I had a conversation with a University student recently on a bus ride to town. He must have been coming from class for as he hopped onto the bus with a few of his friends he was carrying a black backpack that from the obvious rectangular shape held his laptop. He sat next to me and as we drove off, he asked if I could close my window because of the wind. As soon as I closed it, our conversation began.
Kenya is now a country where the conversation starter is corruption. For most countries it would be the weather, “This rain is unending eh?” but for us, “Have you heard the latest scandal? Have you heard how much?” with the reply “Who was involved, how?” We are simply amazed at the audacity and scale of some of these heists. Our conversation however took a different turn; the student began to explain to me how corruption is not all bad. It brings some good to our economy he said. Trying not to shake my head in disagreement I listened on, but I am sure my eyes glowed with disapproval. I asked him to explain this to me because I needed to understand why he believed this.
“Corruption has helped so many hustlers in this country”, he begun. It has created employment and it is due to corruption that systems move faster it can’t possibly be all as bad as people say. “When I heard of someone being sent millions and they returned the money I wondered what was wrong with her?” Who does that? If it were me, I would have kept it. People hardly get charged over such cases”, he noted. I couldn’t stay quiet and so I responded by saying, “Corruption is expensive and it not only drags processes but perverts them”.
The issue here is our poor systems. If we had proper systems that worked, employment would be accessible and they would facilitate your hustle and things would be faster and more straightforward and you would not have to bribe someone when they should just be doing their job. It is quite simple really. A day before, I had had another conversation. This time with a middle-aged man. He works for a great company, he is not doing badly for himself and of course, our go-to conversation turned to ‘corruption’.
As he stood in his office he told me he was confused and had no clue what the rest of his colleagues were talking about when it came to corruption, “Had something happened?” he asked in honest unawareness. “I hardly watch Kenyan news these days. Actually, I switch off from it.” He said this as his computer is blaring out CNN international news. Here is a brilliant man who could quote Sun Tzu’s Art of War, but who has no clue and no interest in what is happening in his own country. He was choosing to simply hide in his shell like a tortoise, hoping the storm will blow over.
The worrying thing about all this, is that one day these problems will crawl into his shell and he will have nowhere to hide. This week I watched the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee grill Youth PS Lillian Omollo on where all these NYS billions had gone to. As she explained in detail what had gone on both before and during her tenure she kept alluding to the fact that these huge mind boggling amounts of money were processed before her time in Office. She had no option but to pay up given the way things had been done under the previous regime.
Since the time she had taken office, Omollo explained, the changes that she had made in administration and that she had been able to save tax payer’s money by changing suppliers as well as tightened up on the procurement process to reduce costs and to provide consistency to the whole system. She then mentioned that because of these changes some previous suppliers were unhappy with the loss of large contracts and the systems she had put in place that would prevent them from ‘eating’ through over-pricing and over-charging government. If she is right in this assertion – and her presentation was backed up by documentation, then she should be praised for her efforts. The rest of government should therefore take the lessons learned by her and adopt them.
But if you notice all these corruption cases have a few things in common – unregistered companies, or front proxies formed to win tenders and procurement contracts. NYS is not the first scandal that has robbed the youth. The only thing that changes is the name of the venture, Kazi Kwa Vijana of 2009 was also riddled with corruption. It has happened for years previously, but we always seem to lose the trail on who was responsible. The Goldenberg scandal was the mother of proxy companies with big wig political elites involved in the scandal with still no one charged because evidence is somehow difficult to trace. There is impunity of huge proportions and thieves are living as though they will never get caught.
While this daylight robbery is going on our beloved Government will be ill advised to continue on their mission to raise more taxes with fuel prices expected to rise while rumors of charging chama’s and cooperatives that people are surviving on are already lingering. This rush to find new avenues to collect funds from the public is an insult given the scale of theft of public money. The answer is to stop the theft not charge the public more to cover the gap. Wanjiku is not amused.
Every day I see streams of people walking to work because the cost of transport is too high. Have you seen how people run to the NYS buses in Nairobi? People literally almost fall pushing each other out of the way I have witnessed people fight over 10 shillings. It is the difference between sleeping hungry and a meal tonight. This is the cost of corruption. It hits all of us in our pockets and keeps us poor – and unemployed in vast numbers.
I hear people like the student trying to rationalize and normalize corruption, I hear the intentionally ignorant folk who have chosen to hide from what is going on in front of our eyes. Then there are the tired but helpless, who happen to be myriad, and are increasing daily as tax payers’ money is stolen with no shame. It makes us mad. It makes me mad. But those frustrations and that anger must be channeled in the right direction. We need those who feel helpless to demand government accountability. We need them to shout loud and clear until the President and the rest of them act.
Do you remember in primary school how you would only work when there was a teacher walking around the classroom looking over your shoulder? We see the same today in our offices, where people only behave when the supervisor is nearby. What this country needs are good systems and good monitoring mechanisms but especially we need good people. Why do we seem to not to have proper monitoring and oversight and especially personal responsibility when it comes to government?
Blanket blames will not work to numb the anger of the tired public. People need to see the thieves held accountable, to be charged and jailed. Proper systems and monitoring can mute that anger but only good people can bring the change we need. Those good people feel helpless right now, but accountable governance is now in high demand and though the journey is long and tiresome, there is hope as power lies with the people. All we have to do is recognize that we have it and use it.