Breaking down thriving corruption ‘enterprise’

Ideas & Debate

Breaking down thriving corruption ‘enterprise’

Health CS Mutahi Kagwe. Kagwe said this week that “my job is not to fight corruption, my job is to provide healthcare”. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It was Peter Ustinov, that English movie detective (Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, anyone?) and putative renaissance man, who remarked that “corruption is nature’s way of restoring our faith in democracy”. With unrelenting graft being Kenya’s flavour of the moment, this is a very useful and timely reminder that it’s what, not whom, we vote in (and for) that really matters.

This isn’t new. In the 60’s, you were “on your own” if you were caught. By the 90s, we heard that “Kanu ina wenyewe” (Kanu, read Kenya, has its owners). One presumes these were the owners of Goldenberg. When, in 2003, we asked who the “Anglo Leasers” were, the response was “whose goat was stolen?” before we heard that “I’d rather die than resign”.

Remember this one? “Kumeza mate sio kula nyama … endeleeni kumeza mate, lakini nyama tutakula (Swallowing saliva isn’t eating meat… keep on salivating, but we will continue eating the meat). Let’s leave out the ruder remarks like “does this (public) money belong to your ****?” for now.

This week we heard that “my job is not to fight corruption, my job is to provide healthcare. It’s important for that distinction to be clear…that I’m not here to fight corruption…” Unsurprisingly, quite a few are resigned to the idea that Kenya isn’t a country (or a nation), it’s a business (IBEA Company, anyone?). Our statements explain our corruption pathology better than any official and officious action.

Therein lies the underpinning of Kenya’s three-part economy: the bandit economy at the top, the bubble economy in the middle, and the “kadogo” economy of our fast growing precariat. That the Senate this week termed the much-vaunted managed medical equipment scheme a “criminal enterprise” says it all. That Covid-19 has ravaged our bubble and kadogo economies while our #Covidmillionaire bandits prevail is as bad as it gets on our road to perdition and ultimate dystopia.


No, this isn’t a “happy clappy” moment, and it shouldn’t be. I argued last week that a big part of our current thievery problem is attributable to a weak public finance management (PFM) system. That’s part true. If everything is now a project, payments drive procurement, procurement drives budgets and budgets drive plans (rather than the other way around), and service delivery is ignored in programming, we should not expect much different. If we still measure education by schools built, not learning outcomes, or health by buildings and machines, not the state of health, we’re jogging on the spot.

Of course, there’s the humanising gimmickry to the typical graft undertaking. Friends in high places, especially political. Tribal links when the going gets rough and tough. Multiple bank accounts and shell companies, preferably with proxy ownership. Family ties to provide “moral justification”. Pliable and deliberately un-coordinated investigation and detection to compromise any chance of conviction.

But there’s something more to our graft enterprise. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga’s observation that corruption has its own Vision 2030. It’s possible to see two strands to this vision. The first strand is visible. Bribery and petty corruption that hampers service delivery at significant cost to the economy. Then add to this above “PFM” corruption: simply, looting of public funds through all manner of nefarious procurement schemes (e.g. Kemsa).

We make lots of noise about this visible strand. Let’s call it the noise about the stolen goat.

Then there’s the invisible strand. This goes to the heart of our socio-economy. State capture is a common way to describe this, but let’s break it down into two elements. First, policy capture, or the reluctance, rather than inability, to solve “wicked” public problems (which takes us back to the need for good programming before project identification). We could also call this the trouble with our administrative state.

The administrative state is a “top-down” solution to “bottom-up” problems of the people. It’s more roads, not their use. More hardware, not better software.

The second, related element revolves around our economic model, now completely outdated and unfit for the demands of a 21st century developmental state. Digitising without restructuring it towards a more pro-market rather than pro-corporate face is simply an exercise in “spray and pray”. Open and healthy market competition is always a great anti-corruption idea.

That’s the invisible part we aren’t solving. Hell, why steal the goat when you control the farm? Especially if the stolen goats remain on the farm, as is the case with our Governors under investigation? In the face of increasingly systemic and systematic failure, consider this your weekend’s thought food.

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