OPINION: The answer to corruption is political

Thursday July 11 2019

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

Corruption levels in Kenya have become so bad, and politicians on the hog seem to have run amok, the country seems to so desperate, many people are willing to try anything to deal with the crisis.

At least that is the impression one gets from politician and former National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse Board (Nacada) chairman John Mututho who, the Daily Nation reported, “urged the government to hire deaf graduates in the procurement departments. He said with more people in the critical department, the country will tackle runaway corruption since they are difficult to compromise”.

Of course, he is wrong. Corruption is not down to hearing someone offering you a bribe or a share in a crooked deal. In Kenya, like other places where graft has become entrenched, it is structural.

In fact, if you are hearing-impaired, the last thing you want to do is be a procurement officer. In our environment, less-abled people are often at a disadvantage because institutions that offer protection, are simply not equipped to manage their cases. Imagine showing up at a police station, and using language to tell the desk officer that some thugs sent by a corrupt “tenderpreneur” are after you.

Procurement is one of the most lucrative jobs in Kenya. But it is also the most dangerous. Depending on where you work, as a procurement officer you could be more at risk than a Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldier in AMISOM guarding a position in Kismayo against Al-Shabaab.

One of the most precious procurement departments in Nairobi is at a multilateral agency that shall remain unnamed, because they spoke off the record about their crisis.


A while back after an interview with the head, in the unrecorded part of our conversation, he told me they had just flown the last Kenyan procurement head and his family out of the country, into the equivalent of a witness protection programme.

Over a period of about 10 years, four procurement officers had either been savagely attacked or killed. It had decided to no longer employ Kenyans, for their safety, to head the role. And the foreign procurement head had more protection than the organisation’s chief!

Across the city to the east, another multilateral agency over the same period, had seven of the Kenyans working in its procurement department attacked or killed, he said.

Over coffee recently with a sharp accountant, we wondered how Kenya and the rest of Africa could roll back corruption. We seemed to converge around the idea that the only answer was political – elect politicians and leaders who will push for transparent government, and reform the electoral so it doesn’t confer an edge to those with more money.

After a short while, the accountant changed his mind. He took a decidedly anti-democratic turn. He started saying things like as long as everyone had one vote, the majority of elected politicians will be the “bad” ones. As long as the cynical illiterate voter who is looking for a pack of cigarettes and T-shirt from a candidate during election campaigns, has the same vote with what he called an “educated sophisticated” voter, only the bad apples will come to power.

However, that too is doubtful. At the ballot box, as evidence in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, name it, tells us, the fellow with two PhDs is no different than the barefoot peasant from Murang’a, really. We have ministers with several degrees who make an ass of themselves; kneeling before presidents, claiming the president was anointed by God and only he can challenge or remove him, and of course they have been some of the most corrupt people.

Still, there really is no alternative but politics to our corruption. The actions and policies that will create prosperity and remove the extreme deprivations that the corrupt exploit; the mandate that generates the reforms that strengthen governance and rule of law institutions, can only come from political action.

What is likely though, is that in many countries soon it will be past this point, because at the rate we are going, anything up to 12 countries could collapse under the weight of corruption in the next 10 years if there is no course correction.

The forces that will emerge to correct things could be populist and authoritarian. They would likely believe, as Jerry Rawlings’ Ghana did in the 1980s, that the only way to deal with the corrupt is to purge them, and tie a few to barrels and kill them by firing squad. We know how that looks like. We don’t want to go there.