Hotbed of corruption: Kenya’s elite have captured the state – unrest is inevitable

A strong undercurrent driving the unprecedented anti-tax protests in Kenya is outrage over theft of public resources coupled with the extravagant lifestyles of public servants.

There are widespread frustrations that President William Ruto also failed to deliver on his electoral promises to address corruption. He’s even earned a new nickname — “Zakayo”, a reference to the corrupt biblical Zaccheus, the chief tax collector of Jericho. Gedion Onyango provides insights into how bad corruption is in Kenya and what’s needed to rein it in.

How widespread is corruption in Kenya’s public sector?

Corruption is deeply entrenched in Kenya and has been synonymous with politics and public service since independence, in the 1960s.

Corruption has become part of how public institutions work and government is full of corrupt individuals. It’s prevalent at every level and affects access to essential services such as water, education and healthcare. Bribery, extortion and kickbacks are some of the key forms of corruption in public service delivery and production.

This has a significant impact on the lives of Kenyans. It drains resources that could otherwise have been invested into key services that are desperately needed, like healthcare. It also hinders the country’s economic development by adding to debt levels and limiting government performance.

In 2016, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission said Kenya lost about US$6 billion to corruption every year.

My research over the years has centred on kickbacks, bribery and the institutionalisation of bureaucratic corruption in Kenya’s public sector. It provides evidence of the realities of corruption in Kenya and its impact on ordinary citizens. I also look into solutions for corruption, such as whistleblowing, and the need for whistleblower protection.

Through my work, I’ve found that the system is layered with corrupt practices. Three out of four Kenyans have either participated in police corruption or witnessed it. This means that most Kenyans, directly or indirectly, have been affected by corruption.

Data from the Afrobarometer research institution shows that most Kenyans (51.6%) believe that some civil servants are corrupt. This is higher than the average of 47.4% across African countries studied. In light of the current unrest, it’s useful to note that 44.5% of Kenyans perceive tax officials as corrupt.

Corruption also seems to be getting worse. The recent 2022 National Ethics and Corruption Survey reveals a worrying trend of increased bribery for accessing public services. The percentage of people who reported paying bribes rose from 55.9% in 2021 to 64% in 2022. This includes getting business licences, police protection or even access to water and healthcare.

Things got worse after the rollout of the new country government system in 2010 – 47 counties were created as part of a devolution process. The county system transferred political power and resources to local levels, but there were weak monitoring and oversight systems, extensive patronage and loose citizen engagement.

There’s an urgent need for political will to address corruption and its root causes: the lack of the rule of law and political irresponsibility among both the leaders and citizens.

What’s been done about corruption in Kenya’s public sector?

Kenya has made efforts to address corruption, but there is little political will to enforce these legal measures.

Since 2011, various laws and institutions have been created to support anti-corruption efforts. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission was introduced, along with other oversight institutions.

In 2018, a milestone was achieved when Kenya created the National Ethics and Anti-Corruption Policy. It doesn’t have power of prosecution, but it performs well in asset recovery and investigations, yielding positive results.

Whistleblower legislation is in the pipeline. This will encourage the reporting of corruption, which continues to be risky for potential whistleblowers in the public sector. If the whistleblower bill is enacted into law, it will help safeguard people who play a crucial role in fighting corruption.

Why haven’t they worked?

The phrase “the fish rots from the head” aptly describes Kenya’s anti-corruption dilemma. Kenya’s political elites engage in corrupt practices to increase their wealth and influence through elaborate, murky bureaucratic processes. This has led to “state capture,” where corruption has become ingrained in the public sector and is used to maintain political power and build wealth.

As a result, efforts to improve public accountability are often undermined and manipulated to serve the interests of the political elites, to the detriment of the public. This has allowed corrupt systems to take hold at all levels of authority.

Weak citizen oversight and extensive ethnic politics, too, have turned the public sector into a hotbed for corruption.

The consequence is a highly non-meritocratic system, ethnically based public service, and politicised, dysfunctional public sector.

History has shown that breaking such a system requires a political miracle like a revolution or a very intentional political leadership that puts the citizenry at the centre of governance.

What needs to happen?

To effectively address corruption in Kenya, it is essential to adopt more comprehensive and radical approaches which target the governance and political conditions that allow it to flourish.

The current political leadership, like its predecessors, has shown a lack of commitment to implementing the policies that are in place.

Instilling a culture of the rule of law can only happen through popular public disobedience, as we are currently witnessing through the Gen-Z demonstrations. This will reassert citizen agency and voices in political matters.

In addition, Kenyans must take action against the widespread culture of corruption within the government at all levels. A citizen consciousness (active citizenship and demand for legal rights) is needed to restore the proper functioning of oversight institutions and key governmental bodies.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Gedion Onyango, London School of Economics and Political Science

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Gedion Onyango receives funding from ESRC.