it should be put into consideration that every aspect of the law is liable to abuse, and in that way, the government should ensure that service-seekers are very educated and informed. Therefore, instead of creating expensive distinctive institutions to fight corruption (which have failed), funds for such an institution should be rather injected into reducing aspects such as ignorance or reducing poverty that allow prevalence of corruption. Initiatives such as putting up more industries in rural areas can address poverty and increase access to education for the poor unemployed families.

Unfortunately, with the level of corruption in the country, such funds may not reach where they are supposed to be. We have seen the collapse of industries like Kenya Co-operative Creameries under Daniel arap Moi’s presidency; which justifies the existence of an independent anti-corruption institution. But why has such an institution failed? The answer lies on its legally biased design as well as lack of political will from the government.

An institutional structure of the Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Agency has hardly allowed it to effectively fight corruption. Apart from not being able to mobilize valid evidence, the hierarchical nature of this institution has increased power distance already eminent in our society, and of which is evidently correlated to corruption. The power distance has consolidated strings of patronage with it ugly faces in our public management. Hence, there is a probability that our Anti-Corruption bureau is not any different from other public institutions in the country in terms of its administrative culture. In this way, when the president is calling for an effective design for anti-corruption, he should first ensure that the bureau is not haunted by spirits of tribalism or political loyalties that have been used to twist the arms of the law. He should ensure that the bureau is insulated from political witch hunting and should have powers to prosecute culprits of corruption.

In addition, the cost of engaging in corruption should be made higher than benefits incurred by perpetrators. This can range from long term imprisonment and blacklisting of all family members from any employment or business undertaking, to life imprisonment and confiscation of all properties registered in the names of the perpetrator and those of close relatives. But this requires the rule of law, which is limited in Kenya.

However, the easiest and least controversial step would be if the president could start by ensuring that members of his cabinet declare their wealth and face public scrutiny on how they mobilized such wealth. The president should lead the pack in doing this and call upon the heads of other two arms of government to follow suit. By doing this, the president will mobilize the public behind him and it will not matter what kind of political sacrifices he will have to make. He shall have undertaken a simple step but created a big change.

By Gedion Onyango,
PhD Research Fellow, University of the Western Cape,
Cape Town, South Africa.


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