In the last few days, the word corruption has been in the minds and mouths of many Kenyans after the president, in his state of the nation address, vowed to lead the fight against corruption and true to his words, he gave a list of many public officials under investigation by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption commission for allegedly being involved in corruption. Prior to that, the Kenyan media was awash with many scandals of corruption after owners and directors of a British security printing firm Smith & Ouzman, were jailed by a London court for having bribed the Kenyan electoral body Interim Independent Electoral and boundaries commission (IIEBC) officials to secure electoral materials printing contract.
In this paper, I will attempt to analyse the concept of corruption as perceived in Kenya/Africa in general using the conflict and cultural context theory. I will define the terms corruption, culture, briefly explore the conflict and cultural context theory and finally discuss how the concept of corruption is perceived in Kenyan/African culture vis-à-vis the western culture.
The term corruption seems simple but defining it is like attempting to catch a mirage or your shadow. It is more of a perception and may keep changing depending on the culture, time and place. Transparency International (2006) defines corruption as misuse of power for private gain. According to Sylla (2012) quoting shehu 1999 & Uneke 2010…
In this perspective, corruption is the abuse of public office for private or personal benefit. It has many forms that include bribery, extortion, fraud and embezzlement. In Sub-Saharan Africa it also covers relations between individuals in their daily life. For instance, street vendors and other small business owners are also involved in the corruption of police officers, and other bureaucrats who deal with them. In this practice, these small business owners circumvent the red tape of bureaucracy to get their paper work done quickly. Corruption has many forms. They include economic, political and social. It is vertical, between top leaders and subordinates in the context of public administration, but it is also horizontal, involving many public agencies in the government and between private individuals and citizens (p.2)
In this paper, corruption will refer to all manner of actions that can be perceived or construed as corruption whether by public officials or individual private persons in their day to day work. Many scholars have defined culture in different ways. I will cite a few of such definitions and then out of that arrive at what culture in this paper will refer to.
According to Damen (1987:367) “culture is learned and shared human patterns or models for living; day-to-day living patterns. These patterns and models pervade all aspects of human social interactions. Culture is mankind’s primary adaptive mechanism”. Hofstede (1984:51), defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another” while Useem & Useem (1963:169) says that “culture has been defined in a number of ways, but most simply, as the learned and shared behaviour of a community of interacting human beings”
In this paper, culture will loosely refer to ways of life of a people and the cultural conflict theory is therefore based on the idea that different cultures and classes of people have different values, beliefs and goals. It is when these different cultures, with distinct perceptions about life and the social structure, come together that conflict arise and they tend to clash.
According to Ting-Toomey (1982:1) “viewing conflict as a communication process and culture as a system of symbols and meanings allows conflict to be seen as embedded in the normative systems of culture. Conflict is functional when it maintains the fundamental norms and values of the culture, regulates an appropriate degree of stability in the system and takes place in a normative heterogeneous culture where individual opinions and viewpoints are respected. Otherwise it is dysfunctional”
In my analysis of corruption and how it is perceived in Kenya and Africa in general, several thoughts came to my mind and I kept wondering if indeed, what is corruption in America for example is corruption in Kenya. Just like any other societal issue, corruption in my view is viewed within the prism of cultural context. In my Tharaka Community for example, if I need to go to a friend to ask him to be the sponsor of my son during his initiation ceremony, I cannot do so ‘empty handed’ as they say.
Among the Tharaka people, during a circumcision ceremony, every initiate has to have an elder standing behind him as he is being circumcised. Such an elder becomes your father and from that moment henceforth is a part of your life. The name for that elder is ‘ithe wa muthenya’ (father of the day). This name is meant to make a distinction between him and your biological father who in this context would be ‘ithe wa utugu’ (Father of the night). Normally, among my people, it is assumed that baby making happens at night hence this name.
In order for me to go to such an elder, I am obligated to carry with me an assorted array of gifts to take to him to request for the honour of him accepting to be a day’s father to my son. In fact it is a common practice that you don’t go to an elder to ask for anything empty handed as they say in my culture. If you remove that practice from that culture and bring it to an office setting where for instance you go to see a government official to request him to offer your son a job and in the process gift him with a goat or a chicken, then that is construed as corruption. Whereas that may be true, from my community’s cultural point of view, it doesn’t make sense how carrying with you a gift in such a situation will be considered as a bribe. It is these kinds of situations that in my view demonstrate how different cultural practices cause conflict.
Asante & Abarry (1996) argues that Africa had developed sophisticated cultures and civilization which resulted into emergence of such great empires from ancient Egypt, to Ghana and Songhai in Mali to mention a few. This was then followed by the epoch of slave trade and colonialism. These interventions and intrusions of the African societies disorganized the cultural norms and values of the Africans in a big way according to N’Diaye (2008).
According to Sylla (2012), during the long period that Africa was colonized, there was cultural conflict and confusion as the colonizers attempted to dismantle the existing African ways and replace them with the supposedly better ways of the dominant culture. The indigenous Africans did not take it lightly and consequently fought such subjugation of their cultures. The fight was not easy at all because Africa was faced with a force that had both military and resources superiority and ultimately this led to a long drawn struggle that eventually led to cultural confusion and in others integration that led to adopting all the behaviours from the dominant cultural force.
New system of societal governance were adopted, although not willingly, in many African societies including Kenya. It is in these systems that now corruption has thrived as people struggle to mix the cultural practices in the office environment. Whereas in the traditional African setup, the concept of gifts could not be misused because there were safeguards that ensured justice as perceived prevailed, the same cannot be said of the state of affairs now. Using my Tharaka community again, it was not common for instance for one person to gift the elders so that they could rule in his favour say in a land dispute with his neighbour.
The elders were obliged by the community ethos to be not only wise but also just. If any one of them failed this test, then there were severe sanctions such as banishment from the community for a long time. This is not happening in the modern way of doing things although the laws exist to check such maladies, people continue to be corrupt to the extent of subverting justice even in the court or arbitration processes.
The conflicts caused by the clash of cultures continue to date to generate confusion concerning what is a correct behaviour. Politics for instance is a very divisive field in Africa according to Mazrui as cited in Asante & Abarry (1996). Sylla (2015) in exploring the concept of gifting I alluded to earlier introduces the phrase social solidarity which he says is a very necessary element of the African cultural basis. According to him, giving a gift to someone else is the most honourable gesture in a relationship and is commonly accepted because indigenous people believed in prior anticipation of a new relationship even before things have taken place. Gift giving is therefore a part of social solidarity in order to maintain harmony and peace across all spheres of the society. According to Sylla (2012), “This symbolic interaction plays a vital role in many societal settings including workplace, government and in politics. It is also part of social relationships, including finding a mate or making friends. For many indigenous people, gift giving is not corruption and it never leads to embezzlement”
Whereas that may be true traditionally, due to the new ways of governance, it cannot hold in the modern office setup because it is one of the main causes of corruption in African societies. It has seen public officials engaged in mega scandals and asking for kickbacks. In my view theft of resources through kickbacks cannot be interpreted using the social solidarity argument because ordinarily, it was not acceptable for greed to rule those in authority so much so that they apportion themselves the communal resources for their own use.
For instance the wells were shared by the communities where all members of the community were allowed to fetch water as well as quench the thirst of their livestock regardless of their social or economic status. However, I would agree that it is the well-intended gesture of gift giving in the African culture that has now been misused to perpetuate the runaway corruption we see today in our society.
Another major point of cultural conflict in Kenya and Africa in general is the religious front. Although all African societies were and are still deeply religious, the introduction of different religions such as Islam and Christianity brought in a new way of worship. These new religions came alongside the enslavement and colonialism and were also somewhat resisted but eventually embraced. I have seen from experience that both the traditional African religious views and modern religions creating conflict within individuals where one is a very good Christian by day but revert to their traditional religious ways by night. In some instances both religions conflict in as far as issues of corruption are concerned.
According to Onu (2014), “the communal nature of the African society can also be blamed for the runaway corruption in Nigeria and by extension other African countries”. He explains that an African is a communal being and gives an example of a young man who while growing up is taken care of by the uncles, aunties, brothers among others. Such a person once he ascends to a public office will most likely seek money through corruption to amass wealth to give back to the community in the spirit of societal expectation. The same may not be true of a young man in the Americas who grows up knowing that your life is yours and therefore no such expectations from the society he comes from.
In conclusion, it is quite evident that different cultures, however well intended, when removed from their natural habitat and context and introduced in a different set up, will most likely create conflict as people try to either adopt or resist. The main reason for this is the fact that culture is the totality of the ways of life of a people acquired and learned over space and time. The concept of corruption is one that I find quite intriguing depending on the cultural context one finds themselves. In some societies for instance, giving a gift regardless of the value, cannot be taken as corruption while in another culture it will be frowned at because it amounts to corruption.
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