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‘Anti-corruption czar’ is something of a contradiction

Friday January 24 2020


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Whenever John Githongo is named in our newspapers, you can bet your bottom shilling that the word “czar” will follow. The piece I read described him as “the former anti-corruption czar”.


It is because the first time our newspaper scribbler saw the word “czar”, it was printed next to the word “anti-corruption”.

In this context, he has never seen the two words, except in juxtaposition. In other words, to his mind, they can make sense only if they lie next to each other. Newly acquired words and expressions are usually turned into mental bromides in this way.

The corollary is that only if you head an “anti-corruption” body are you a czar. Because Aaron Ringera led such a commission, he is — as the Italians might put it — the czarrissimo.

Yet the term czar refers to whoever is in authority in any institution, especially if he uses his powers like Ivan the Terrible.


But here I begin to catch a whiff of contradiction between anti-corruption chiefs and czars.


For Ivan reminds us that “czar” was the title of the Romanovs, Russia’s age-old imperial rulers before Lenin overthrew them in 1917. It was from the dynasty’s venal cruelty that czar came to mean tyrant, despot, dictator, autocrat.

The czar thus soon epitomised moral putrefaction and radical evil. But, if so, how can we appoint a czar as the head of our anti-corruption campaign? In short, “czar” (sometimes “tsar”) and “anti-corruption” are mutually exclusive ideas.

Although, Mr Ringera enjoys full authority, to call him a czar is to announce for all and sundry to hear that your “war on corruption” is as spurious as Donald Rumsfeld’s “war on terror”.

A woman ruler (like Catherine the Great) was known as czarina (tsarina).


A ruler’s wife (like any one of “The merry wives of Petrograd” whom Grigori Rasputin reduced to sexual playthings) was also a czarina.

A prince was a czarevitch or tsarevitch (“son of czar”) and a princess was a czarevna or tsarevna (“daughter of czar”). The reign itself was known in English as czardom (tsardom) and the ideology as czarism (tsarism).

Yet the word czar (tsar) is not native to Russian. It has the same etymology as the German word kaiser (“emperor”).

Both come from the Latin caesar, which originally had no royal significance, but was merely the given name of a soldier called Gaius Julius.

Best known as Julius Caesar, Gaius formed the first triumvirate (with Crassus and Pompey) after conquering Gaul (France) and Britain. He then defeated Pompey in a power struggle to become the master of Italy.


Caesar was assassinated in the Senate by Cassius Longinus, Marcus Brutus and others (whom Shakespeare calls “conspirators”). But, in the ensuing civil war, his friend Marcus Antonius and others avenged him.

Gaius Julius had become so influential that subsequent Roman emperors — from Augustus to Hadrian — used his surname Caesar as a kind of title. It was thus that Europe ended up with kaisers, czars and other such monsters.

Mr Ochieng is a veteran journalist.