Kenyatta, and the problem of catching modern Kenyan thief

Kenya has succeeded most where it has reduced human mediation.

Thursday March 3 2016

More by this Author

The verdict on the Kenyan street seems to be that the country is faced with the worst levels of corruption since 2002. Some even say ever.

The irony of this is that President Uhuru Kenyatta has made more strong speeches against corruption, and suspended more of his ministers for abuse of office and suspected 'long-fingeredness' in three years, than probably any of his predecessors did throughout their rule.

So why won’t the corruption monkey get off his and the Jubilee government’s back?

Beyond the issue of whether actual corruption has got worse or its exposure that has become better, there is the intriguing issue of how much of this has to do with how the Kenyan society itself has changed over the last couple of years.

There are many events we could use to answer this question, but for now let us go back to 2010.

In March that year, the Kenyan music group, Just A Band, released a video for their single, Ha-He, featuring the action hero, Makmende.


The exploits of Makmende - rescuing a damsel in distress and walking off into the sunset without even collecting a kiss of gratitude for his labours - struck a chord.

It symbolised the possibility that good men could win.

Makmende, as the hit became more popularly known, became Kenya’s - and by some accounts - Africa’s first viral video.

Everyone spoke about it on TV, every columnist referenced it, and foreign media gushed about it.

But when all that buzz was in the air, the video was only inching towards 400,000 views on YouTube.

Six years later, if we can stay from the extremes, the Afro-pop band, Sauti Sol, are the kings.

Their video releases send tongues wagging and rake up millions of views on YouTube where Just A Band got thousands.

The differences are stark. Perhaps they will always be too nerdy for it, but everyone in Just A Band videos is always fully clothed.

Sauti Sol members show off marvellously ripped abdomens and there are many women with big hips, all oiled, in skimpy wear, dancing about.

In one, a society looks for the strength to say no to what is wrong (injustice, corruption) from its inner strength.

In the other, it looks for the beauty to resist it on its skin.

Both are legitimate explorations, but it says something that it is Sauti Sol that got to sing for and dance with US President Barack Obama.

Just A Band did not even come to the party.


The second issue about corruption to look at in this connection, then, is how Kenya might successfully combat it.

Will it take a few good men, like Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, or will the war be won by laws and institutions (an honest Judiciary, the anti-corruption bodies, a crusading media, and so forth?)

That goes to the question of what are the most successful examples in the past 14 years of Kenya overcoming its most entrenched problems.

It is not good news. Kenya has succeeded most where it has reduced human mediation.

For example, the problem of having so many people outside the formal financial system was solved, not by a banking solution, but a technology one - Safaricom’s M-Pesa.

Among the things M-Pesa took out are middlemen and their stories.

Now, your uncle cannot claim that thieves waylaid him and stole the money you had given him to pass on to your mother in the village.

The bus or matatu conductor, whom you gave an envelope of cash to drop off at your father’s shop on the way to Kisumu, cannot claim that a corrupt policeman took half of it as a bribe at a roadblock.

In Nairobi slums, the “water ATMs”, again a technology solution, have finally overcome the criminal syndicates and corrupt officialdom in the slums to provide reliably clean water to residents.


The renewal and acquisition of driving permits got better and less corrupt with the introduction of the e-Citizen platform.

What we are saying is that when it comes to service delivery, all of them usually hampered by corruption, Kenya has succeeded most when it removed more Kenyans from the process and relied on impersonal means imbued with some technology.

If you think deeply about it, President Kenyatta, then, has a problem on his hands that former president Mwai Kibaki would not even have imagined: He cannot catch his thieves the same old way, but he still can.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]