Kenyans seem to have finally snapped, and are very angry with all the horror stories about corruption. This anger is not new; it has marked Kenya’s whole post-Independence life. Its corruption has become folklore at home and around East Africa, but it’s not the only one afflicted in this neighbourhood; it’s probably as bad as in Uganda. Not to mention Burundi.
Because of the current fury, it’s time to ask a rather a banal but difficult question: “Will Kenya, and indeed the other graft-plagued African countries, put an end to corruption any day soon?” I decided to have a WhatsApp chat with a cross-section of East African friends — in the knowledge that the conversation would form the basis of the article but they wouldn’t be identified.
I picked the more unconventional arguments: First, there was a strong view that corruption has a long prosperous future, but not because out-of-control greedy political leaders, civil servants and bureaucrats are in charge.
The first main argument for that was that in Kenya, as in other African countries, no government is really ever elected on an anti-corruption platform.
Sure, parties and political leaders throw in the corruption fight among the laundry list of the ills they will cure if they win but it’s never the reason they are elected.
We elect our leaders for identity, regional, historical and other reasons but not because they will slay the corruption dragon.
President Uhuru Kenyatta is furious and has vowed to hammer the corrupt, and we have seen some arrests, but there was doubt that we will have a sea change.
That will not be because he didn’t try hard enough but because voters never elected him to fight corruption. He has no mandate to do it.
Related to that was a strong view that stemming corruption is incidental. One member quoted a rogue friend who once said he didn’t marry his wife in order to have children. He married her because he loved her and wanted to spend his life with her, and the children were incidental.
Fighting corruption is a bit like that, he offered.
To appreciate that, Rwanda, the most honest nation in East Africa, and among the best in Africa when it comes to having a clean nose, came up. Small, and without resources, in the immediate post-genocide period there was no way the little there was could be put to save the country if it was also stolen.
WEIGHT OF HISTORY
But the most pressing anti-corruption force was the weight of history, we learnt. The largely minority Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had won a war to give Rwandan refugees back their statehood. The genocide was partly the result of a deadly weaponisation of the resentment of old Tutsi rule, which had been overthrown in the bloody “revolution” of 1959, and a conflict over limited land resources at a time of economic crisis and an attempt to award the regime supporters corruptly.
The legitimacy of the RPF could never have been established without it disavowing the corrupt privileges of the past Tutsi elite, and it would not have built a new social compact without a level of transparency that demonstrates it. It led to things that might seem “small” elsewhere but hugely important domestically — like publishing the list of all students who get state scholarships to study abroad.
But these are not anti-corruption actions, the argument went, but political legitimacy and existential measures.
REWARD OF NATIONHOOD
For all the anger, corruption has not yet become a politically and socially perilous issue in Kenya, although things are changing. Most voters will still elect ‘their thief’ rather than an honest “foreigner”. Until then, even the current anti-graft insurrection will pass.
The other issue with corruption in Africa has to do with the “reward of nationhood”, which arises from having been colonised and, therefore, becoming independent, it was said. For the immediate post-independent generation, the matter of “getting back our things” was settled by distributing the colonial spoils — mzungu businesses through “Africanisation” programmes; thousands of jobs vacated by colonial officials; land; and other goods.
FRUITS OF NATIONHOOD
But those are long gone and finished. However, every generation that comes along still wants its cut of the fruits of nationhood, and they are entitled to it. What is left for them are tenders, contracts and taxpayers’ money.
Our countries were founded on distributing the goods from colonial usurpers. It will require history to disappear, or for most countries in Africa to collapse in a corruption-fuelled crisis, for a new anti-corruption national construct to emerge. Even then, look at Somalia or DR Congo. Even past their crises, they are probably more corrupt. I tell you, there was little hope for a corruption-free future.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data journalism site Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter: @cobbo3