In 2011, the Supreme Court in Italy ruled that to ‘steal food to stave off hunger is not a crime’.
The decision followed a case involving a homeless man who stole cheese and sausages in a supermarket.
The court averred that the man did not commit a crime ‘in the face of the immediate and essential need for nourishment’.
Many similar stories have been reported in Kenya, but such victims of social abuse end up facing punishment when in fact they needed help with means to earn a living.
The link of stealing an item because it is essential for survival and stealing for greed is one that is worth making to be able to understand the psyche behind corruption in Kenya.
A poorly paid public servant who demands a bribe before offering you a service or a well-paid one whom, despite a comfortable salary, starts big projects to realise kickbacks, need to be perceived from different angles.
The former, I would imagine, demands bribes in order to top up his/her low salary. The latter is inspired by pure greed.
Harassment of the public by the police around national ID card issue heralded a very disturbing joke. It was about a policeman whom, when told by his wife there was no money for dinner, would advise her to get water for ugali boiling before stepping outside to find money for dinner.
The few victims he extorted in the time it took to boil water would offer hope for dinner.
If the reality of poorly paid police officers is to have to seek bribes to make ends meet, it means they are not paid a living wage.
Would we say that such policemen were corrupt or were forced into a situation that made them act criminally?
I hasten to add that I am not condoning corruption in the police or anywhere else by junior staff.
My view is that the wide gap in earnings between the top and the lowest public servant is one contributory factor to the bribery culture at the bottom of the cadre.
Secondly, wasting public resources on unnecessary projects depletes funds for remuneration for most public servants.
Thirdly, funds misdirected towards non-essential projects negatively impact on necessary services for citizens.
The big projects that keep being initiated in the country have a dichotomy to them.
On one hand, they involve the desire to spend huge amounts of money to enable large kickbacks for those behind them (circa phantom dams), and on the other hand, being impervious to essential necessities that communities need.
The recent calls made to consider cancer a national disaster has thrown up a very interesting solution. That of building cancer centres and hostels for families of those suffering from the disease.
The priority given to expensive bricks and motors as solution to fighting cancer shows how little thought goes into the basic needs required to help patients.
In many cases, basic healthcare is missing in hospitals that go for big buck constructions or equipment.
A hospital that lacks a simple plaster or wheelchair would rather go for expensive curtains and cars as the latter have bigger financial kickbacks attached to them.
The project recently initiated on Mama Ngina Drive in Mombasa is a case in point. Mombasa is one of the counties with a serious shortage of essential services such as water, sewage system, healthcare and rubbish collection.
The need to serve tourists seems to have informed the construction of such an expensive project over the essential needs of the larger population of Mombasa.
If a proper feasibility study was done, I bet the few tourists around Mombasa’s CBD would not have justified such a project.
Mama Ngina Drive could have done with just maintained gardens, drinking water and public toilets.
It was a picnic site since time immemorial and should have stayed that way.
Mombasa, like many parts of Kenya, suffers from prolonged acute water shortage, forcing residents to buy from mikokoteni (handcarts).
Kenyans have also wondered whether we needed oil exploration before water. Water is in such short supply across the country despite it being essential for our survival.
Perennial cholera outbreaks are not caused by witchcraft but due to lack of clean drinking water.
By not focusing on essential necessities, we end up creating situations where individuals who lack basic items for survival being forced to turn to criminal acts to avail such items for themselves.
Alternatively, essential items are used as pawn-chips to exploit vulnerable citizens who can’t access them formally.
Water has now become one such item where criminal gangs control its supply in places like Kibera.
The mad rush to import thousands of tonnes of maize and sugar from overseas is not inspired by shortage but by huge financial reward to importers despite the threat of such imports to local industries.
Therefore, punishment for corrupt officials should be made stiffer to deter many people from the practice.
The threshold for approval of big projects should be higher than current standards.
Most importantly, funds meant for key necessities for the citizens should be availed and protected to ensure smooth and uninterrupted delivery of key services.