The answer I came up with was this: they do it to humiliate. There is something about them that is so hollow, that they can only feel themselves by degrading others. The point of bribes is not to earn money, but to assert power by shrinking the human dignity of others.
The weapons of transfers
But the police suffer the same humiliation at the hands of the same state. Their training entails being humiliated until their humanity or sense of the public good is beaten out of them. Once they begin working, they are humiliated with poor work terms. In August this year, a Nyeri Court castigated the Inspector General for transferring a police officer six times to different police stations in Nakuru, Kiambu Nyandarua, Mombasa and Lamu counties over a period of two years. The distances which the officer had to cover to relocate, sometimes after a period of 3 weeks, are mindboggling. As if that is not cruel enough, the lawyers representing the government insensitively argued that the corporal “ought to be available at any police station in the country.”
Another story, reported earlier in May, told of the inhuman treatment towards Doris Wako, a police officer in Busia County. She reported being transferred to five different stations within one year. When she was posted outside the county, she sought help at the different administrative ranks to plead that she could not move because she was raising a child struggling with cleft hand palate, and even more children whom she had rescued from the street. She was also a widow.
The response she received was nothing short of cruel. One officer looked at Doris’s husband’s death certificate, which she had brought to plead her case, and asked her if they will have to wait for her husband to resurrect for her to move to where she was transferred. The officer told her to take her sick child to work and to throw the children she had rescued back on the street. Her mistake, Doris reflected, was to have received a Head of State Commendation for her efforts in rescuing children from the streets. Upon receiving the award, the deluge of transfers began.
Transfers are not the only weapon of humiliation of police officers. This November, police officers have raised alarm about the slashing of their salaries without notice, with no care about the families and other financial commitments of the officers.
Perhaps the greatest abuse is the stupidity with which government leaders and senior police officers disregard human dignity and common sense. While this mistreatment of police officers occurs behind public consciousness, the same officials expect police officers, who have the mandate to kill, to interact humanely with the public. And when police officers inevitably brutalize members of the public, the senior government officials and police bureaucrats fall on the excuse that the problem is mental health, which is conveniently defined from a narrow bio-medical perspective. The bureaucrats then give the public platitudes of mental health, as if mental health has nothing to do with the inhuman conditions under which officers work.
Bureaucrats can afford to be this insensitive because the colonial system relies on detaching real work and real people from those who make decisions. Civil servants who work in the upper offices, apart from being those who excelled at complying with the state suppression of their souls, are also forced to compartmentalize their minds and avoid connecting their decisions to the impact on real people. Worse, they refuse to acknowledge that the same human being has intellect, soul and body, and behave as if torturing one aspect of a person’s humanity does not affect their overall ability to work.
This logic of detachment and compartmentalization was explicitly justified by Lord Cromer, one of the pioneers of the rationale of British colonial civil service. Lord Cromer said that officers who interacted too long with people of a certain area, especially in the colonies far from London, were bound to make decisions that did not serve imperial interests. Civil servants who had stayed too long in a community, he said, suffered from a “defect” of “magnifying the importance of some local event or consideration, and of unduly neglecting arguments based on considerations of wider Imperial import.”
These cruel transfers of police, teachers and other civil servants are therefore not simply about lack of human decency and common sense. They are a deliberate regime of cruelty and violence to serve the interests of the centralized colonial state. From the teachers, to the police officers, to the boarding schools which separate children from parental love early in life, the logic of the colonial system is to sever the ties of empathy in human beings so as to make Kenyans more pliable to colonial domination. This detachment is the fundamental corruption from which all other corruption springs and permeates Kenyan daily life.
The colonial state has no choice but to be cruel by design. Its role is to extract not just material wealth – it is to extract human dignity so as to turn human beings into the machines that do the work of extracting that wealth. The colonial state therefore restricts access to the affirmation of human dignity, such as through education, identity, love, healthcare, security and spiritual nurture, through a hierarchy where some people “deserve” to have their human dignity respected more than that of others.
In a normal human interaction, our instinct towards those more vulnerable is to help, inform, affirm and empower. For instance, if a child or a younger person makes a mistake, our instinct should be to inform before we correct, or worse, punish. If someone is sick, we give them care to take them somewhere where they can get it.
In the colonial system, however, the instinct is to exploit and humiliate those who are vulnerable. We do not tell ourselves "this is what I need to do to help raise a younger one, or to serve someone." Rather, we think, "this is someone to take advantage of." It scares me, for example, to send young people who need help to an office, because I also have to warn them to go accompanied, and to be aware that the officer might ask for "a favor," or might suggest discussing the issue over lunch.
This logic remains rampant with people who have the power to provide education, spiritual care, healthcare, or any service that touches on human dignity. These people find you at your most vulnerable – in need of education, treatment or services – and they ask you for money or sex. Making money or getting a release may be the immediate goal, but it is not the end goal. The end goal is to humiliate. The goal is to make you feel as small and soulless in order to make themselves feel that at least they are better than you. The same principle applies at the macro level, where people steal billions allocated for healthcare and education without a care for the lives that will suffer as a result of those actions. The rich theives feel that at least they are not miserable like the majority of citizens.
