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Rewarding cheats is the road to ruin

Legendary French football striker Thierry Henry handled the ball illegally last week, and set up his compatriot to score against the Republic of Ireland in a crunch qualifying game for next year’s World Cup. The referee did not notice. France went through as a result of this gross injustice, and the Irish were bundled out.

So what? It was just another football game, right? The referee made a mistake. Big deal. Actually, it is a big deal. The game’s governing body, FIFA, has announced that a replay will not be ordered. But the fact that nothing will be done could be catastrophic, for a simple reason: cheating is rewarded. When you reward cheats, you create the conditions for the eventual collapse of the system.

Do I exaggerate? Look around you. We live in a country that began rewarding cheating long ago, and we are paying the cost in spades today.

The white settlers of yore kicked it all off by expropriating vast tracts of land for a pittance, supported by the government of the day. Our founding president and his henchmen saw this as accepted practice and continued it. The extent of the grabbing was chronicled in an excellent in-depth series of reports in the Daily Nation and Business Daily recently. We have never shaken off this malevolent tradition; hundreds of thousands of acres have been grabbed over time. Up to today we are unable to effect any land reform, simply because cheating was encouraged all those years ago.

In the 1970s a misguided commission allowed civil servants to conduct private business alongside their public duties. The commission forgot about three crucial words: “Conflict of interest.” Officials were allowed to serve two masters at the same time: themselves and the taxpayer. Private and public good were conflated. Cheating was legalised.

We have paid a heavy price for that policy. Today, we cannot tame our rogue matatus because they are owned by police bosses and cabinet ministers. Today, government cannot obtain decent goods and services at decent prices because they are supplied by insiders. We allowed rangers to become poachers; we allowed referees to bet on the game. The result is retardation.

Equally, we ruined our private sector by allowing cheats to prosper. The way to get ahead, particularly in the 1980s, was simple: you allied yourself with people in power, who then tilted the playing field in your favour. You dodged taxes, evaded regulation and accessed markets by involving the right officials. We created a generation of businesses that prospered on patronage and tax evasion.

The businesses that should have been building capabilities, brands, employee relationships, supply chains and value propositions were instead building connections. If you wonder why Kenya does not yet have companies that excel outside our borders, look no further. We allowed cheating at home, and so we struggle to prosper away from home.

A society that aids and abets cheating is investing in its own downfall. Children, parents and teachers are now shamelessly cheating in public examinations every year. Such a society stifles the very people who could make it great: the law-abiding; the decent; the hard-working. Those salt-of-the-earth types find themselves isolated, unappreciated, mocked and derided. They feel like fools, simply because they try to do things right.

But let me issue a rallying to call to those who still beat the path of honesty in Kenya. You are forced to watch the dull and the lazy race past you, simply because this society allows them to cheat. You must be lonely, and you must be low much of the time. Don’t be. You have nothing to regret, nothing to reconsider. Even in a land where everyone’s moral compass seems broken, there is still a true north.

At the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself. Those who cheat may never admit it, but deep inside them they know they are lesser beings. We are all going to face a deathbed, a time when the life we have led flashes before us. What is your life movie going to reveal? That you cheated, corrupted and evaded your way through it? Or that you quietly built up your skills, looked out for other people, contributed to the good in the world, and left your planet a little better than you found it?

Which freedom fighter does posterity record as a role model and exemplar: Nelson Mandela or Robert Mugabe? Which footballer is revered by children all over the globe: the supremely skilled Pele or the cheating genius, Diego Maradona? Who is Fortune magazine’s CEO of the decade: Steve Jobs, who transformed computing, music, movies and telephony – or Bernie Madoff, who built a lie and impoverished thousands?

The personal choices are simple. Thierry Henry would have gone down in history had he walked over to the referee and admitted his wrongdoing. Instead, he looked the other way and celebrated. His legacy as a footballing great is now in ruins. Can it ever be worth it?

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