November 18, 2020

Unajua Mtu…? Why Kenyan systems are no greater than the sum of their parts


In Kenya, there is a widespread notion that, in order to receive services from a public office, one must know someone influential in that office. 

Picture this: when a child is born in Kenya, the parent must register the birth with the Registrar of Births. It is common to find new parents who need this service asking “Do you know anybody at the Registrar’s office who can get me the birth certificate?” of acquaintances who are probably remotely connected with the issuance of this document. This same parent, years after ‘obtaining’ the birth certificate, will now ask another friend, “Do you know the headmaster of Nairobi Primary School?” in hopes that they can get their child enrolled into the school.

It does not stop there, think of any other public service; from transferring the ownership of land, retrieval of medical records at a public health facility and replacing lost identification documents; to sorting out minor traffic incidents, getting approvals for building plans or getting an admission to the police or military college (including the National Youth Service); for many Kenyans, most of their phone calls to friends and family sound a lot like “Unajua mtu Sheria House?” (Do you know somebody at the State Law Office?)

Many Kenyans suffer from ‘Do-you-know-somebody’ Syndrome; they rely more on the connections that regular civilians may have to powerful decision-makers in public offices to mitigate the long and arduous processes that plague their access to services. At the end of the day, so much time ends up getting wasted in the pursuit of services which could be obtained without these so-called connections. At times it is overwhelming to think about the number of people one might need to ‘know’ in order to get along in Kenya. On the one hand, it has bred cynicism fueled by perpetual disappointments and failures of service delivery systems in public offices, where, ironically,  service charters proclaiming ‘This is a corrupt free zone; Services in this building are free; Do not pay a bribe’ are publicly displayed. The contrary is true, that one is more surprised when systems work and services are offered without any greasing of palms. On the other hand, it goes deeper – some Kenyans have no faith ANY kind of institutions, and this even goes as far as “Do you know a pastor who can ‘bury’ my deceased brother?” 

Corruption word cloud

There is no denying that in Kenya, corruption is a socioeconomic and systemic issue. It is also entrenched in power, primarily political power, but the first discussion needs to be a more personal one. Speaking at a debate on corruption in the year 2000; the then director of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority, Justice Aaron Ringera, revealed a study by his institution had found that, presented with an opportunity to profit from corruption, a vast majority of Kenyans admitted they would jump at such an opportunity. In the 1970s Shiva Naipaul travelled to Africa, visiting Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia for several months – writing of a ‘new greed’ in his book North of South. Even if Naipaul has been criticized for being cynical, he captures it boldly when he talks of a greed that is insatiable in a booming capitalist Nairobi. In 2000, John Githongo also argued that from pre to post-colonial times, corruption worked [extremely] well as a tool to accumulate wealth in many African countries. It is a profitable venture; the risks of getting caught and being punished are much less.

Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in the 1970s in which he found that the majority of people would knowingly inflict pain and obediently continue to do so. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up; ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure (or the ‘system’).  Consequently, like Milgram’s subjects, people are unable to say no, to stand up and push back against the system. People will do some things they really should not be doing – especially institutionalized bad practices. Whereas grand corruption perpetrated by the elites in government is the worst kind, the real and inexplicable tragedy is the dysfunctional values system that justifies corruption. 

Asking“unajua mtu sheria house?” is really saying “kuna mtu wetu ndani”, meaning one of our own occupies an influential public office. The ‘Do-you-know-somebody’ Syndrome also births corruption because of nepotism and favoritism.  The damage therefore is not just material but also moral in nature. This continues to entrench inequality and exclusion which breeds resentment that is evident during electioneering when common sense is usually tossed out of the window.

Terry McMillan, in the foreword to Spike Lee’s “By Any Means Necessary” writes this about her son:

 “I… look at how much he’s grown already and realize… that when he goes out into the world, he’s going to be the kind of man he wants to be…” 

Terry McMillan, in the foreword to Spike Lee’s By Any Means Necessary

Perhaps this is the silver lining; 35% of those in Milgram’s experiment said ‘no’ when required to inflict pain upon the subject, despite being prodded by the experimenter, and it is to be noted that Milgram’s study is not without its own issues (everyday obedience is much different than instructing someone to give people an electric shock); but it has largely withstood some of the tests of culture. There are many people who have and are taking a stand against corruption – in their own way. It makes all the difference. 

This is the second argument in a series of legal, social and economic ones we shall consider in subsequent blog posts on the issue of corruption: that we cannot expect others to consider their own moral actions if we do not ours first. We must first, as individuals, decide who we want to be before influencing any collective psyche.

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