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Our corrupt judges mirror our own degraded values

Our once-dignified judges are on the run, scattered here and there by the broom sweeping through the judiciary. They were barely given enough time to gather their robes before being bundled out of office. The tales of their exploits have shocked some of us, and confirmed the worst suspicions of others.

Most Kenyans are watching with unabashed glee as these learned fellows with their strange attire and odd manners are given a bloody nose. The government has won plaudits locally and from abroad for finally showing its seriousness in tackling corruption at the top. You would be hard put to find a country in history that has purged its judiciary this dramatically. Have we perhaps gone too far?

I have always believed that the making of Kenya’s anti-corruption omelette will have to involve the breaking of several very large eggs. Our judges had taken matters too far to expect any reasonableness now. The anti-corruption crusade cannot be conducted at a moderate tempo. A cyclone is needed to sweep this house clean; a gentle breeze will not do.

Will some judges have their faces blackened without a fair hearing? Undoubtedly. Will some innocents be tainted unfairly? Perhaps. Could the process followed have been a better one? Almost certainly. In any war there is collateral damage; this one too will have its tragedies. But those feeling accused unfairly should remember one thing: an institution like the judiciary stands or falls on its reputation. A reputation is a collective thing. Those who stood by and let their peers and colleagues stoop lower and lower, should reflect on their own complicity.

And the guilty ones? They should use their early retirement to calculate what they have done to this country. A judge is the uppermost pinnacle of probity in any society. We lesser mortals are supposed to conduct our ordinary business safe in the knowledge that wrongs done to us can be redressed, that wise and learned people sit above us who will ensure the right thing is done by us.

How spectacularly some of these rogues in robes destroyed that assumption! It seems many of them were no better than the commonest of criminals, the most base of felons. Their instincts were exactly those of the vile scoundrels brought before them in court: how to profit at the expense of everyone else. The principles of fairness and justice, if ever they knew them, were a distant memory, irrelevant to the main game: the accumulation of personal wealth. They, who should have protected the poor and the helpless, protected their bank balances instead.

Aristotle said: “It is in justice that the ordering of society is centred”, and any economist will tell you something similar: no society develops without the proper rule of law. Development is not possible without transactions, without buyers and sellers, without property rights, without rules enforcing contracts. An honest person does not invest money in an economy lacking these things. A hard-working person steers clear of a system where the fruits of his or her labour may be snatched away at will.

By soiling the robes of justice in so undignified a manner, our learned friends stifled investment and retarded our economic growth. They may have thought that all they were doing was making a bit of money; but the consequences of their behaviour were far more serious. I fear to think how many more years of poverty they may have consigned us to.

So they will find little sympathy from the Kenyans they have impoverished as make their premature exits. Yet we would do well to hesitate before we mock and jeer. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, recommended Jesus. As I watch the multitude that has gathered to ridicule the judges, I wonder if anyone took this advice. If there is a system of justice that prevails in Kenya, it is that of the mob. Wait for a potential crook to be collared, and then come rushing in, raining kicks and blows. To hell with due process! Mob justice is quick, exciting, and makes us all feel better, does it not?

What the judges did, however unpalatable, is merely a symptom of a society that has allowed its moral centre to rot. We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that getting rid of a few of them would solve our problems. Cutting off a diseased limb, however necessary, does not always address the cancer within. It is not the judges alone who brought us to where we are today; there are many more culprits lurking in the shadows.

Take another look at that mob baying for the judges’ blood. Can you see some lawyers in there, who offered judges the bribes in the first place, and are now looking to take their places on the bench? Can you see some doctors, who gave criminals false medical reports to allow them to escape the wrath of the law? Can you see journalists who were compromised and sat on their exposés? Can you see auditors who cooked the books of their clients and signed opinions they knew to be false?

Look even more carefully. Can you see the businessmen who lack any skills or perseverance, and who just buy their way to success? Can you see the politicians who are their lapdogs, who grant them tenders and influence their bankers to provide easy loans? Can you see the civil servants who sign off false tax returns and clear goods without any duty being paid?

Look even deeper. Can you see the shopper who routinely tells shopkeepers to take cash without issuing a receipt, and leave the VAT out? Can you see the motorist who, when stopped by the police for speeding, reaches immediately for his wallet? Can you see the plot owner who pays a little something to officials to shift the beacons on his land?

Look also at the edges of the mob, at the people not necessarily inflicting the violence, but standing by and letting it happen. Look at how they stand there, knowing something wrong is taking place, but shrugging their shoulders and letting it all carry on. Does even one of them say anything? Does even one step forward to set an example?

Can you, in effect, see yourself in that howling mob? I can.

Our problem is in the personal values we hold. If we believe in taking shortcuts and bypassing rules, that is something we have taught ourselves. If we have let our own ethics slip, that is our own responsibility. “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken”, said the nineteenth-century British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

If our judges are corrupt and our politicians are sleazy, they are merely a manifestation of our own values. When we stand up to glare at them with a mocking eye, let us realise we are staring into a mirror. If change is needed, let it be within our own selves first.

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