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A Kenyan Revolution: Combating Corruption by Phone?


by Austin Bay
March 5, 2013

The vignette from 2002 speaks to bitter resentments expressed in Kenya's still unsettled election, and to the broader hope that digital technology can -- somehow -- circumvent the quiet oppression of corruption.

The revealing event itself was over and done in half a minute. A Kenyan businessman and I were in his car, on the outskirts of Nairobi, on the return leg of a visit to an entrepreneurial skills development class. After admiring his knack for slipping between and around miserably slow, diesel-belching trucks, I asked about local institutional financing for companies moving past the startup phase.

"All of the banks in Kenya are corrupt," he said, but without a trace of anger. His right hand slid into his jacket pocket. Out came his cumbersome circa-1998 cellphone. "This is what I want." His left hand released the steering wheel, he quickly fake-punched the phone buttons, then coolly grabbed the wheel. "I want to be able to move money from my account to anywhere. Like that."

He named a British bank, one he trusted more than any Kenyan outfit. "The corruption in Kenya is terrible and our worst problem," he continued. "It hurts. It kills us. And it is difficult to change it. This situation. I want to be able to keep my money in a place that is honest."

He added that he couldn't wait for the day when he could securely (and he stressed securely) handle local and international financial transactions digitally and give the slip to endemic political and economic corruption.

Corruption, political and economic, was the biggest issue in Kenya's disputed 2007 election, which gave current President Mwai Kibaki a second term. Despite Kibaki's sworn commitment to combat corruption, corruption remains the biggest issue in the 2013 election. The worst example is political. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted the likely winner, Uhuru Kenyatta, for directing the post-2007 election tribal violence that left over 1,000 Kenyans dead. Though the evidence against him is compelling, in February Kenya's High Court refused to remove him from the ballot.

Why? There are several reasons, none good. Uhuru Kenyatta is a member of Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu (and the tribe of my friend, the disenchanted businessman). A court ruling against him might have guaranteed a tribal war. Uhuru is also the son of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president and the founding father of modern Kenya. Critics regard the elder Kenyatta as the man who institutionalized governmental corruption, and that corruption has seeped throughout the economic and political system.

Uhuru's chief opponent, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, lost to Kibaki in 2007. Odinga is a member of the Luo tribe, which happens to be the tribe of U.S. President Barack Obama's father. After the 2008 U.S. election, Kenyans told a bitter joke. What's the difference between the U.S. and Kenya? In the U.S., a Luo can be elected president.

Odinga casts himself as a critic of the Kenyatta system. Yes, aspects of Kenya's corruption problem link to tribalism. However, Odinga's family, like Kenyatta's, also ranks among Kenya's wealthy elite.

By the way, Forbes ranks Uhuru Kenyatta as the wealthiest man in Kenya. How did the Kenyattas get rich?

Kenyans know. Last month, The Washington Post ran a story highlighting a new Kenyan website named "I Paid a Bribe." The website solicits personal reports from Kenyans regarding their experience with "kitu kidogo," Swahili for "something small," meaning a small bribe. It's a global concept. Mexicans call it "mordida" ("little bite"). The Post's article connected the website to the Arab Spring revolts, which featured large-scale use of digital media for revolutionary communication.

This circles back to 2002 and my friend the businessman. Off the road and over a cup of coffee, he opined that Kenya's disparate tribes buy and sell from one another, and all of them are abused by the political crooks. Business is people, not tribe, but favoritism, cronyism? This is why he looked elsewhere, for freedom from this subtle tyranny.

No, he didn't show me his cellphone. He'd already done that. 

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