Monday, April 11, 2016

Culture of Corruption

New speed cameras for the Kenya Police. Yay.

A month or so ago, on our way to Kisumu, we were flagged down by police on the side of the road.  They were actually stopping everybody, with a few exceptions.  Turned out, they were making a mass arrest of drivers.  The charge against us – speeding: going 130km in a 100km zone.  So we were hauled off to the collection of tin shacks that served as the local police compound.  Everyone was highly efficient (which struck me as being, um, unusual), as if they had done this many times before.  They claimed they had a speed gun and that it could all be documented.  They hauled my friend off in a truck full of other malefactors to the traffic court in Molo, 30kms away, leaving the rest of us to ponder what just happened.  At the court, a judge fined my friend 20,000Ksh ($200), a HUGE amount for any Kenyan on an ordinary salary.  We finally persuaded the officer in charge of the station to give me back my car so we could go rescue our friend.  We found Molo, then found the court, then found our friend, stopped for a late compensatory lunch  and then continued on our way, $200 poorer.

Had there been an actual traffic offense, had my friend been driving too fast or recklessly, then huzzahs for the police doing their job protecting the public and enforcing the law.  However, the factor that the police refused to take into consideration was that my car cannot go 130 kms an hour.  Not only that, during the entire trip we had not gone over 100 kms.  Moreover, at the spot of road where the alleged crime took place, the road was going up-hill and we were traveling in traffic.  130kms/hour?  Please.

I have since learned that, yes, the Kenya traffic police people have ‘radar guns’ and that it is widely known that they are rigged.  We, and a twenty other hapless and otherwise innocent travelers were caught up in a net of corruption thrown by the very people who are supposed to protect us from it.  And it was a conspiracy that involved not just the police, but the traffic court people 30 kms away.  And God only knows who else got a cut of the loot.

Welcome to life in Kenya.  Corruption touches everything.  I heard yesterday of a recent student body election that had to be nullified because one of the candidates for president had bought the election.  Even here at the university where I teach, I heard today of instances where students had forged cards that are produced by our finance office when students pay their bills so that they can take their exams.  I heard recently of a priest who, several years ago, took the money that the church had raised to build a proper building and, as they say here, ate it all.  Most of the parishioners have since left the church, knowing that nothing would be done to do justice in their case.  I would have gone, too, if events revealed my priest to be a thief.

I know of instances where lecturers at universities steadfastly refused to do anything about blatant plagiarism among their students because their own Masters and/or PhDs were blatantly plagiarized.

And then there’s politics.  The newspapers publish almost daily new accounts of government officials caught up in some new scandal or corrupt scheme.  There have been so many that it is impossible to keep up with them all.  And the sheer number of different stories gives the impression that to be a politician is to be corrupt.  One of the biggest jokes I've heard has to do with the parliament, whose members are among the world’s highest paid parliamentarians.  Their collective avarice is so transparent that it has become obvious that one runs for parliament in order to just soak the government (i.e., the Kenyan people) of as much money as they can possible grab without resorting to out and out armed robbery.  Their repeated attempts to force the government to pay them even more money have ceased to cause outrage because it is more or less accepted by the majority that it is 'their turn at the table'.  The only thing the people not in power can hope for is that the day will come when it will be OUR TURN at the table!


Even the president of Kenya, on a recent trip to Israel, told a gathering of Kenyans living there in a startling outbreak of honesty:

Kenyans are experts at stealing and hurling insults.  Moreover, our peopleare doing little to stop corruption in the government and the private sector.  God has given Kenyans a country that is 20 times better than the one we are in right now (Israel).  But there is crying, theft… we are experts at stealing, abusing each other, doing other evils and perpetuating tribalism. 

This, of course, is from the man who was indicted by The Hague War Crimes Tribunal on charges of Crimes against Humanity for his role in the spasm of ethnic violence that roiled Kenya after the 2007 elections.  His case was dropped after one by one the witnesses prepared to testify against him decided to recant their testimony.  The president’s supporters were delirious that ‘justice’ had been done.  But for whom?  Kenyatta’s Deputy President, William Ruto, similarly charged, also just had all charges dropped because witnesses changed their testimony and one was murdered in a case that remains unsolved.  The Deputy President has been making the rounds all over the country holding high-profile prayer rallies enlisting the almighty’s aid in his case.  And when the charges were dropped due to ‘lack of evidence’, his supporters were delirious because ‘justice’ was done.  But again, justice for whom?  As the leaders go… 


It’s getting to the point where I’m starting to question if the parts the mechanic is getting to repair my car are legitimate or if somebody is charging way more for inferior parts to make easy money.  Or if the packaging at the supermarket is what it says it is, or it if is a rip off, selling me something that has actually gone bad when its date says it is supposed to be good.  I already know that nothing sold on the streets or shops is as advertised – it’s all made in China.  These are, of course, small piddly things, hardly worth comparing with the immense amount of Kenyan Public funding that ends up in clandestine bank accounts or bankrolling an inordinate number of lifestyles of the rich and famous for a country like this.  I read that a recent audit revealed that only 1% of Kenya's National Budget was spent 'effectively and legally'.  I am not making any of this up.


Kenya is drowning in an ocean of corruption.  There is here an unseemly frenzy of people trying with maniacal energy to get as much money and advantage and power and influence as they possibly can and by whatever means enables them to do so.  In every case, the ends justify the means.  Or another way of putting it, the entire nation has descended into the yawning purgatory of ‘matatu values’.  Matatus are the ubiquitous vans in various states of disrepair that are responsible for transporting most of the nation’s people on a given day.  The drivers routinely pay bribes to the police who routinely pull matatus off the road in order to collect their money, which then allows the matatu drivers to flaunt whatever safety or traffic law might otherwise stop their dangerous driving in unsafe vehicles.  Matatu values are, simply put, if one can get away with it, then do it.  Somedays it seems the entire nation has taken this to heart.


The great majority of Kenyans follow this creed and live this way as if they will never be called to account.  Even Christians.  Of all kinds.  And with so many examples of people flaunting the rules (and the laws) and getting away with it and getting rich in the meantime, one can at least understand the temptation to join in the general stampede.


There was a beautiful, old, ginormous sycamore tree in our neighborhood.  Every autumn it put on the most glorious display of color.  Every summer it shaded the yard and the neighbors as well.  But a survey was done by the power line people, and it was determined that the tree had a significant amount of rot inside the trunk, and that it was in danger of coming down the next big windstorm.  So they came and cut down our beautiful tree.  And sure enough, when the tree came down, the amount of rot in the trunk was immense.  There was hardly anything holding it up.  Had it not been taken down, it would have fallen into our house, or our neighbor’s, or across the road.  Somebody could have gotten hurt.



Kenya is this tree.  At some point sooner rather than later, the wind is going to blow, and the tree is going to fall with a great crash.  The culture of corruption will have eaten the heart out of the country, and it will no longer be able to hold itself up.  And a lot of people are going to get hurt. I wish it were not so.  But this is what corruption does.  It causes one to eat one’s very soul.