Anzetse Were stated in an article in The Business Daily that "In Kenya, accumulating wealth has become the life goal of many citizens. So ingrained is this notion that it no longer matters whether one has beaten, robbed or stolen one's way into wealth. As long as one is wealthy, respect, power and access to opportunities often follow. The obsession with wealth fuels corruption at both the macro- and micro-level because individuals want to save money or make money by dabbling in what is essentially immoral and/or illegal behaviour."
I shared the link to the article with a friend Wesley Asubwa and this was his response – "Wealth accumulation by any means is the capitalist way. Profit is king. For someone to win big, some poor people need to get the shaft somewhere. What we have are just iterations of robber barons who are somewhat less sophisticated than the Rockefellers and Carnergies of the late nineteenth century, what we call grabbers, monopolists and tenderpreneurs in local lingo."
The word corruption is very topical at the moment. In Kenya, we are tracking the EACC list of shame while globally the headlines are all about FIFA and a myriad of scandals at the football governing body.
What is corruption? Transparency International defines the term as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain". Typically this involves bribery which the Oxford dictionary defines as "to dishonestly persuade someone to act in one's favour by a gift of money or other inducement". If we stick to definitions, there appears to be a very thin line between what is corrupt and what isn't.
In the private sector, it is common for employees with the decision making power to award contracts to companies with whom they have an arrangement to receive a hidden kick-back. Corrupt practice? Of-course. But how different is this from a scenario where the client companies' salespeople wine and dine the decision-makers or treat them to a round of golf or send them a bunch of branded gifts at Christmas time?
In the public sector, the main accusation of those facing corruption charges is that they have accepted inducement to award companies tenders to render services required by the government. That is corruption in black and white. But when the ruling coalition dishes out plum jobs those who contributed towards its campaign, either in monetary terms or through political capital, this is accepted as perfectly normal.
In football, FIFA officials are facing charges for having allegedly accepted millions of dollars to vote in favour of certain countries to host the World Cup. This is frowned upon in the very same sport where the regularly victorious clubs are those that have the ability to fork out millions of dollars to players and coaches. It is ok to buy your way to winning a competition but not ok to buy your way to hosting it.
So what yardstick should we use to determine what is corruption and what isn't? As Were intimates, we should consider what is "immoral and/or illegal".
Ethics or morality is defined as the extent to which an action is right or wrong. When I worked for an audit firm, the international network sought to publish a code of ethics that would be applicable to all the network firms in over 100 countries. It was an almost impossible task because what was wrong in one country was fair game in another. There are nations where it is impossible for an audit firm to secure work without giving the members of a company's audit committee an inducement. This is considered as acceptable as the practice of compulsory "tipping" of airport officials to get in and out of other countries.
Legality presents similar challenges. Both slavery and apartheid were legal, just as capitalism is lawful today. Relying solely on the law opens just as many doors for corruption as it closes. Part of the arguments that Samuel Gichuru and Chris Okemo made against extradition to face charges for corruption in Jersey Island was that the cases were over a decade old and therefore time barred. Similarly, Transport Minister Michael Kamau argued that the corruption case against him should not proceed because apparently EACC was not properly constituted to conduct investigations.
One of my earliest encounters with corruption was in high school where students would organise movies to raise funds for their clubs. The final tally of amounts raised always appeared petite in comparison to the number of attendees but we didn't mind. We were only too happy to miss preps to catch one of the latest films. Similarly, when the principal set out to raise funds for a new dormitory complete with stunning tiles and hot showers, we did not mind that he retired soon after with enough money to start his own private school.
Today, almost every public project is believed to have an element of corruption in it. There are people in government offices thinking up new roads, buildings and programmes which will be handy avenues for them to misappropriate public funds. But the result is a new road, building or programme!
Should we therefore concede that there is something positive about corruption? That it gives those in power the creativity and motivation to execute initiatives that we will ultimately benefit from. Should we care if we are paying Sh. 11 million a month for airport buses if international visitors are being comfortably ferried to what is also a new airport? Should we care that South Africa allegedly paid a $10 million bribe for the World Cup, when this possibly enabled us to witness the spectacle for the first time on our continent during our lifetime?
And do we have the moral authority to point the finger at corrupt officials when a significant proportion of us readily bribe traffic policemen? Aren't we the same people who cheered a certain Nairobi politician stating "if he is a thief, he is our thief". We vote for the wealthiest politicians without a care in the world that their wealth probably emanated from stealing our taxes. Perhaps instead of Okoa Kenya and Pesa Mashinani, we should have a Kubali Ufisadi referendum - to accept that corruption is a way of life.
My submission is however the contrary. We should not reject bribery because it is illegal. We should not shun corruption because it is immoral. We should condemn both practices because research shows that it results in negative collective consequences. Transparency International has found that incidences of corruption are most prevalent in poor countries and that part of the reason these countries remain poor is because they continue to propagate the practice. It is an undesirable spiral.
Author – KC Rottok is a Kenyan based in South Africa and founding editor of The African Professional magazine. Twitter @africankc