Fighting graft on a wing and a prayer
UHURU’S LATEST ‘CRACKDOWN’: Will it peter out like all its much vaunted predecessors?
In the 1942 war movie, The Flying Tigers, Captain Jim Gordon, frets about one of his planes out on a sortie. He learns that the Japanese have attacked the plane and that his pilot is now coming in “on one wing and a prayer.” From then on, “on a wing and a prayer” came into usage to describe an ordeal in which one survives against great odds, on thin resources and great luck. President Uhuru Kenyatta has depleted nearly all his resources – billions of shillings and great political capital.
In the 1942 war movie, The Flying Tigers, Captain Jim Gordon, played by John Wayne, frets about one of his planes out on a sortie. He learns that the Japanese have attacked the plane and that his pilot is now coming in “on one wing and a prayer.” From then on, “on a wing and a prayer” came into usage to describe an ordeal in which one survives against great odds, on thin resources and great luck. President Uhuru Kenyatta has depleted nearly all his resources – billions of shillings and great political capital – battling corruption in his administration without success. This last Thursday, at the 16th National Prayer Day, he, like Captain Gordon’s pilot, finally turned to prayer. It won’t work.
One, if there is a god, why would he listen to the pufferies of such showy “penitents?” As the Bible tells it, his own son rode a donkey into town but these “humble” servants arrived in throaty, multimillion off-road machines that do everything but fly. Where Christ wore a crown of thorns and died in a Minoan loincloth, these repentants were dressed for the runways of Milan, in Tagliatore, Brioni and Armani suits. Just one of the Rolexes and Patek Phillippes on display could enrol 20 Kenyans into the National Hospital Insurance Fund. God’s purposes are sometimes best served when he ignores prayers. On the cross, a tormented Jesus begs his Father to “take this cup of suffering away” but in praying thus, he accepts that it is not his will but his Father’s that will be done.
This National Prayer Day is made for TV, a gaudy rather than godly affair. It is a confessional feel-good show complete with prayers pinned on buntings and banners. Clerics whose counsels will be promptly ignored as soon as the TV arc lights go off are thrust to the fore. It is always a time for an inter-faith clergy to attempt miracles, that is, try to connect Kenya’s mostly spirituous leaders with their usually fugitive spiritual side. But it is a lenient absolution. No contrition is asked of these great ones. Having cheated Kenyans out of their money, they hope to hoodwink mercy out of God.
Perish the thought. None knows the mystery of God’s ways, but the Greek gods usually responded to such hubris with a well-aimed thunderbolt to the head. Is it not more likely that the Lord will first grant the ordinary folks’ pleas for justice before he hears these noisy implorations?
Two, before these effete prayers came to be, Kenya had slipped into one of its periodic bouts of anti-corruption evangelism or, as Macbeth would say, its annual graft “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It really is a tale of sound and fury. A spate of high-profile scandals is revealed in gasping headlines in the daily press. Armed with their stock phrases, the usual chatter-boxes turn out on TV to talk expansively – and with great tedium – on “this” and “that” article of the Constitution that will be interpreted “this way” and “that” by “this” or “that” court.
Commentators recycle the old clichés: Kenya’s “adrenalinfuelled greed” and its “cancerous growth in our body politic.” Politicians dilate darkly on “our moral collapse” and sermonise loudly about never named but apparently known “sinister and pestilential cartels” in high places. Prosecutors talk in imperious terms about “imminent arrests,” almost certainly a warning wink to the criminals to burn evidence and hide the money: The better to weaken the coming prosecution and squirrel away a cash kitty to pay high-priced lawyers to get them off. This PR scam treats ordinary people as daft, a bunch of empty onion-heads that cannot see through the racket.
President Kenyatta will respond that this is no show; that this time he means business. Could he have a point? It may seem so, for political and personal reasons. Politically, he is free from distractions, having won over his main adversary, Raila Odinga of NASA, with some yet-to-be-disclosed promises and goodies and, on the home front, he seems genuinely worried about
his legacy. President Kenyatta would be partly right to respond this way.
Since his connubial handshake with Mr Odinga on March 9 this year, he has had a joyous political honeymoon. His now relaxed mien says as much.
Mr Odinga gave President Kenyatta legitimacy, something he desperately needed after an election termed illegal by the court and a repeat with the lowest turnout in the history of elections in Kenya. Freed from the shakes of those elections, President Kenyatta must now be licking his chops.