Therefore, we miss the real problem when we think that corruption comes from a lack of morals, especially of the Euro-Christian kind. The person cajoling or demanding favors is suffering from an emptiness and is trying to meet the need for human dignity and authenticity. However, the person’s soul is too sick to understand that human dignity is as beautiful and as fragile as flowers – it is best enjoyed by nurturing, not consuming it. So rather than encourage the human dignity and authenticity of the other, the one in power seeks to consume those very qualities, and in so doing, crushes them.
When, for example, a politician bribes voters, or a lecturer sexually harasses a student, or a teacher beats a child or a police officer humiliates a Kenyan at a traffic stop, the end point is to humiliate. It is to reduce the humanity of the other. It is to make the voter feel like a harlot at the ballot and not demand services during the five years following the elections. It is to make a student feel that she knows nothing and can never have ideas of her own. It is to ensure that the child will never be creative or imaginative enough to defy conformity. It is to make the citizen insecure. The power of the state is only maintained by humiliating people and making their dignity recede to a corner where human beings cannot challenge the state.
The fascinating part of it all, is that the people who suffer this humiliation – as we have seen in the case of the teachers and the police – do not end it but spread it. That behavior, unfortunately, is the logic of the system. Rising in this system depends on how well the system crushes one’s soul. So the higher you rise up the colonial ladder, the emptier you are and the more you need to consume the innocence, authenticity and beauty of others whose vulnerability gives them more dignity than you. So the colonial state turns people into vampires. By demanding bribes, by extorting money or sex, or by looting public coffers, the rich and powerful suck out the soul of others, turning their victims into vampires who in turn look for their own victims.
That instinct of humiliation trickles down the ladder. Pastors, lecturers, police officers, medical workers, tax collectors, and anyone through whom someone gains access to some form of services, perpetuates the system of cruelty and humiliation. At any office door which they knock on, a Kenyan youth or poor person is almost guaranteed to be fed upon by starving predators or drooled upon by cowardly scavengers. In Kenya, people in need of care trigger the instinct to devour.
And after they are devoured, they are blamed for their humiliation. Kenyans will say Miguna Miguna is too rude. The children “these days” are indisciplined. The young women dressed indecently. The young men trying to earn a living were out after curfew. The voters elected their tormentors. There’s always an excuse to blame the victim, and the Kenya mainstream media helps to amplify it.
These power relations and the logic of sadism indicate why we need to see corruption as more than illegal payments or abuse of public resources. Corruption is a social system of cruelty. And it is cruelty to the weak, because the weak have something which the powerful want: humanity. To be weak, to be meek, is to be blessed, to be on the side of morality. The ruling class can get their dignity back if they sell all they have, give their money to the poor and find dignity in love, knowledge and work, but they don't want to. They are too sick to know they are sick. So they follow a path of endless looting, and they never have enough. The wicked pleasure they derive from opulence at the expense of suffering Kenyans then spreads through the system, and any person in a position to help others turns into a predator.
For the same reason, the Euro-Christian moral response to corruption is very abusive. Euro-Christian morality presents bribery as a monetary transaction between equals, when it is anything but. Corruption is a relation of sadism. If you're powerless, you bribe not because you're corrupt. You bribe because you are vulnerable, and because a person in power is taking advantage of your vulnerability to humiliate you.
Love and work as power
To fight corruption, we have to change the colonial conception of power and social status. Instead of seeing power as access to dominance or escape from it, I propose instead adopting Lewis Gordon’s definition of power as the ability to have influence on ourselves and around us, and the social circumstances for doing so. Based on this definition, we can redefine power as the ability to have influence rather than to cause humiliation. That influence can come from two elements: love and work.
Love is an expression of power because we can influence others through love. Love nurtures the soul and emboldens the vulnerable to feel safe and confident to act, since they know that even if they make mistakes, we will still embrace them and do more than correct them. By appreciating the influence of love, we culturally attribute power and social status to those who care for others, rather than those who dominate others. We need to take back the recognition of love from philanthropists and managers who derive status from the cruelty of economic inequality and use grants and prizes to usurp the power to define care. Recall that the word “charity” used to be synonymous with love, and now it refers to organizations which raise money from the rich to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the system that made the rich have wealth to give.
Work is power because through it, we are able to have an impact on the world and on others. Seeing work in this way makes us see the power of cleaners, for example. In the current system, cleaners are often ignored until people have to live in a filthy space. The filthiness irritates and destroys one’s mood and creativity. That means that cleaners do have a great impact on our lives, and yet the economy in which they operate treats them like they are of the least importance. Recognizing cleaners as powerful provides an excellent illustration of how we can redefine power through work. It would also explain why Doris Wako’s troubles began when she was commended for her care for children. She attracted the wrath of her bosses because her work had a positive impact on others.
The minute we recognize that we have something other than money, and that this is something which the people in power want, we can feel less humiliated and name the hollowness that drives this system under which we now suffer. Once the beneficiaries of economic exploitation no longer define what is loving, what is knowledgeable and what is powerful, we will admire them less and we will be less distracted by them. We can significantly reduce their ability to subject us to the humiliating interaction which we call corruption.
But achieving this goal has to be a collective project. It cannot depend on sheer human willpower alone. It requires dismantling our institutions and systems which presume human criminality and deficiency, and replacing them with systems and institutions which presume human dignity, goodness and creativity.