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Our corruption is our problem

Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has been investigating allegations that the defence firm BAE Systems paid millions of pounds in bribes to Saudi Arabian officials to secure the Al-Yamamah deal – the country’s biggest-ever defence contract, worth 40 billion sterling pounds over the past 20 years.

Just before Christmas last year, Britain’s Attorney General called off the investigation, saying that it would not have been in the country’s “national interest” to continue. He cited the fact that the probe was causing serious damage to UK relations with Saudi Arabia. The fact that the Saudis had threatened to scrap a further order for fighter jets (worth 10 billion pounds) may also have had something to do with it.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, an Attorney General stepping in to call off an investigation just as things start heating up? We just didn’t expect to see it in saintly Britain. This from the country that promised to fight corruption “wherever we find it – whether here or abroad”.

“A shabby, shaming day”, said Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Saving British contracts and British jobs, it would appear, is more important than upholding the law or doing the right thing. Every time British ministers lecture overseas governments on corruption, they will “see this thrown back in their face”, said one academic in The Economist magazine. Indeed.

We wait to see what happens in South Africa, where BAE is again in the spotlight. Here, the SFO is investigating alleged payments to a senior South African official. BAE won a contract to supply planes – reportedly at twice the price of a rival Italian bidder. It also transpires that BAE made a donation to the ruling ANC party just after the contract was signed. So, will the UK Attorney General step in to stop this inquiry as well – or does South Africa lack the economic clout to make this a “national interest” issue?

At this point, red-blooded Kenyans could be forgiven for standing on their seats and shouting: “Aha! These are the same people who come to preach to us, in the most patronising language, about the ills of graft. Yet their own backyard stinks!” We might also start thinking that perhaps large-scale corruption is a widespread ailment, and we need not chastise ourselves unduly if even the richest countries are at it.

That reaction would be wrong.

It matters not a jot what Britain (or France, or the US, or anyone) gets up to on the sleaze front. Our corruption is our problem, no one else’s. We should need neither praise nor admonition from any other nation in order to do the right thing at home. It is our poor people, not anyone else’s, who live on the fringe of desperation as a result of our corruption. That is reason enough to fight the vice, with all our energy.

Grand corruption is alive and kicking in Kenya, but the problem is this: its true victims are the voiceless. Let us admit it: do we in the middle and upper classes, or in the business world, really suffer because of entrenched corruption? Yes, we face daily hassles and irritating obstacles in our daily work. Yes, our businesses face higher costs because of the demands of sleazy officials.

But when was the last time anyone packed up their bags and left because this is a corrupt country? Most of us have internalised and accepted the problem. It’s a fact of life, we say, a necessary evil. A nice intellectual discussion to be had over dinner and drinks. Indeed, many have prospered because of the networks of graft in which they participate, and would hate to see the gravy train derailed.

The ones who really suffer the consequences are at the bottom of the pyramid. Grand corruption diverts resources from the most pressing needs, and those needs are always found at the bottom: basic healthcare, education and security. Every time we pretend to export gold, or buy phantom equipment for our security agencies, we twist the neck of our own economy. But only the poor are left gasping for breath.

In Britain, there will be electoral consequences. The ruling party will face the heat from voters. Here in Kenya things are less clear; we have a penchant for re-electing those who run off with the money for our children’s health and education. We need no advice, no example, no haranguing from anyone. All we need is the will to create a downside and not accept excuses and technicalities.

And so, as we sit and watch, the architects of Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing are being exonerated and resurrected. They are putting on fresh make-up to stand before us in an election year and seek our votes. And we, fools that we are, are ready to vote for them. You can put lipstick on a bulldog, but it remains a bulldog. Prepare to be bitten again.

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