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Do we want to build a nation of entrepreneurs – or extortionists?

Aug 19, 2007 Management, Sunday Nation

I last wrote about harassment of businesses and citizens by the authorities in December 2005. I am forced to revisit the topic, because those in charge appear to have their heads deep in hot sand.

I wrote then: “This country of ours still demonstrates an alarming propensity to shoot itself in the foot, regularly and with great accuracy…small, medium-sized and sometimes even large businesses are not being spared. Traders and manufacturers, dukawallas and kiosk owners, workshops and restaurants: all repeat the same story. There appears to be an agenda, staggering in its stupidity, to harass, hassle, pester and generally make life difficult for Kenya’s entrepreneurs.”

Nearly two years later, the stories keep mounting up: running a business, or even trying to be an individual minding his own business, is incredibly hard in this country. Who are the people making life hell on earth in Kenya? Why, the people in charge.

Been stopped at a police roadblock lately? You may have been confident that you have a current license, insurance, warning triangles, a fire extinguisher and whatever else deemed necessary. Ah, but that’s not enough, is it sir? Do we detect that the air pressure in one of your tyres is on the low side? Oh dear, you’ll have to come to the station, and appear in court, and maybe even be jailed for that. Unless…

What’s this? You’re painting your house and you didn’t inform the council? Uh oh. Get into this dirty truck and sit down with all these other criminals and we’ll drive you around all day while we remove other dangerous villains from the streets. By evening, you will all be taken somewhere to be charged, but when you have had enough of this degradation, you might want to propose a “private settlement”…

Business owners and employees; poor people and rich; ordinary people and exalted: no one, it seems, is immune from brainless and thuggish harassment by officially sanctioned goons. These people play on the ordinary person’s fear of being manhandled, of being thrown into trucks, of being jailed in stinking cells. When that fear enters the brain, the hand naturally reaches for the wallet.

Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with having laws and by-laws, and nothing wrong with enforcing them with determination and decorum. Few of us would object to paying fair fines when we have transgressed.

But this? This is idiocy. What is it we think we are achieving? Are we making the roads safer by mopping up people who have committed minor traffic offences? Observe the wild behaviour of matatus and cross-country buses that have paid their “dues” to see the silliness of that. You might be “fined” heavily because one of your indicator lights wasn’t working; only to see, seconds later, a vehicle with no headlamps whatsoever drive in pitch darkness right through the same roadblock.

In the UK, the government has realised the futility of tormenting its people, and has issued guidelines to local councils banning wheel-clamping in all but the most serious cases. Their Transport Minister wants penalties for breaking parking rules to be “fair and justified”.

Here too, some people are awaking from slumber. The Business Daily reported on Tuesday that the Ministry for Local Government has just issued rules to prevent arbitrary arrests and harassment. Councils must now give a 14-day notice before arresting any trader for an offence regarding permits. It is also now illegal to arrest businesspeople on Fridays or days preceding public holidays. This is an intelligent measure aimed at ending the extortion that commonly happens on those days.

Defaulting traders cannot now be arrested on the spot; and council agents cannot enter private premises at will. Sense at last. Long may it prevail over mule-headedness. Time now to make sure this actually happens, and to extend it to the traffic police and other notorious “enforcers”.

At the end of the day, the people in charge have to answer an exceedingly simple question: are we building a nation of entrepreneurs or extortionists?

But where, incidentally, are the lawyers of Kenya? We see a lot of you when there are bigwig clients to be defended at long-running commissions of inquiry. We are used to seeing you running in the streets chased by clouds of tear-gas when there are big points to be made about big issues like constitutional reform and press freedoms.

But where are you in the little things that make life such a misery for little people? Why do you not tell the people of Kenya some very simple things? Like, is it in order for a policeman to enter your vehicle uninvited over a traffic offence? Can you be put in a cell for a minor traffic misdemeanour? Are council hoodlums allowed to climb over the gate of a private home with no notice of intent? Why don’t lawyers get together and offer legal support groups to end this harassment once and for all, as part of their corporate social responsibility? Or am I dreaming here?

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