One afternoon last year, police arrested a senior church official from my church for flouting traffic rules. The police officer that arrested him tried to solicit a 500 shillings bribe from him but, being a man of virtue, the deacon refused to give in. He was later taken to court and fined 5000 shillings, the equivalent of 50 USD.
This brought up a heated debate between me and my friend Alex. Alex argued that if the deacon had given the bribe he would have saved a cool 4500 shillings. I cannot blame Alex for his way of thinking because that is the logical thinking of an average Nairobian. This logic dictates that “if I am arrested, I can buy my way out without reaching the police station or court”. Giving out a bribe – or ‘chai’ as it is commonly referred to – is not a big deal to some people. We give backhanders to the police, municipal council officials, and government officials on a daily basis in order to procure various services.
For instance, a few years ago Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe addressed his army Generals. He warned them not to allow Zimbabwe to become “like Nigeria and Kenya, where you have to reach into your pocket to get anything done”. This ignited outrage from Kenyans who saw it as an insult. Many people see Zimbabwe as equally or more corrupt than Kenya.
But was this anger because of what President Mugabe said, or was it because of the truth in what he said? You know you are in trouble when a fellow thief accuses you of stealing. More recently, a United Kingdom court convicted two executives of British firm Smith and Ouzman Ltd. The executives were found guilty of making corrupt payments to win business for their company.
They made these payments to individuals in various countries in Africa – including Kenya. The executives were also accused of paying bribes – dubbed ‘chicken’ – to Kenyan electoral and examination executives. In their defence, they argued that it is normal practice to make payments to Kenyan officials before winning contracts. Keep in mind that the Kenyan officials named in the case as recipients of the bribes are still in office.
After Mwai Kibaki’s Narc gained power from KANU in 2002, they vowed to wipe out endemic corruption. I think they did fairly well in the beginning. KANU implemented a zero tolerance to corruption which called upon all Kenyans to take an active role in the fight against corruption. This had a significant impact on the fight against graft. However, this culture is slowly changing and today many of us only see corruption that involves large amounts of money. This is commonly referred to as ‘grand corruption’. Grand corruption is predominantly practised by business cartels, politicians and high-ranking government officials, and not the average Kenyan in the street.
In fact, every government has had their own share of corruption scandals. These include Moi’s administration and the Goldenberg scandal; Kibaki’s administration and the Anglo-leasing, maize and petroleum scandal; and Kenyatta’s government with the National Youth Service scam. There are many others. So I agree that grand corruption has messed us big time, but I believe we all have a role to play. We cannot fight grand corruption if we, ‘law abiding citizens’, still give out bribes.
That said, a friend argues that fighting graft is like drinking water in a bottle; you start from the top going down. I both agree and disagree with that. We can help the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) by not engaging in petty corruption. We can also give them any information that leads them to apprehend corrupt persons.
Ironically, those of us complaining about corruption and the inefficiency of the anti-graft body are also the instigators of corrupt deals. Take for instance a close relative of mine who works for a civil society organisation championing good governance. This relative called recently to ask if I knew anyone at the immigration offices in Nairobi. She needed a passport and, according to her, she could only get one in good time if she knew someone who worked at the immigration office. This brings to life the belief that you have to know someone to procure certain services in good time. “Do you know anyone at Nyayo house who will speed up the process for me? I will give him or her some small ‘soda’,” she said. By ‘soda’ she meant a bribe.
I asked her why she wanted to pay to acquire what she can get without a corrupt deal. I told her that I had gotten mine within the stipulated time without issuing any bribes. She replied ‘Hii ni Kenya boss, lazima utoe soda ndio uharakishiwe kupata passport,’ (This is Kenya; you have to give a bribe so that you get a passport in good time). She had not even gone to the immigration office to try the right channel first. I convinced her to apply first without engaging in a shady deal. She accepted on the condition that I help her with queuing and other procedures. To my understanding, she wanted to use a corrupt deal to avoid the standard procedures set by the immigration department.
She wanted to pay someone to do it for her as she focuses on her business and waits for a phone call to collect it. All along she was ranting about how officers in the department are corrupt. This kept me thinking; what is corruption or who is corrupt? Between the person giving and the one receiving a bribe, who is corrupt?
A police officer that I spoke to anonymously admits that the police are corrupt. But he also told me that the public are equally corrupt. “We are all corrupt, from our bosses to the juniors, but you members of the public are also very corrupt”. He informed me that sometimes it is the people whom he arrests who initiate the corrupt deals. He added that in some cases when the arresting officer refuses to take a bribe and takes the culprit to the station, they soon get released after ‘greasing’ senior officer’s palms.
“Sometimes I take a bribe because I know that upon reaching the station this person will be released when he bribes my seniors,” he adds. The officer tells me that to kerb this vice, the EACC should not only arrest and prosecute the person receiving the bribe, but also the person giving the bribe. He adds that although the EACC says that the person giving a bribe is also guilty of corruption, very few are arrested or prosecuted.
My recent encounters have got me thinking about the corruption levels in our country. Is the Corruption Index measured by the money involved? Do petty corrupt deals count? Are we ever going to succeed in the fight against corruption if we still engage in petty corrupt deals? The fact is that we all have a role to play. If you give or receive bribes, stop doing so. If you never give or receive bribes but you know someone who does, report them to the authorities. Law abiding citizens should not suffer because of this form of sleaze. Yet, the moment you keep quiet you make yourself vulnerable to corrupt deals. Sadly, we see people who engage in corruption but we do not inform authorities about it. This kind of attitude hurts our society.
You see someone selling government mosquito nets that should be free for pregnant mothers and children and you keep quiet. You see a high school drop out buying a diploma for a course and you keep quiet. But wait until you are in hospital and the nurse taking care of you is a dropout who bought her certificate from a corrupt official. Speak out today before it is too late. Corruption is corruption, no matter the amount of money or service involved. It is here to stay if we do not accept that this fight is not only for the EACC but a collective responsibility of us all.