Sometime in 2001, during Daniel Toroitich arap Moi’s era, I was walking along the downtown streets of Nairobi at around 7pm as I passed time waiting for the Kampala-bound night bus.
Although I had lived in Kenya for a while, a policeman standing at some corner was still able to suspect that I was a stranger – perhaps because of my long-held habit of stopping every now and again to stare at things.
The next thing was: “wewe, kuja hapa [you, come here]. Can you please identify yourself. Are you a Kenyan?” By now, it was already getting dark, worse at this street. On learning that I was not Kenyan, he asked for my passport, which I presented.
After screening, he pocketed it! Things were taking a bizarre turn. “Where is your Yellow Fever card?” I had left it in my small backpack on the bus! But all explanation fell on stuffed ears. “This is a big offense, let’s go to the station.”
My biggest worry, it was about time for the bus to leave. At the station, he was joined by two others who searched me – especially every pocket! I only had 100 Kenyan shillings (about UShs 2,400.) on me. One was bold enough to chide me: “What brings you to Kenya when you are this broke?” But still they had to take my only money to let me catch the bus.
Colleagues with whom I later shared my story told me I was lucky I had little on me, because such forms of theft by police had become normal in Nairobi. Whether you had committed an offense or not, the safest thing to do if they stopped you at night was to give them ‘something small’ – thus the Kiswahili neologism ‘kitu kidogo’ as depicted in Eric Wainaina’s popular song Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo (country of bribes).
It is a terrible thing for a country to get to this stage, a point when what should be ideally abominable becomes something devoid of shame.
It will take Kenya years to steer clear of the culture of corruption entrenched under Moi. Unfortunately, Uganda appears to be in the same direction, with impunity becoming one of our defining characteristics.
It is not only in the public sector, we have allowed it to eat up our society right from the family core, all through to civil society organisations – including religious entities. Most of the knee-jerk reactions to fighting corruption are missing the point in their preoccupation with ‘catching the corrupt’ (whom we don’t catch, anyway).
We have constructed a skewed social system whereby it is becoming almost impossible for a child to be upright. The family’s role eventually becomes non-consequential in a society where, outside the home, survival and convenience become very difficult for a virtuous person. We are surrounded by a thick web of corruption almost everywhere we turn for service.
The practice of schools demanding for endless lists of items which are hardly ever used has remained unabated for quite a long time with the lists only increasing: brooms, reams of paper, toilet tissue, cement bags, tins of paint, mops, scrubbing brushes, dozens of books… Schools are increasingly extortionist because it is becoming normal for everyone to use their office as a thieving opportunity. When one is exploited at one office, they also mount their own roadblock and wait to avenge at theirs.
Many public officers deliberately delay service, continually asking you to “come back another day”. Unnecessary bureaucracies are created to facilitate this conspiracy whose aim is to show you that you have to wait for a very long time if you are not willing to part with some indicated amount or to ‘volunteer’ to ‘facilitate movement of the file’. Otherwise, such files find the right time to get lost!
In a society where bribes are distributed in the name of facilitation, even in the highest office, in broad daylight and to clapping recipients, do we really get shocked when the practice trickles down to every sector?
It could be true that what we see up there is only a reflection of what is below from which the ‘up’ emerges, but it is also the case that what happens ‘up’ plays a big role in shaping societal attitudes and behaviour.
On the road, sometimes when a traffic officer gets you in a minor offense, you can read their expectations from their behaviour. Acting like writing the fine paper while not writing it, as they remind you how big the offense is!
When they see no sign of you aiming for your pocket, they fill the paper in untold anger – at times finding an even bigger fine to twist the case to!
Many so-called ‘free’ services such as police bond ceased being free in practice, and we quietly abide. One has to pay askaris at some public hospital gates, ‘clench a fist’ for the physicians in order to be prioritised, pay for their body to be released from the mortuary… That is why some poor families will fight as hard as they can for their deceased’s bodies not to be taken for post-mortem. Sometimes, if you can’t pay, the body is either confiscated or given to you in a horrifying state.
If you are unable or unwilling to ‘cough’ anything, you are often served last, if at all. We are constantly asked to learn to ‘speak the right language’. At some universities, the process of getting a transcript is twisted with all sorts of manipulative delays, especially if they notice that one needs it desperately. You either ‘bend’ or you break.
When a society gets this pervasively perverted, it reaches a point where you can only avoid corruption if you are ready to suffer – when the virtue means hard life.
The author heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.