Lately, many of the diagnoses that have been offered on the causes of Kenya’s problems, from corruption to terrorism, have sought to lay the blame collectively on its citizens. “It begins with you” is a common refrain heard whenever blocked drains and poor city planning cause flooded roads or whenever governmental malfeasance or incompetence permits terrorists to wreak havoc. Last year, a headline to Michela Wrong’s article in Foreign Policy declared, “Everyone Is Corrupt in Kenya, Even Grandmothers”.
Now, of course, we must be wary of national stereotypes which, more often than not, offer few insights and are reflections of the prejudice of those spouting them. After all, the Japanese and German societies were once thought to be lazy, dishonest and poor time-keepers, with cultures singularly unsuited to the requirements of development.
Still, the idea persists that the Kenyan government is reflective of the will, inclinations and culture of the population, and that the reasons for its failures are really to be found, not in the persons occupying high office, but in the society they spring from. So there is talk of corruption being a cultural problem and a bewailing of Kenyans’ laziness, their supposed propensity to litter and their inability to make intelligent choices at the ballot box as the primary causes of their misery.
This idea has several problems. The most obvious is what we mean by Kenyan culture. The country is itself a relatively recent colonial construct with at least 42 communities living within and several dissected by its artificial borders. Clearly, these communities which had varying cultures and traditions, did not voluntarily unite to give birth to the state. Rather it was imposed upon them.
The truth is, Kenyans did not create the state. The state created them. Kenyan culture is similarly a creature of the state, despite the aspiration to ground it in the ancient roots of the communities that reside in Kenya. If, for example, Kenyans are corrupt, it is because their government is corrupt, not the other way round.
But is it true that Kenyans are generally corrupt? In a sense, we are, in the words of Eric Wainaina, “nchi ya kitu kidogo". A 2001 survey by the Kenyan chapter of the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, estimated that the average urban Kenyan paid 16 bribes every month to both public and private sector institutions. However, a closer look at these findings reveals that the vast majority of bribes are paid to state functionaries, with the private sector, at least at that time, recording low levels of sleaze. Two-thirds of interactions with public institutions “involved bribes or costly negative consequences if one declines to bribe.”
According to the more recent 2014 East African Bribery Index, most Kenyans pay bribes to government officials either to access or expedite a service they are entitled to. Only about a quarter are paid to avoid problems with the authorities, access a service to which one was not entitled to or to avoid paying the full cost of the service.
Far from being a cultural problem, so-called “petty" corruption, and its bigger and much more destructive brother, "grand" corruption, are actually a form of extortion by public officials from the populations they are supposed to serve. It is telling that those least able to afford it, the poor, the unemployed, those with low income and low levels education, are the ones significantly more vulnerable to such extortion.
This is hardly surprising when one looks at the origins of the state itself. It was established by the colonial authorities to facilitate and support the extraction of wealth by a few from the many. As the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission showed, it was not fundamentally reformed following independence from Britain in 1963. Instead, one bunch of thieves was replaced by another which retained and even entrenched the system of illegitimate acquisition. Government has thus served as the quickest and most sure route to wealth accumulation, a means of benefitting from, not solving, problems afflicting ordinary Kenyans.
The idea of Kenyans as generally corrupt or of Kenyan society as rotten does not gel with the facts and simply serves to obscure the real nature and source of corruption. As Ms Wrong put it, “although the problem is in fact one of elites writ large, Kenyan corruption is traditionally viewed in terms of economic rivalry among the country’s main ethnic groups.” Blaming Kenyans, or Kenyan culture is in reality blaming the victims for their own immiseration, and must be seen for what it truly is: a cover for impunity.
Similarly, blaming Kenyans for the spike in terror acts or for the flooding in our cities, is meant to shift culpability for failures to act on the intelligence, to enforce the rule of law, to protect the public and prevent the plunder of public resources, from the government to the people who suffer the consequences.
The small and exclusive club of elites who control the state is primarily responsible for the many ills afflicting the nation, not the people they prey on. Corruption is woven into the very fabric of the state they inherited and refuse to reform. It is not just its raison d’etre but also the primary means for rewarding loyalty. In return for their support, politicians, bureaucrats and even police officers get opportunities to line their pockets at the public’s expense.
The most important attempt to reform the relationship between the people and the state was the adoption of a new constitution in 2010. But even that has borne mixed results. While devolution of services has undoubtedly resulted in more services delivered to previously under-served populations, the logic of public office as a means of accumulating wealth and dispensing patronage remains.
Our elites have proven particularly resistant to constitutional restraint and, in the end, it will be up to Kenyans in general to force them submit to it. It is we who must uphold the constitution's primacy. But we do not achieve this by accepting common responsibility for individual crimes. Instead, we should hold public officials to account, and resist the effort to socialize blame for their sins.