Why can’t we end corruption?

Michael Onsando
28 May ,2019


State capture creates a two-government country: “there is an elected government, and there is a shadow government – a state within a state.”

State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption

“Yes, I signed the agreement after being compelled to do so by dark forces who claimed that a Kikuyu can’t be elected and that foreigners will suspend aid to Kenya.”

Uhuru Kenyatta, 2012 (Later became president)

It seems like every other week there is a corruption scandal in the papers. So much so in fact that “The Predictable Nature of Corruption in Kenya” is one of the most read pieces here on Brainstorm. So we know corruption exists, and we know where it is and how we respond to it – why can’t we seem to stop it?

This is the question that Africog tries to go into with their latest report State Capture, Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption –(available for download here). The report looks at major corruption scandals that three of our four presidents have faced, the steps they have taken to counter them, and how these steps have affected the general environment in Kenya.

I’ve written here before about institutional memory and how corruption became a language embedded in the halls of power that govern Kenya.  If stealing money from this place is the only thing that you can agree on that agreeing upon stealing money becomes how you speak. The Africog report goes deeper and talks about key false assumptions in the fight against corruption. Take this for example:

“The touchstone of much anti-corruption reform in Kenya is the assumption that government is trying to govern but is somehow side-tracked by corruption, understood as a malignant institutional failure that frustrates the governing effort. Therein lies the problem: anticorruption programmes ‘pathologise’ the relationship between corruption and the state, deploying medical terms like ‘cancer on the body politic,’ a ‘disease that we must cure’ or ‘a pervasive ill’ potentially responsive to curative interventions(…) What if we assume instead that governing is not the government’s objective?”

 So if not governing then what? The report goes into detail about this thing called state capture. State capture occurs when public resources or repurposed for private benefit. This definition from page 7 lays our state capture in Kenya:

“Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy, international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency – the source of power – and the Treasury – the source of money – is essential to fashioning the ‘criminal web’ necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent seeking elites“

Having this defined is great because we all know about the “shadow government” or the “dark forces” that make things happen. The people who continue to be protected by the government because their interests have been too intertwined with those of the people in power. But how does a shadow government work? How is it installed? And how does it persist despite our continuous efforts towards fighting corruption?

Well, first off, our fight against corruption isn’t real and tangible. This is something we already knew. We throw tribunals and commissions of inquiry but little to no action is taken. And even when action is taken it follows a certain script that is designed to placate public temperatures but give no actual results. Eventually we fall back into the same patterns. The report argues that this is not because we lack ideas or tools to effectively eradicate corruption but rather that deep reforms would loosen the ruling elite’s grip on power and severly subvert the game of politics in Kenya. As such the people often given the power to fight corruption lack the incentives to do so. And because the space is already organized as a corrupt space the few that have the willpower are often bullied, squeezed and pushed out.

There are two key points through which the corrupt bodies have Kenya by the throat. First the electoral bodies are consistently compromised allowing the shadow government to effectively control transitions and thus ensuring that key principles are always aligned to the corruption agenda. Second law enforcement (judiciary and police) and undermined and stripped of all credibility. This means that in the instance of any corruption allegations the chances of consequence are minimal – at best a scapegoat will fall and the patterns fall back to what they always have been.

“In fact, state capture theory assumes just the opposite; namely, that once the state has been captured it is possible for a transition to abort halfway to democracy and acquire a stable, sub-optimal equilibrium with the façade of democracy, but not its substance.”

One of the things that the report touches on is the collective action perspective. From this perspective high corruption environments generate widespread expectation of widespread corruption. Which is basically because we have been corrupt and continue to be corrupt we expect that corruption is something that will continue. The problem with that, becomes not only the consistent misdirection of public resources, but also an erosion of public trust in a functioning government, creating a sub optimal balance that is not really democracy and allows for corruption to thrive. In this case Kenya ends up being not only corrupt but unable to achieve full democracy.

“[The] process whereby citizens become able to defend themselves andtheir interests by political means. It is “democratization”, not in the sense of establishing formal democratic institutions for their own sake, but rather in the sense of broadening the range of people and groups with some say about the ways power and wealth should – and should not – be pursued, used and exchanged.”

So why can’t we fight corruption? There is no hope in the Africog report. While they do a good job of looking at methods that failed in the past (Uhuru just fired 1000 procurement officers, kind of like Kibaki did in 2003) there is little innovation. Most of the solutions are reliant on a form of implosion like a debt fuelled crisis or unsustainable growth. But one solution is interesting. They talk about a powerful anti-corruption coalition overwhelming the capture elite – something we have said for a while. As long as the people who are within the same social class as those taking away from the country make a stand the marginalized can only make noises from the side. Whatever solution we decide to chase one thing remains clear we will not go anywhere with this fight if we keep making roadside declarations and establishing commissions of enquiry.  

Download the Africog report here.

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