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Time to finally slay the corruption dragon

Jackie Selebi, former police chief in South Africa, was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment this month on corruption charges. The presiding judge called him “an embarrassment to all right-thinking citizens of this country.”

Here, a new team under PLO Lumumba was finally appointed, after a protracted process, to head the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission. And a new constitution, which could really strengthen the fight against corruption, was passed peacefully and with a clear majority.

It’s been a good month so far.

Why does any of that matter, I hear some cynics ask? Some cop is jailed in SA – big deal. We have a new constitution in Kenya – so what? We’re still dealing with the same politicians, the same culture of graft, the same old wink-wink public procurement systems. And PLO Lumumba? Flowery oratory never won any battles.

Some of you even seem to think corruption itself is no big deal. It exists naturally in every society, you say. It oils the wheels of commerce, you posit. It is diminishing naturally over time, you hypothesise. And it’s just a creation of the western media and envoys, you finally propound.

All of that is patently false. Corruption in Kenya is a huge deal. It is one of the two or three biggest problems we have as a nation. It acts as a brake on our growth and as a stain on our morals. It kills initiative and murders honest endeavour. It is absolutely a legitimate battle, to be fought with all our commitment and resources.

There is nothing ‘natural’ about our corruption. Emptying public coffers of billions of dollars and enriching a handful of officials every year is an intensely unnatural act. Consigning millions to lifelong poverty by stealing the very things that could release them – their schools and roads and clinics and security – is not understandable: it is offensive and perverted.

Corruption is not something to be understood or appreciated. It is a cancer in society, one that eats away at all the things that make people good and communities vibrant. It kills the structure of incentives in society. No one tries to build proper businesses by doing things the right way, because it is way easier to feed a few officials and be exempted from things like laws and duties. When corruption is rampant, no one builds competitive businesses, because no one has to. And without strong and capable businesses, no country takes off.

In a culture of public graft, no new initiative carries any meaning. The government can introduce all the grand development projects it likes – youth funds, enterprise schemes, reforestation programmes: they don’t mean a thing if most of us believe they are just enrichment vehicles for a chosen few. How many noble-sounding public schemes are just private ventures in disguise? So how will these projects ever propel us to collective prosperity?

The new constitution gives us a real chance to attack the beast. By localising development into counties with their own budgets, it improves accountability. County honchos can no longer hide behind faceless crooks in Nairobi: if that road or school lies incomplete in your area, you know it’s your own people who have stolen the money.

And so, as my voluble friend PLO takes charge of this battle, we have a fresh opportunity to slay the dragon. His predecessors have been decoys and time-wasters. We have squandered many historic moments in the recent past: after the Narc accession; and during the Githongo Anglo Leasing revelations.

You are free to be as cynical as you like, but I don’t think PLO and his team are here to joke around. There is simply too much at stake. I know PLO to be a man of action as well as of words, and I pray he will make many eat their doubts. The nation awaits. Go, PLO, go…

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