Mr Odinga now talks and behaves like the President’s herald. In effect, he is President Kenyatta’s crier, the fellow that walks the ridges with a loudhailer announcing the bulletin of coming events. When the NYS scandal first broke, neither Mr Odinga nor his party criticised President Kenyatta. Instead, Mr Odinga took to President Kenyatta’s side, baldly announcing that the president would soon form a task force on corruption, a farcical measure that a relieved President Kenyatta must have been glad not to be making.
This is the problem. Mr Odinga had solid reform credentials before he arrived on the steps of Harambee house in March. He usually sounded vigorous, as if he had the spine to destroy cartels. Who would have thought that his first public announcement as President Kenyatta’s crier would be a proposal for a task force, that whipped-dog tool of diversionary politics and misdirection? What happened to all those ideas he once so loudly proclaimed?
On his part, President Kenyatta seems more interested in keeping Mr Odinga sweet than in borrowing his ideas. Unfortunately, a happy Odinga will not strengthen President Kenyatta’s will to fight corruption. He will probably weaken it. Politicians travel large, none more so than Mr Odinga. He comes into government with a train of retainers nearly bankrupt from years in the trenches. What price will President Kenyatta pay to keep them quiet? If Ann Ngirita can be paid Ksh60 million ($600,000) for just asking “about opportunities” in NYS and then “supplying air,” what will Mr Odinga’s allies get for making President Kenyatta look good and allowing him to focus on the so-called Big Four? Read this way, the handshake won’t pressure President Kenyatta to fight corruption. More likely than not, it will shuffle out President Kenyatta’s old allies, now largely idle and useless at the feeding trough, to make room for Mr Odinga’s people. Is that what the arrests are?
Dons and doffs principles
But suppose that Mr Odinga has remained true to his credentials – though he dons and doffs his principles with alarming speed – there is still a problem. For all the camaraderie between the two newly re-united “brothers” – their own word – they are a discordant pair. They frequently talk at cross-purposes, often hurting their mutual interests, somewhat like two accomplices locked away in different interrogation rooms before they can agree on a common story. Mr Odinga wants constitutional reform and has been talking of round-the-country rallies to drum up support. President Kenyatta wants to focus on his Big Four agenda. Their still shell-shocked allies flip-flop between bafflement and hostility, unsure what the party line should be. Should they embrace this political marriage or obstruct it?
Deputy President Wlliam Ruto has been mostly hostile. He thinks, correctly, that anything that makes Mr Odinga strong weakens him. He suspects, again with reason, that Mr Odinga is, at best, a stalking horse for Kikuyu big money, which probably has a secret candidate that it hopes to spring into the presidency. Mr Ruto is smart: he probably does not buy Mr Odinga’s protestations that he won’t run in 2022. He probably believes, as many do, that this is Mr Odinga’s ploy to soften his enemies ahead of constitutional change.
Mr Ruto is not taking chances on any of this: He is building a political machine, not waiting for President Kenyatta’s blessings. He is also piling up cash, lots of it, knowing that he will be strongest if he can drag Mr Odinga, a populist, into a spending campaign. Without money, Mr Odinga will be like a boat bobbing furiously at its moorings: All frantic motion, very little movement.
What this means is that the three most powerful men in Kenya are not looking in the same direction. It is not a Mexican standoff inside government, yet. But it comes close. Mr Ruto does not care about either constitutional reform or the Big Four. Mr Odinga does not really care about the Big Four but he is very keen to stymie Mr Ruto’s bid for the presidency in 2022. President Kenyatta does not care about constitutional reform and, to the chagrin of both Mr Ruto and Mr Odinga, he is probably agnostic about their mutual antipathy and wary of their vaunted ambitions. Francois Mauriac, the French novelist, might have called this “knotty” alliance a nest of vipers. But given the post-prayer public drawing of the venom, this tangled coalition is more Shakespearean: Three “spent swimmers that do cling together” and “choke their art.”
It is said of President Kenyatta that his worry about legacy steels and motivates him enough to snuff out corruption. That misses the point. President Kenyatta’s six years of inaction have drained away any vitality he ever had to engage in this fight. The latest arrests – like the list of shame that President Kenyatta gave to parliament in 2015 – merely rearrange the leeches around the public kitty. Many know that this is their “last chance saloon” – one last drink before they hit the road. That is what explains why these latest scams are so frantic. It is illimitable and gluttonous carnal greed: The exertions of an endangered species in the throes of a desperate final mating.
