Saturday, April 9, 2011

Corruption and democracy

The taxi out to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi ground its way through the crowded city-centre before picking up speed and cruising down tree- and villa-lined lanes in the suburbs.  The embassy itself was surrounded by fortress-like walls, and protected by layers of security, preferential treatment for Americans (though they tried to herd me into the line for non-citizens), cold efficiency and mistrust...no wonder we’re so beloved around the world.  It was actually my second trip to the embassy, because I’d gone out in a matatu on Monday without even realising—I’d only just arrived in Nairobi from Oslo and was still finding my bearings—that it was the day after the 4th of July, meaning that it was closed.

I took the same taxi back downtown to the archives, and got talking to the driver, Alex, about the growing political scandal of the moment in Kenya—the granting to themselves, by Members of Parliament, of a generous salary raise.  Thanks to their solicitous cultivation of their own interest, Kenyan MPs would make about the same as a member of the U.S. Congress, and this in a country where the average wage is a very small fraction of what it is in the U.S.  Like most Kenyans I met, Alex found this move outrageous.  ‘It is sickening’, he said, as we drove through the dusty streets of Nairobi, not so many miles from Kibera, one of the most desperately poor slums in the world, ‘to see how our politicians enrich themselves!’  President Kibaki, not himself anything like a paragon of virtue, has since halted the salary increase for the time being.

I was reminded of this moment because I just finished reading Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat, which tells the story of Kenyan John Githongo’s co-option into the Kibaki regime’s civil service apparatus, and his subsequent whistle-blowing campaign, ultimately as futile as it was heroic.  I remember wishing that I could have told Alex, in Nairobi, what it was like to live in a country that was free from corruption.  But of course I couldn’t.  Instead I was reminded of that age of Old Corruption in eighteenth century Britain. 

Corruption is a tricky word.  MPs awarding themselves salary raises may or may not qualify depending on your view (but it owes its position on the fence not to any illegality).  The trouble with corruption is that, although it has strong negative connotations, it does not necessarily denote something that is illegal.  Georgian Britain was rife with practises (all legally aboveboard) that stank to high heaven of immorality, bad governance and profiteering.  You could scarcely find a public figure whose snout was not buried deep in the trough. 

Now corruption in the U.S. today is of a different sort.  It is not the country of kitu kidogo, in which the average mwananchi is going to be asked on a regular basis for a little something to make the wheels turn that much faster in their favour.  It operates at a more exalted level, but is no less pernicious for it.  The most applicable OED definition of corruption says nothing about illegality; rather, it is a moral question. 

“Perverted from uprightness and fidelity in the discharge of duty; influenced by bribary or hte like; venal”.

Sickeningly, American political culture is filled with a brand of official corruption that is sanctioned when not encouraged.  Think of the multitude of congressmen and –women who are re-elected on the basis of their ability to bring pet projects and spending to their districts: money and projects that may or may not benefit the community equitably, which may not reflect the legislative or moral priorities on which the congressperson is actually running, which may be much more urgently needed in other parts of a state or of the country, and which often benefit special (and powerful) interests that in turn will contribute to a politician’s campaign coffers.  And these funds and projects are casually inserted into bills on potentially crucial issues that have nothing to do with local back-scratching: thus a bill on healthcare might contain dozens of supplementaries, ranging from money for a small-town museum to the assignation of a military contract to a locally-based company.

Think too of the charade which allows a President, circumventing the Constitution, to order the country’s armed forces into action, into what by every stretch of the imagination resembles a war (the bombs, the troops, the rubble, the deaths, the flag-draped coffins returning to the U.S. and the unmarked graves of ‘foreign enemies’), but which by a sleight of hand is re-worked and -named.  The legislature and executive both know that the action is tantamount to war, but maintaining the fantasy of distinction gives one a power that is convenient, and absolves the other of a responsibility which is anything but.

Or what about the Representative from a poor Northern California district, most of whose constituents could benefit from a form of universal healthcare, who takes massive campaign contributions from the insurance industry and consistently votes against all efforts at healthcare reform, while cruising to re-election every year because he can outspend his opponents ten or twenty to one?  Or the one who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who is defeated in a re-election bid, and who goes on to hawk his access around the energy industry, and now hopes to return to the Senate? 
And then there’s the Senator who votes for a war in the Middle East.  Coincidentally, her husband sits on the board of a company that goes on to make vast profits from that military misadventure.  Her husband might also sit on the Regents’ board of a public university system, and at the same time cast votes that tear that system apart while himself investing in dodgy distance education schemes.  If these aren’t examples of corruption, I’m not sure what is.  And yet they are accepted if not encouraged. 

But of course the most egregious might be the actual legalisation of something most of us view as corruption: the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which tells us that corporations are people and money is free speech.  These and other examples demonstrate the power of ingrained political practises to subvert the character of our democracy. 

I remember how outraged I was seeing corruption in action in Kenya.  I was in a matatu coming back from Nyeri, in the Highlands.  Being the only mzungu on-board, I’d been given the seat of honour in front, crammed between the driver on one side and two other passengers on the other, my head constantly knocking against the roof, my knees against the dashboard, and my eyes fixed on the road as we careened around slower vehicles on the way to Nairobi.  A police check-point suddenly loomed ahead.  I was the only one wearing a seatbelt, and I at least assumed that the driver would urge the other passengers to buckle theirs (though there almost certainly weren’t enough for all of us).

Instead, on slowing down, he passed the police officer monitoring the check-point what was probably his driving license, weighted with some shillings.  The officer nodded, returned the license sans the shillings, and we went on our way, none the safer.  Now, unlike the lobbyist who passes funds to a presidential candidate, a senator, a representative or other government officer, the matatu driver was breaking the law outright. 

But however much petty corruption acts as a millstone on Kenyans’ necks, it is the corruption on a grand scale, there as here, which is most dispiriting.  Because abusive oil companies, warmongering defence companies, destructive financial groups, and heartless insurance companies don’t need to break the law—such is their power and unchecked influence in our lobbyist- and money-ridden system that they can arrange to have the laws meant to protect people tailored to their needs.

I remember the hope that Alex and other Kenyans felt as they prepared to vote for the country’s new constitution in the summer of 2010.  It was a hope that their countrymen and women felt in December of 1963 as Kenya was unveiled as an independent nation; in 1991 with the end of one-party rule; in 2002 when the Moi regime left power; and on the eve of the 2007 general election.  Time alone will tell whether 2010 will validate the hope and optimism that swept crowds in Uhuru Park in the run-up to voting, when even some of the worst kleptocrats were forced to get behind the referendum.

Corruption is the subject of constant debate in Kenya.  Indeed, political debate is almost utterly free of ideology.  We find ourselves in a very different situation, but all those who feel that democracy is in itself something worthwhile should endeavour to raise the issue of corruption that is as real in the U.S. as in Kenya.

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