Mutahi Ngunyi: Forget corruption, let’s target poverty

When I was a boy, I was taught that whenever a village elder sat with his legs apart, I must not look. But if I was overcome by curiosity and looked, I must keep my mouth shut.

Mr John Githongo must be one of those naughty boys who always looked and could not keep his mouth shut. And this is exactly what he did at State House.

He was invited into the ‘Chief’s court’, and held in absolute trust by President Kibaki. After a short while, young and ‘shocked’ Mr Githongo took off to London. Reason? He had seen ‘something’ and was itching to tell.

In the company of curious aliens abroad, he dropped the bombshell: the fellow told them that our Chief was sitting with his legs apart. The world loved the drama, but we shrank with shame at home.

Back with a mission

Now Mr Githongo is back with a mission. And before we give him ‘air time’, we must rebuke him for behaving like a drama ‘queen’.

Yes, he fought the right battles at State House, but his approach was all wrong. Like a worthy drama ‘queen’, he won the fight but exposed our nakedness.

And this is why we must question his current mission. Is he doing this for the love of mother Kenya? Or maybe he is doing it for the love of the poor? In my opinion, John Githongo is in this thing for John Githongo.

He is a self-appointed high priest whose campaign is about ‘me, myself and I’. This is why when I listen to him keenly, I hear nothing new. Nothing inspiring, and nothing visionary; just whining about the past.

Anti-graft high priest

In my view, we do not need an anti-corruption high priest. And anyone eyeing the position is a false prophet. What the country needs is an anti-poverty crusader.

This is the guy to give us a new hope and vision for the future. In fact, we should abandon the fight against corruption and fight poverty instead.

If we tackle poverty first, we will eliminate corruption from its roots. And my point here is that grand corruption is not where the crisis is located. Evidence shows that there is no significant relationship between grand corruption and poverty.

The country loses more money to inefficiency and systems failure than to corruption. Fighting grand corruption is, therefore, like playing a sport; fashionable alright, but not effective in terms of poverty reduction.

If we fight poverty instead, we would empower people to resist corruption. This is so because a people free from poverty are likely to vote for a more accountable government. Similarly, better paid civil servants are less compelled to support corruption. Take the police for instance.

A while ago I was stopped by a traffic policeman for driving without a road licence and insurance. I was exercising my right to civil disobedience when this happened. Knowing I was on the wrong, the policeman got to the point and asked for a bribe. I informed him that I was broke at the time, but he suggested that we go to an ATM.

As we drove around, he apologised for bullying me and begun to narrate his existence. The guy lived in a single room which he shared with another cop. His main agony was when his wife visited from upcountry and he was allocated the night shift.

If his roommate was doing the day shift, he would have to leave his wife in the same room with this guy. Although the room is divided into two by a curtain, the idea was still repulsive. That evening he had left his wife in such a situation.

Renting guns

He continued to explain why his colleagues in the force rent out their guns and uniforms to thugs. These fellows are not only dehumanised from their living conditions, they are also impoverished to the core. And because a goat eats where it is tethered, they have to feed their children through crime and corruption.

This situation applies to lower ranking soldiers in the army, prison guards and other impoverished civil servants. What is more: the petty corruption they manage generates almost four times the revenue from grand corruption.

And if this is so, shouldn’t we be fighting petty corruption instead of the Githongo-type grand corruption? Similarly, shouldn’t we fight it by tackling poverty?

But where will the anti-poverty crusader come from? Will it be a ‘holier than thou’ NGO-type? I highly doubt it. This crusader could come from amongst the poor themselves.

And I am inspired here by the story of Jephthah, as told in the Holy Bible at Judges 11. This was a brave soldier from Gilead, born of a prostitute woman. When his father died, his step brothers send him away and he fled to live in the land of Tob.

While there, he attracted a group of worthless men and formed an army. With the support of these worthless poor men, Jephthah, the son of a prostitute became the King of Gilead.

My point? The anti-poverty crusader with a new vision for Kenya does not have to be as posh as Mr Githongo. It could be a shepherd like King David or a carpenter like Jesus Christ! Is there someone out there fitting this description?

Mr Mutahi Ngunyi is a political scientist with The Consulting House, a policy and security think-tank for the Great Lakes region and West Africa.

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