It is a primitive thing, this eating: a narcissistic, ancient creature of the deep, like Lord Tennyson’s Kraken of “the abysmal sea” come to shore wrapped in rank vegetal smells. Even debauched Rome did not reach these levels of public decadence.
This is the thing that President Kenyatta does not get. Corruption is “power.” Michel Foucault taught that power is insidiously diffused through society. Corruption behaves as power does: It circulates through the society. Foucault invented the term “capillarity” for this diffusion. It is the “capillary” quality of corruption in Kenya that infuses it with its expansive and insidious character. When it confronts threats, corruption re-groups, reorganises and refurbishes itself. It then adapts, changes and migrates. Today it serves one set of interests, tomorrow another. This circulation rests on regimes of truth. Corruption is a “problem of culture not of institutions.” “Our forefathers gave gifts and therefore bribes are in our genes.”
These “bogus truths,” often treated as self-evident, are embellished with public spectacles – frequent wakes for moral rearmament, staged arrests and show trials. This charade draws the victims of corruption into a discursive space of collective moral guilt. If all have sinned and fallen off the moral pedestal, why blame the leaders?
And thus, in full dress, the play unfolds. President Kenyatta, cheered on by Mr Odinga, has ordered arrest and indictment of “the corrupt.” Few Kenyans will have read Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “Parade of the Old New.” They should. This play really is “the Old” “disguised as the New.” By the time these cases come to trial, evidence will have been lost. The investigating officers will have been transferred and ordered to hand over their files – without proper handover procedures. The accused and their overpriced attorneys will do what they can to avoid an early trial.
Doctors will weigh in too: Accused persons who never sneezed before these charges were filed will from now be afflicted by a plague of “indispositions” – the lawyers’ term – that mostly fall on trial dates. Inept or hamstrung prosecutions will then follow. Un- bidden, frustrated judges will set the accused free. In a pique of righteous anger, politicians will threaten to strip judges of their job security. Paid bloggers will lampoon Chief Justice David Maraga for giving a “safe harbour to the corrupt.”
And then? Back to the old normal: New scandals will erupt; a new task force will be appointed. Some crusading MP might even amend the Penal Code to stiffen penalties on corruption. And as usual, the law of unintended consequences will kick in: Cops will leverage the stiffer penalties for higher bribes and mystify all of us with their moneymaking skills. The evergreen signs in government offices, “You are now in a corruption- free zone” will be refreshed, perhaps through a rigged bidding process.
Picture a wise Kenyan studying this uniquely Kenyan opera. He might lament, with Brecht:
“I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New. It hobbled up on new crutches which no one had ever seen before and stank of new smells of decay which no one had ever smelt before.”
But this is a dangerous game. As “the Old” strides in “disguised as the New,” the country’s ethical frame is violently twisted out of joint. In churches around the country, the corrupt are adored for the booty they bring, which is often looted from fellow worshippers in distant counties. Priests, whose own finances cannot bear scrutiny, rain benediction on the Church’s latest benefactor, perhaps an air-supply billionaire come to break ground for a new church hall. In the meantime, out there in the public, the mood is curdled by these disports.
Today, the public will be fatalistically resigned to their misery and seek solace in extravagant prayers. Tomorrow, they will be morally indifferent about right and wrong and explode in rage towards their blameless neighbours. Thus, the same paper that gave the lowdown on the NYS and National Cereals and Produce Board money-trail, also told of three schoolteachers who beat a little child – a Class One pupil – so badly that they tore his genitals. It makes one cold with rage. And yet, in the horror of that demented action lie the frightening omens of the change to come.
Is this the roiling rage of Langston Hughes “dream deferred?” Will it “dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Or will it “fester like a sore?” Or, will it just explode? Sooner rather than later, the delusions of the corrupt that only money moves people will be tested against the convulsions that come from helpless fury. Be Afraid.
It is a primitive thing... Even debauched Rome did not reach these levels of public decadence
President Uhuru Kenyatta (second right) and opposition leader Raila Odinga shake hands during the National Prayer Day in Nairobi on Thursday. Looking on are Deputy President William Ruto (right) and Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka.