Incompetence, graft should not be incentivised

Saturday April 22 2023
Professor Abiola Irele

Professor Abiola Irele who once wrote that for Africa to change its fortunes, it will require a thoroughgoing revolution of the mind. JOHN NYAGA | NMG


The Kenyan government has announced that it will introduce legislation aimed at enhancing performance in the public sector. The Public Performance Management Bill will recognise merit and sanction non-performance. This, according to the government, will improve accountability and transparency. 

This is laudable. What has underpinned Africa’s failed development project is exactly what this legislation hopes to cure — a system in which hardworking and conscientious people are penalised by default or design while corrupt but well-connected individuals are rewarded.

There are legions of civil servants in our post-independence history, who were frustrated and forced to resign because they were doing their jobs well. Whistleblowers especially are a hated breed. They are hounded out of their jobs and sent home to lead miserable lives haunted by their experience of working in an Orwellian system, in which right is wrong and unethical and immoral behaviour is right.

While the Bill is welcome, it will not, by itself, cure this malaise because, overtime, this culture has become deeply entrenched in government. There will have to be a mental shift in our philosophy of governance.

Feeding trough

Since 1963, we divorced government from its function as the driver of development and turned it into a feeding trough.  When presidents are elected, they ensure that, during their term, cronies and tribesmen and women siphon as much as they can. Ministers become billionaires overnight. Mid-level civil servants build mansions. Low-level government workers exploit any loophole to steal the crumbs their superiors have left.


We have many cases of Members of County Assemblies who had little at the time of getting into office but have become wealthy. We have clerks in government departments who own apartments and luxury cars, and police officers who are multimillionaires.

To change a deeply entrenched culture requires a radical mental shift. Professor Abiola Irele once wrote that for Africa to change its fortunes, it will require a thoroughgoing revolution of the mind. What Abiola meant was a cultural shift in the way we manage our affairs. Thus, those at the top will have to signal, in no uncertain terms, that it will no longer be business as usual. Those at the bottom will then realise that the system will no longer protect them from penalty for negligent or corrupt behaviour.

A “Bottom-Up” approach in changing a deeply entrenched cultural behaviour will not work. Top government leadership must reward and surround themselves with upright, competent individuals while distancing themselves from unscrupulous fellows, no matter how loyal. This will gradually make unscrupulousness a liability, not an asset.

The sanctions part of the Bill must include vigorous prosecution for negligence and corruption. Our leaders keep making “benchmarking” trips to China and other developed countries. Let them learn, for instance, how China treats negligent and corrupt public servants. I doubt they will apply the Chinese cure here for obvious reasons.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator