Looters and grabbers and the limits of moralising corruption

Saturday July 07 2018

Integrity Centre in Nairobi, which hosts the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) offices. PHOTO | FILE


As the drama over several scams (thefts) in Kenya involving politicians and government officials continues, a raging public debate on morality shadows it.

If you listen to the radio, there are shrill call-ins rebuking the immorality of government officials, politicians and businessmen for the many grand thefts and breaking of the law.

Newspaper headlines paint a picture of the cons in the sugar, energy, health sectors or at the NYS, for instance, as terrible incidents of corruption. Even the clergy seems to have come back from consulting the Almighty on what the mere mortals are doing here on earth and are angry at the depravity of the Kenyan fat cats. Really?


Well, but why are these moralists not calling the rip-offs by their real names? Why aren’t the importers of the deadly sugar not being called murderers – which in a moral society they really would be called?

Why can’t the fellows who have surcharged Kenyans for electricity be called fraudsters? Aren’t the NYS schemers, the whole lot of them, thieves? Yeah, yeah, I can hear the same moralists claim that we should let the accusations against the scoundrels be decided by a court of law before we can call them by their rightful names! Really?


Why don’t we do as Joe Khamisi has done in his book, Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017 (Jodey Book Publishers, 2018)? But in a twist of irony, the grabbers have plundered Khamisi’s book, forwarding pirated e-copies to anyone who wants to read it for free.

In other words, just like the public resources – mali ya umma – whose owner is supposedly absent and therefore can be stolen without fear of the thief being caught, the anonymity of the Internet has enabled ‘small’ Kenyan grabbers to swindle Khamisi of earnings from his book. But what does Khamisi say in his 756-page volume?

Nothing really new. All that he offers in the book is in the public domain. You can read the Auditor-General’s reports from way before Kenya became independent to today and you will know how much has been stolen from the public coffers all these years.

The Kroll Report, for instance is available online for those curious about the rip-offs of the 1980s into the early 2000s. The Goldenberg scam report is in the public domain. Anglo-leasing scam is still fresh in the minds of many.

There are numerous other reports on misappropriation of public resources in parastatals, annexation of public land, seizure and transfer into private ownership of public motor vehicles, for instance.

However, for the first time a Kenyan chronicles the looting of national resources in a book, in a language, style and tone that is easily accessible to the public. This is not some report by an NGO or government watchdog, full of figures, graphs and illustrations to show the enormity of the theft.

No, this is a collection of narratives of daring, outrageous and unbelievable self-service by the Kenyan elite at the buffet of state and non-state resources.

These are tales that highlight how the Kenyan elite – political, economic, bureaucratic or even clerical – evacuated the moral high ground long time ago and thus don’t really care about the moralising about corruption; how they have behaved as a ‘members’ only club, irrespective of tribe or religion or political leaning; how they have gradually morphed into a powerful class that will use any means at their disposal to maintain their privilege; and how they have consequently impoverished the country.

Looters and Grabbers should scare any Kenyan who reads it. For it begins at the beginning: with the land grabbing frenzy of the years after the end of colonialism. This was a time when the politicians and civil servants, using powers and authority similar to those that colonialists had used to steal land from Africans, apportioned themselves land all over the country often illegally.


The new elite was in a hurry to create an African landed gentry. Today, very few Kenyans know that the so-called land clashes and tensions between communities bordering each other have their origins in the land grabs of the 1960s.

The fact that the Ndung’u Commission Report, which deals with the illegal and irregular allocation of public land, has never been implemented says a lot about how hot the land (theft) issue is. Any attempt to correct the irregularities would erase much of the wealth, privilege and powers of the ruling class.

Khamisi chronicles a range of issues, from one of the earliest scandals by a senior government official, the Paul Ngei maize scam; to the grabbing of beach plots at the Kenyan coast; to the dictatorship and tribalism of the Kanu regime in the 1980s to the 1990s; to the rise of the bribery menace of ‘kitu kidogo'; to the ‘eating’ syndrome in the parastatals; to the ‘phantom’ projects scandals; to the looting in the counties; corruption in church and the academy; to what he calls ‘farce of elections in Kenya.’

Even the private sector gets its place of honour in this book on lootocracy. He insists, though, that these sins of omission and commission should be paced at the doorsteps of the four presidents of Kenya.

Indeed, the question that lingers after reading Looters and Grabbers, especially at this point in time is: would this theft, mismanagement, waste and looting, have happened if the president of the country, at any one time, had been serious about managing and securing public resources and wealth? Isn’t it that by the nature of the office of the head of state, as the senior-most custodian of mali ya umma, he or she would carry the most blame when individuals under his watch steal?

What Khamisi is saying in his book is that simply calling these acts of grand theft of public resources corruption is to understate their magnitude. It is to deny the inhumanity of the consequences of the actions of public officers to suggest that it is just some fraud. Khamisi shows that the racketeers that we see as merely corrupt have mutated into organised criminals.

The NGOists are just about right when they argue that the Kenyan state is a criminal enterprise. For the amount of money involved in the con jobs in government and even in some private enterprises (think the saccos that have been looted) must have earned enough profits and been invested back into the mainstream economy to end up legit.

Maybe Mario Puzzo was right in his book, The Godfather, when he quotes Honore de Balzac’s words that ‘behind every great fortune is a crime.’ If we critically looked at the rich in Kenya today using Balzac’s philosophy, we could possibly start to ask hard questions about the sources of their wealth (questions which lifestyle audits can’t ask); we could begin to clear away the cobwebs of moralising that confine us to see the theft as simply a matter of right or wrong rather than great evil deeds.

We could possibly begin to ask questions such as: do we have to pay taxes (knowing they will be stolen); do we have to adore the wealthy in this country (considering much of the wealth was originally stolen); how do we start to think about justice and redistribution (from whom do we take, and to whom do we give more?) But we have to begin addressing the problem from the premise that this is theft, and not just some swindle or scandal.


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]