Corruption Ahoy

King Log Politics

What a great introduction to the nature of politics in general, and corruption in particular, is Aesop’s King Log fable. Here it goes.

There was chaos in the pond. The frogs needed a king to put order, and petitioned Zeus to send one.

Zeus obliged. He sent a log of wood which, after a mighty splash and a noisy show of power, set himself placidly to float in the pond, now peaceful and orderly. King Log was not doing anything, but for as long as the frogs respected its silent authority everything was well.

Trouble began when an enterprising, saucy frog, noting that the king was not really doing his duty, had the effrontery of jumping onto the king’s back without eliciting any response.

Chaos once again reigned in the pond. The frogs, annoyed at the rampant social disorder but unable to do anything about it, appealed to Zeus once again.

Zeus complied, but this time he sent a water snake, which began to gobble up one frog after another. Government was now not by consent but by terror.

When I read this story as a young boy, I did not realize that it would take a good half a century before understanding Aesop’s King Log as the profound lesson in political science it is.

King Log and the frogs belong to the vegetable and the animal nature respectively. There is not, and there cannot be, conflict of interest. The snake and the frogs, on the other hand, share their animal nature. Conflict of interest is a permanent feature of the pond polity. “Keep a low profile or be eaten” is now the only froggy alternative.

Corruption and Monarchy

Conflict of interest has always been not so much the cause of as the golden occasion for, corruption. When kings not only reigned but also governed, they had no personal property, bank accounts, queens running businesses on the side, etc. Embezzling public funds was risky. The story of Monsieur Nicolas Fouquet, Minister of Finance to King Louis XIV, is a case in point.

  1. Fouquet had served as superintendent of Finance in the administration just before King Louis’. To say that he was careless with public funds is an understatement. The confusion between the funds of the Ministry and his own was hopeless.

You don’t embezzle large amounts without some collateral ostentation. Fouquet had commissioned, and executed, a magnificent château, still standing in architectural majesty at Vaux-le-Vicomte, some 55km south of Paris. At its inauguration he could not help inviting the king. He felt somewhat protected by the king’s youth (23 against Fouquet’s 46) and by powerful political personages he had favoured in the past.

The king came, observed and did some mental calculations. Shortly afterwards Fouquet was arrested. The unearthing of the evidence at the trial took three long years. Sentence: life imprisonment and confiscation of Fouquet’s estate.

Corruption and Democracy

Kings were in a position to do that. In Kenya they did that until independence. Apart from their salaries, the Queen’s representatives had no vested interests in the day-to-day affairs of the people. They were impartial by necessity, and could govern along King Log’s principle and method.

Before leaving, the colonialists left a statutory law forbidding conflict of interests. It clearly stated that civil servants might not run private businesses while in the employ of government. The law was in force until 1972.

But government soon realized that private businesses attracted better people than the public service did. It therefore set up the Ndegwa Commission to study the matter and make recommendations. These were that the old colonial law should be repealed to redress the imbalance between the public and the private sector in the matter of employment.

That’s how conflict of interest, now legalized, threw the gates open to corruption, which soon overflowed from the public to the private sector. The Ndegwa Commission did not cause corruption. They merely provided the fertile ground on which the weed has been growing ever since.

The public service has increased roughly tenfold since 1962, from 42 000 to 450 000. In practice this means that 450 thousand people can, every day, go to work asking: “How can my business benefit today from what I am doing?

There are as many answers as the ingenuity of the people involved, but one thing is clear: setting up Anti-Corruption Authorities, Committees, Task Forces, Special Squads, Audit Units and other bureaucratic paraphernalia without repealing the 1972 law is like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.

The most obvious result, of course, is a double tax system, with an unknown but substantial part of the revenue going to the illegal, but effective, “exchequer” of corruption. Incorruptibility can still be found, but supported exclusively by the moral standards of those individuals who honour their conscience more than they honour the statutory laws.[1]

The Price of Integrity

When kings governed, lawbreakers were punished, but law abiders were rewarded as the following story shows.

Some 150 years ago Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary was out hunting. At night, tired and unkempt, he repaired to the small lodge he had in the forest, trying to sneak in through a back door known to him. But a lone sentry barred his way, saying that he was under orders not to let anyone through.

Franz Joseph clicked heels, saluted and left. A few days later the sentry’s commanding officer summoned him.

  • You are guilty – he said – of not having recognized His Imperial Majesty. Therefore the Emperor relieves you from your post – and promotes you to sergeant. And so that you may not forget his countenance again, he sends you twenty portraits of himself.

And he handed over to the bewildered soldier twenty gold coins, each with the sovereign’s face on it.

Fast forward to Kenya 2010. A container full of goodies in the name of an MP with some political clout arrives at Mombasa. The KRA official demands tax, which the MP refuses to pay. The issue goes high up, and the KRA official is duly sacked.

One single case is not enough to equate democracy with kleptocracy (rule of thieves), but too many cases go to show that men of integrity do not fare well in  a democratic setting. A professor known to me was the director of an important research centre, which he ran competently and honestly. One good day, completely out of the blue, he found that someone very high up had donated him a piece of land without even consulting him. It was an unsolicited gift, which if accepted would have tied him to the donor for the rest of his life. Respectfully but firmly he declined the gift. And he was eased out of his post “with immediate effect”.

To be punished for an act of integrity by corrupt people in high position can be seen as a badge of honour, but to be despised by people low down the social scale, supposedly critical of corruption, can be rather disheartening. It happened to another friend, an educator at one of the universities.

He had built a modest rural home, which adequately represented the fruits of his labour. But the villagers, far from praising his sobriety, vilified him for his unwillingness to live beyond his means by methods other than hard work.

As a man of integrity he did not publicize the issue, but for those interested in the phenomenon it says a lot as to why the canker of corruption is unlikely to go: words and deeds do not coincide.

Kleptocratic Impunity

“Take away justice” remarked St Augustine, “and what are governments but dens of thieves?” There is no need to go further to explain the impunity enjoyed in Kenya by corrupt people since independence.

When corruption, from grand to petty larceny, is the prerogative of people in government, on what moral high ground can any of them make anyone else serve time for corruption? A few true to life episodes will illustrate.

  1. The Agricultural Show. On one occasion the intake of the Show amounted to 18 million shillings. As the officials were counting the cash and planning (or so they thought) the future, two men in black arrived with peremptory instructions to send nine million in a paper bag to a certain address. The request “could not be ignored” and 50% of the intake vanished down memory hole.
  2. The new grader. A Ministry of Works depot had written off an old grader, which reconditioned in their workshops had been auctioned off. The depot had purchased a new grader, already arrived. When the buyers of the old grader arrived at the depot, the manager was flabbergasted on seeing that the purchase order was for the new grader! The men in black sent to execute the purchase had produced documents in perfect order. There was no sign of irregularity, and the new grader disappeared down the same memory hole as the 9 million cash of the Agricultural Show.
  3. The Fertilizer Factory. A foreign concern was promised a plot of land to build and run an artificial fertilizer factory. All existing import licences for fertilizers were withdrawn. Then, mysteriously, the company found that the piece of land was unsuitable, while all the previous import licences had ended up into the same pair of hands.

And so on and so forth. To understand corruption in depth requires first to take a deep look inside oneself, just to check that hands wring and fingers point in the right direction.

[1] This consideration, of course applies world-wide, not just to Kenya.


AUTHOR: Den Anoisíes (Email: [email protected] ; Follow on Twitter: @Den_Anoisies)

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