Do Kenya’s poor connect thievery to their penury?

Monday February 05 2024
Raila Odinga in Nakuru City

People brave the rain during a public rally in Nakuru City, Kenya on March 16, 2023. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG


In last week’s column titled Cyclical behaviour that kills hope, I argued that the people we have mandated to manage our affairs keep repeating behaviour that underpins our failing development project.

One of such behaviour, and the most crippling, is theft of public resources. Despite the devastating effect of this behaviour, we keep repeating it. In that column, I wrote, “Since Independence in Kenya and elsewhere, we keep waking up to headlines of massive theft or misuse of public resources.”

The Daily Nation of January 26 carried a report with the following headline: “How newly elected governors went on a spending spree after 2022 polls.”

Read: NGUGI: African leaders’ cyclical behaviour that kills hope

The article detailed how Members of County Assemblies and the governors “cumulatively gobbled up Ksh67 billion ($412.46 million) between July and September 2023”.

The article was based on an audit report by the Controller of Budget, Margaret Nyakang’o.


The money, the report says, went to “landscaping, beatification of buildings, sitting allowances, and unnecessary extensive domestic and foreign travel”. Only a paltry sum went into development.

The article confined itself to expenditure in the counties. But the sordid story of theft and wastage is the same in the legislative and executive arms of national government. Members of parliament and Cabinet secretaries also love foreign travel. By the President’s and his deputy’s own admission, Cabinet secretaries “change clothes at the airport.”

The President himself is not averse to foreign travel, having made at least 38 foreign trips in a single year. In the US, a by-far richer country, the president normally makes about 10 foreign trips a year. I have argued before that if foreign travel were a great development tool, Africa would be rich indeed.

Granted, officials anywhere in the world, if given a chance, will misuse or steal public resources.

The difference, however, between us and regions where governments are really concerned about development, is that officials caught with their hands in the cookie jar suffer merciless penalties. In China and other Asian countries, misuse or stealing public money is considered sabotage and, therefore, treasonable.

Read: NGUGI: African big men’s motorcades are an insult to the poor ruled

But it is not just the punitive measures that discourage stealing. In these regions, national culture considers stealing of public resources and negligence extremely shameful behaviour. In some instances, those caught stealing commit suicide because they cannot face their families and communities.

By contrast, in Kenya, when one of our own is caught stealing, we flood the streets with branches and placards, protesting that “our tribesman or woman is being finished”.

It’s always sad to see impoverished youth and women in sweltering heat protesting the arraignment in court of rich fat politicians on charges of theft of public money.

This leads me to a question that will need further discussion in future columns: Do the poor connect their poverty to corruption?

Yes, in surveys, people will decry corruption. But do they really, intellectually and viscerally, connect corruption and wastage to poverty, poor infrastructure, crime, joblessness and dangerous migration?

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator