When top officials stoop low to street-level crime, be very afraid,

Friday May 24 2019

gold scam

Some of the suspects arrested over the gold scam at a house in Kileleshwa, Nairobi, on May 13, 2019. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

MUTUMA MATHIU
By MUTUMA MATHIU
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The so-called “Wetang’ula tape” has unnerved me totally. I appreciate that Senator Moses Wetang’ula is not guilty of any offence, he has not even been questioned and he has denied that he is the man in the tape.

Fine, but the man in the tape is a con man of the worst order. He appears to be begging not to be worked on by people whose money he took five months before and had been dancing around, dropping the names of opposition leader Raila Odinga, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i. Only a person who has never met Mr Matiang’i would imagine that the minister can be involved in “wash wash”.

BANDIT ECONOMY

The Wentang’ula case comes after that of former legislator Danson Mungatana, who was apparently cheated out of Sh76 million by “wash wash” con men. What such a senior person was doing giving tens of millions of shillings to international criminals is, perhaps, not something that we want to canvass right away.

There is a lot of land fraud going on in Kenya. Politicians, rich con men, security officials, land registry officials and elements in the Judiciary are conspiring to alter land documents at the registries and replace them with forged documents and titles.

When the con man invades your land, the police advise you to get court orders to evict them. The court takes you round and round until you are quite dizzy. In the meantime, the con man is either developing your property or has subdivided and sold it to third parties, who may well be part of the con game.

There are many Kenyans whose land has been stolen in this fashion, dispossessed and thrown out of their homes by agents, essentially of the government. Rather than improving the system, powerful land owners have taken measures to protect their holdings.

What it means is that government officials, the people charged with protecting the public and the public good have taken to street-level crime. The system of trust that keeps society running is breaking down and I can understand the frustration of President Kenyatta, who must feel that he is surrounded by ravenous bandits.

Which brings us to the popular “bandit economy” phrase by former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. I did some background reading — at this point, please stand up and give a round of applause to Mr Google and his sister Miss Wiki — on the etymology of the terms and the context in which they were coined.

COMMON INTEREST

This brings us to Prof Mancur Lloyd Olsen, an economist and social scientist at the University of Maryland. He was a well-educated man, a Rhodes scholar, no less, at Oxford and with a PhD in economics from Harvard.

Of interest are three of his titles — which, I am ashamed to say, I have only read in review on the internet, but which I shall buy on Amazon and read — and the dominant and rather bold ideas presented in those books.

The first is The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. In this book, Prof Olsen, I think, introduces the twin concepts of concentrated benefits and diffused costs. He argues that people in large groups will not act in the common good unless with an incentive, like if they derive personal benefit or stand to lose personally.

In large groups, such as our poor country, the per capita cost of acting against the public interest is so minor that an individual can provision against it. In small groups, people can act for the common interest because of their share of the benefit is large enough.

The second book, Rise and Decline of Nations, takes the idea forward, where “distributional coalitions”, such as unions and other cartels, act in their particular benefit, such as to support protectionism, which is ultimately harmful to the larger common. But since the harmful effects are so widely distributed and not painfully felt, these cartels, in common parlance, get their way. But they damage the economy.

LIBERATE OURSELVES

Finally, in 2000, Prof Olsen wrote Power and Prosperity, which, according to Wiki, explored the effects of different types of society. He examined anarchy, tyranny and democracy. The anarchical state is characterised by the “roving bandit”, a cattle rustler-type of guy whose only interest is to plunder, kill and move on. He has no interest in preserving his victims.

Under the tyrannical system, there is a “stationary bandit”; this one robs and plunders but, since he hangs around, he ensures that his victims survive. He also seeks some common good because he knows he stands to benefit from it. So, the tyrant does some good stuff but does not give a hoot for the common fellow. He is just keeping the victim alive so that he can continue to feed off him.

In the third system, democracy, power is given to those who govern in accordance with the wishes of the population, to quote Wiki, and in this way good governance is incentivised.

I think, at this stage, it’s a githeri of all three: There are some traces democracy, but there are also roving and stationary bandits among us. The challenge is to liberate ourselves, and that starts with a public demand for severe punishment for leaders engaged in street-level crime.

And that’s why the tape unsettled me so.

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