Sunday, March 14, 2010

War on official corruption should begin with petty offenders

Sunday Nation 14 March 2010

Last Tuesday, while on a brief visit to Nairobi, the car we were using was stopped by armed policemen at a roadblock on Argwings Kodhek Road at around 9 p.m.

A group of about five armed officers maintained vigil while another one approached the car and stopped near the passenger door.

When the passenger rolled down her window, the officer bellowed something to the effect that the driver was endangering his life and that of fellow road users by driving around with a faulty headlight on the passenger side.

He ordered the driver out of the car and proceeded to unleash a stream of unprintable insults against a Kenyan community whose names he said ‘‘always begin with a vowel’’ and who, invariably, begin their statements with ‘‘but …’’

Quite apart from his brusque and uncivil manner, something else caught our attention about this officer.

As he approached the car, he seemed to have difficulty maintaining his balance, and he needed to support himself on the car’s bonnet to avoid tumbling to the ground. When the passenger side window was rolled down, we were assailed by a strong stench of alcohol on his breath.

Shocked, we tried to engage the officer in conversation, but he was too far gone to maintain any level of coherent speech.

The long and short of it is that in the short span of 10 minutes, he managed to insult, threaten, shove and finally brazenly beg the driver of the car to give him ‘‘something small’’ and be on his way. All this he did in full view and hearing of the armed police officers manning the roadblock.

Exasperated, the driver finally approached the officer who appeared to be in charge of the operation and pointed out to him the inebriated condition of his fellow officer, explaining that it is very difficult to discuss the finer points of law with an officer who was so obviously incapacitated.

Drunken policeman

Shortly thereafter, the driver was ordered to take off, with the drunken policeman hurling insults after him.

This incident brought home to me the almost hopeless situation facing this country as far as reforms in state institutions are concerned.

In a week in which the nation’s attention was squarely focused on an ever-widening web of corruption allegations of eye-popping proportions, it was astounding to be confronted with this instance of ‘‘petty corruption’’ that has greater implications to the conduct of the common citizen than what happens in the darkened corridors of City Hall or elsewhere.

The police force serves as the custodian of law and order in any civilised society and, in order to maintain the respect of the citizenry, the force must ensure that its members conduct themselves in ways that inspire trust in the eyes of the average mwananchi.

The so-called ‘‘rotten apples’’ such as the drunken officer we encountered should be scrupulously weeded out of the force and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

That a police officer could report on duty drunk, and brazenly solicit a bribe from a citizen even in this era of ‘‘police reforms’’ is truly astonishing.

That he could carry out this whole exercise in full view of several other officers in full possession of their faculties is even more worrying suggesting, as it does, that they condone the practice and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Armed policemen

Citizens are often encouraged to report such incidents to the police, but when the incident happens right under the noses of armed policemen, why would one want to waste their time leaving the scene to go and report it at a police station?

As long as incidents such as these are allowed to continue, there is no way the government can make even a slight dent in its declared ‘‘war on corruption’’.

However, it is still necessary for the citizen to remain engaged in fighting corruption at the local level, because giving up is not an option.

In the final analysis, fighting corruption is not only about fingering senior civil servants and politicians in positions of responsibility whenever something goes wrong in government.

Rent-seeking behaviour

Small-scale bribery, extortion by junior government officials and other rent-seeking behaviour by officers at any level in government are more visible and serve to entrench the culture of corruption more than any act committed by the so-called ‘‘big fish’’.

Eradicating official corruption must therefore begin with flushing out these petty thugs in uniform who have made it their business to make the lives of ordinary citizens as hard as possible in order to profit from the ensuing atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

Until and unless we address this level of corruption sufficiently, it is a complete waste of time to discuss any reforms or wars on corruption.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University School of Medicine

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