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The ‘nut rage’ incident that had consequences

You must have heard about “nutgate.” In a nutshell, here’s what happened.

A passenger aircraft was about to take off from JFK airport in New York. A lady seated in first class was served macadamia nuts. The nuts were served in their bag, rather than on a plate. The lady was deeply offended. She lambasted the air steward who had served her. She demanded that the airplane return to the gate so that the cabin crew chief could be removed. And all of this actually happened.

The airline was Korean Air. The offended lady was Cho Hyun-ah, who happened to be an executive of the airline – but more importantly, the daughter of its chairman, Cho Yang-ho. The heiress felt able to humiliate an employee by making him kneel before her in apology, and then delay hundreds of other passengers without compunction by forcing the jetliner back.

South Korea was poorer than many African nations when I was born, but today it is pretty much a first-world country, rich, slick, and busy, with its products sold all over the world. Except, however, in the area highlighted by the “nut rage” incident, which was decidedly third-world.

Korean Air is part of the giant chaebol, Hanjin. The chaebol, which include other giant conglomerates like Samsung, LG and Hyundai, wield enormous power in the Korean economy. Most of them grew huge under concerted state patronage, benefiting from crony deals, guaranteed loans, and preferential treatment. They span everything from software to ships, cars to electronics. In 1984, they accounted for a crazy 94% of GDP.

No wonder Ms Cho felt able to behave as she did. She thought the national carrier was her airline. This is feudal thinking, where a select few are lords and the rest are serfs. South Korea may have the world’s glitziest cities and fastest broadband, but in terms of big people and little people, it remains a little medieval.

But wait a minute. The incident did not end there. There was a huge outcry in Korea. The airline initially issued a half-baked apology, appearing to rationalize what Ms Cho had done. Outrage and ridicule grew. Quickly, the lady had to resign. Her father had to apologize, and called her behaviour foolish and expressed regret for not “educating her” well enough. A Transport Ministry probe concluded that Ms Cho had been abusive, and that the airline had tried to cover up the incident. Finally, prosecutors have charged the besieged heiress with violating aviation law.

So South Korea is growing up fast. That’s what happens in societies with mature governance systems: offences have consequences, no matter who commits them.

As you can imagine, my interest is more in what happens in Kenya than in Korea. As we observe this incident from afar, we should wonder about a few things. We should wonder why we, too, are busy creating our own version of chaebol – politically connected, much favoured powerhouse companies that bestride many economic sectors. We should wonder why we are creating a class of pampered megalomaniacs who can behave insufferably – and then laugh in the face of the law.

One thing is certain: had Cho been Kenyan, there would have been no apology, no resignation, no investigation, and no charges. We are a long way from the place where the law is the law for everyone in the land, and where institutions do their job, no matter who suffers from their work.

We could develop a whole lot faster if as a society we learned something from those who went before us: that we should be encouraging competition, not patronage; that we should be developing competitive advantage, not cosseted corporations; that we should be building institutions, not adoring personalities; and that no person should be greater than the nation.

Sadly, we’re some way off. But we’ll get there.

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