Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Kenya: Why Corruption is the Root Cause of Poverty

Makau Mutua

I have never seen a coin with only one side. As a matter of fact, all the coins that I have ever seen are multifaceted - with at least heads and tails.

In more educated language, the two sides are known as the obverse and the reverse.

My point is that there are some people who want us to abandon the fight against corruption and focus only on poverty as though the two evils are inseparable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We need to understand that poverty results from multiple forms of corruption. These include the corruption of material things as well the corruption of the metaphysical such as the soul and the intellect.

I strongly believe that Kenya will not develop into a fully functional modern state unless it can cure or minimise the scourge of corruption in all its dimensions.

Kenyans immediately think of Mr John Githongo, the former anti-graft czar, every time they hear the word corruption. This is the good news.

The fight against grand corruption - or theft of public resources by senior government officials - is what Mr Githongo is associated with.

Undoubtedly, this form of corruption is horrible and directly contributes to the material poverty in Kenya. Any other statement to the contrary is simply false.

You do not even need to be a rocket scientist to figure this out. Every public penny that is diverted into a politician's pocket is a penny less for investment in schools, infrastructure, and social services.

By some estimates, more than 40 per cent of Kenya's public revenues were for a long time stolen and either conspicuously consumed or secreted to banks in Europe.

As we all know, Anglo Leasing was not the first case of high-level graft in Kenya. There were many such heists even before Goldenberg.

Ask many of the senior politicians how they - and their families - "acquired" the huge chunks of real estate that they own today. Not a single one of them has the courage to publicly account for such wealth.

That is why Minister James Orengo is getting zero cooperation from the elite in his quest to implement the Ndung'u Report on illegally acquired land.

The elite have circled wagons and are using bureaucrats to undermine him. Yet we all know that Kenya will remain seated on a knife's edge unless it addresses corruption in land and implements keys reforms in the sector.

Is it not a fact that the land problem was one of the underlying factors of the post-election violence?

Is it not also a fact that it was historical injustices and corruption in land matters that brought the country to the brink of collapse?

If so, how can we honestly abandon the fight against corruption?

The bad news is that material corruption is only one aspect of the vice. In addition, our society is afflicted by moral corruption. You cannot trust what public officials say.

That is because they do not mean what they say and they do not say what they mean.

Take, for example, the corruption of the idea of national citizenship. Leaders claim that they are committed to forging a national identity and psychology.

But are they? My honest opinion is that very few, if any, are believable on this point.

Most of our leaders are committed to a tribal citizenship at the expense of the Kenyan nation. This form of corruption is insidious because it brings the country closer to the precipice.

This moral corruption leads to intellectual dishonesty and the poverty of philosophy. Many a Kenyan intellectual is a hireling of some tribal baron.

This was evident in the lead up to last year's election and its aftermath. In such a vacuum of integrity, there can be no concerted national purpose.

We cannot agree on whether we should have a democratic constitution, develop and implement a national infrastructure project, conceive a progressive self interested foreign policy, or carry out much needed transitional measures.

We dither like minions when the country needs us the most. It is this corruption that has eaten into our souls and rendered us poor.

One wonders when a light bulb is going to go off and let us know that we are at zero hour - and that we must act now in the national interest before we run out of time.

Those who claim that we should abandon the fight against corruption and focus on poverty have a fundamental misunderstanding of the old chicken and egg question.

Poverty is a symptom of many things, but not a cause of anything. You will most likely end up in a ditch if you fight symptoms instead of actual causes.

It's like the old saying about the love of money being the root of all evil. It is not money that's the problem. Rather, it is the love of it! One is cause, the other is effect.

That is why some countries such as Singapore or Malaysia that have developed in the last 40 years - and which were on the same level as Kenya at independence - focused attention on the morality of their politics as a condition precedent for economic development.

I do not want to sound like a broken record, but our understanding of corruption - both the Githongo type and the metaphysical one - lies at the root of Kenya's renaissance.

If I were to advise any of the three major political forces in the country today - ODM, PNU and ODM-K - I would say this: the leader who first understands the complex problem of corruption and creates a national platform to respond to it will emerge victorious in 2012.

I have a strong feeling that, in the next five years, Kenyans will want to see a real transformation of our body politic.

That is the lesson of the post-election crisis that traumatised the country. The leader who seizes on the trauma of the country to lead it to a high plane will reap huge dividends. Is anyone listening?

Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School and Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission