To get out of the labyrinth of the system, there’s often no option but to pay a bribe

Thursday November 15 2018

Traffic police

The common reason for bribing the police is to avoid dealing with the court system. PHOTO | NMG 

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Corruption is not simple; it is not black or white, it is grey. There is no way we are going to deal with corruption without being honest about how we interact with the beast.

Often times, when I attend conferences where the main topic of engagement is corruption, I experience internal turmoil. When looking at corruption we often simplify the phenomenon, acting as though the choice of doing the right thing is a straightforward one.

A friend of mine once told a story of taking a way back to Nairobi from her village in Western. Several times on the way, police pulled over the vehicle, and every time the driver was asked for his driving licence, which he handed over after slipping Ksh100 ($1) into it, and he was told to carry on.

Sitting at the front, in the middle seat next to the driver, she asked him why he was paying every time. The driver responded, “That’s how things are.”

She then asked him to give her his licence. And when they were next pulled over, she handed it over without any money in it. The police officer was so shocked at her audacity that he handed back the licence without asking for a bribe. The driver was amazed that one could actually refuse to pay a bribe. This continued for about two more stops.

When they got to Nakuru, a police officer had obviously been clued in on the radio and was waiting on them. He pulled them over. She handed over the licence as she had been doing, and he retorted, “You think you’re smart, don’t you, young lady?”


He asked the passenger seated at the front next to her, to move to the back, as he hopped into the front seat, squeezing her in the middle. He told the driver to drive to the police station. My friend was arrested. Luckily, the driver of the vehicle refused to leave without her, making other passengers in the bus agitated, so they eventually let her go after a few hours.

It seemed they had just wanted to teach her a lesson.

As we talk about corruption, we have to be cognisant of the fact that there are young men who have to be careful when walking the streets of Nairobi, because they can all too easily be arrested for loitering; it is not uncommon for them to be rounded up, thrown into a police vehicle, taken to a station and locked up. The “lucky” ones have a few shillings in their pockets and hand over all that they have in order to be released.

Fear of police

There are also young people in Eastleigh (often referred to as Little Mogadishu because of the high population of members of the Somali community) who fear the police because identity cards are demanded randomly and even those who have them usually have to pay a bribe to avoid being charged with having links to an extremist group.

Such stories are playing in my mind as I watch a panel discussion where a minister speaks about how we lack moral values. Perhaps the accusation should be more specific.

People in places of power and privilege lack moral values because they actually have a choice. Because it is difficult for me to teach an individual about moral values, to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong when they hardly have access to basic needs.

We are religious people and all religions preach morality and uprightness, whether Christian or Muslim. A hungry man will do what they can to eat. And besides what rewards exist for doing the right thing?

How many stories have we heard of people taking cases to court, knowing it was the right thing to do, but because they did not pay a bribe, the case was prolonged for years, evidence disappeared and they lost in the end?

The common reason for bribing the police is to avoid dealing with the court system. The simplest thing if this happens is to just pay your fine and go.

Why is it that when we have an advanced mobile payment system like M-Pesa, which we use pay for anything and everything including parking fees, we cannot pay fines using it? Rwanda and Tanzania have mobile payment options, can we not replicate them?

If we really wanted to fight corruption, there would be severe consequences for those charged with corruption – actual convictions, especially in high-profile cases. We cannot just have the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) as the only department. Shouldn’t there be an office in every institution since corruption is everywhere?

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director at Siasa Place. @NerimaW