Kitu Kidogo May Not Be The Problem

Michael Onsando
15 April ,2014

A few days ago I saw a tweet. I can’t remember who tweeted it, but what it asked, many Kenyans have been asking  for a long time.

“Imagine how much corruption would reduce if we just stopped giving bribes?”

This has been the predominant thinking in the country about how to handle corruption for the longest time. We do mass campaigns around bribing and bribery. This, we believe, is how to tackle the problem.

And this is a problem.

In Forget Shorter Showers Derrick Jensen writes:

“Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.”

In this article Jensen is talking about climate change. More directly, he is talking about how little climate change will be reduced if everybody took the proper “green” steps. I’d like to extrapolate and think about how negligibly corruption would reduce if we all stopped paying bribes.

At this point it would be amazing to have some statistics as to how many bribes are paid a day, how much and so forth. However, bribes are not the most heavily documented form of money transfer.

The people at I Paid a Bribe, however, have been tracking bribery (via volunteer information) since 2011. In total, they have received (as at the writing of this essay) 3960 bribe reports. These bribes have a total value of KES. 141,780,302. When the Goldenberg scandal broke there was a kerfuffle that led to the establishing of a commission to look into it. The commission cost the taxpayers KES 511,569,409.90.  The scandal itself is officially stated as eating into about KES 5.8 billion. Many people claim that the number is much, much higher.

The problem with thinking about corruption from the standpoint of “what can I do to stop it” is that it completely ignores the fact that the bulk of corruption is committed on the grand scale. The real place money leaves our economy is from corruption that involves high level government officials and billions upon billions of shillings. (From a purely economic standpoint, one could further argue that the bribe given to a policeman in the street buys eggs from the lady in the shop. The money never really leaves the economy.)

The people who create the laws on corruption know this. So they conduct many campaigns to tell us to stop paying bribes, telling us that the real problem is us, the people. We are to blame for the utter mess that is this country. Probably the worst thing about all this, is that it affects our ability to talk.

“Can I really speak out about the scandal I saw? I paid a bribe yesterday, isn’t it the same thing?”


While the base principle may be the same, the factors surrounding them is different. The amounts of money are phenomenally different and, more importantly, it is not state money you are messing with.

No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger nurses the trigger of an AK – 47 is less a tip than a ransom.

– Teju Cole, Every Day is for The Thief

Even if you didn’t want to look at government and corporate corruption, this thinking is still problematic. It ignores the systematic nature of corruption in Kenya. This, for example, happened to my friend Justine*. Justine was driving when she got to a red light. The police, however, were there and seemed to be waving people on – so she went on. She was later stopped for running a red light. After refusing to bribe, she was asked to appear in court the next day at 8 a.m. In the courts, she was immediately met by a police man who told her he could make this go away. After all, she would probably waste here entire day waiting for the case to be heard. She refused.

Her case was heard at midday and she was done paying her fine by 1pm.

The case above shows the police tricking drivers into breaking a rule and then blackmailing them with the inconvenience of court into just paying bribes. And, to make things worse, they make court even more inconvenient by making people show up at 8 a.m even if they know the cases won’t be heard until much later in the day.

In not paying a bribe in Kenya, you are going completely against the system and you will get punished for it.

In creating this system and then telling the people bound by it not to pay bribes, you are in effect making sure the system works, milking people’s money and holding them hostage with their guilt. They will never try to dismantle the system because they feel guilty for using the same system to avoid being in trouble, yet being born within and bound by this system, it feels like they have little to no choice.

This is not to say that paying bribes is great, and we should go on doing it. This is to say the end of bribery would be a result of a systematic change – not the beginning of it. If everybody stopped paying bribes it would symbolize that something has fundamentally changed in how we think.

To think about ending bribery as the beginning of systemic change is to give an economic significance to something that has none. Worse still, it is playing right into the story that gives the people who loot the country have given us. It is to say that the people are the problem and to absolve the leaders of responsibility. It’s trying to move a wall by pelting it with singular grains of sand. And will, pretty much, give us the same results.

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