In Kenya, Corruption Is Widely Seen, Rarely Punished
Editor's Note: One out of three Africans paid a bribe in the past year to obtain a government document, get medical care, place kids in school or settle an issue with police, according to a recent survey. Police consistently attracted the highest ratings of corruption, including those in Kenya. NPR's Gregory Warner looks at the impact it has on the country.
Kenyan security forces have long been rated among the most corrupt institutions in the country. But even jaded Kenyans expressed shock when closed-circuit footage seemed to show Kenyan soldiers looting stores of cellphones and cash during a terror attack on an upscale Nairobi mall in September.
Even more horrifying was that this alleged looting was captured on the second day of the four-day siege, while the terrorists were apparently still alive in the building and hunting down more victims.
An Ex-Cop's Story
Since the terrorist attack and its aftermath, I've spoken with many current and former security officers in Kenya about how the forces became so demoralized. Many of these stories are personal, but they add up to a consistent picture: poor pay, corrupt bosses and pervasive nepotism.
James Kusimba tells me a story about the day he hit the glass ceiling. It was June 1996. He'd been in the elite Kenyan special forces — the GSU — for six years. He'd served in the even more elite presidential guard. But he was still making the equivalent of $87 a month as a low-ranking officer. So he applied for a course to become a sergeant and earn more money.
Although he was refused admission into the course, he was considered smart enough to be chosen to teach the same course the following term. That is, he was asked to instruct the very material he was deemed unfit to learn. The same thing happened the following year, and the next and the next. It was then he realized that he was stagnating.
"It was very difficult for people coming from some regions to get a breakthrough and get promoted to senior ranks," Kusimba says.
Not only was he the wrong tribe, but he also lacked the necessary connections to get promoted.
"I didn't have a godfather to push my case," he says.
Kusimba turned in his badge in 2004. He's now a security officer for DHL, the shipping company, where his salary is three times that of a police sergeant, the rank he never attained.
You'd think he'd be happier about that huge pay raise. But the pride he feels in providing for his family is tinged with resignation. He feels like he missed his true calling as a cop.
Feeling Like A 'Drunkard's Rooster'
For years there has been talk about the culture of corruption in many African countries that often allows bad behavior to go unpunished. But talking to Kusimba and other former police, you hear the flip side of that story: When good behavior goes unrewarded, many ambitious would-be civil servants are driven to quit in frustration.
"Poor pay, nepotism, promotions do not come on merit — all that kind of rot makes people get frustrated and leave the force," says George Musamali, another former policeman who now runs his own security company.
There's a local expression for this sense of frustration and uncertainty: Police say they feel like they are the "drunkard's cockerel" (a "drunkard's rooster," Americans would say).
Because though the rooster or cockerel is the most valuable chicken in the coop, when the drunkard who controls those chickens comes home sloshed and starving, anyone's neck could end up on the block — even the rooster's.
"People in the service are feeling like a drunkard's cockerel — quite unsure of themselves," Musamali says. "They don't know what will happen tomorrow: Will I be in service or will I be kicked out? And it is not because I am incompetent. [It's] because somebody somewhere for political reasons feels uncomfortable working with me."
When you can't plan for tomorrow, he says, you grab whatever you can today. This shortsightedness, he says, has been corroding Kenya's security forces for years. It was exposed to the world when footage from Westgate Mall showed uniformed Kenyan soldiers apparently looting stores.
Kenya's top officials have now vowed to root out corruption. They've even promised a pay raise. But current and former security officials say real reform means putting aside entrenched tribal politics and reversing a longstanding brain drain.
That will take more than just punishing a few cops for instances of bad behavior. It also means rewarding individuals when there's work well done.
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The terrorist attack this September at Nairobi's Westgate Mall was shocking - first, for the violence carried out by Islamist gunmen against innocent shoppers; and then for the video evidence, released a month later, that showed security forces looting the mall when they were meant to be liberating it.
And this is a window into a broader problem in Kenya. NPR's Gregory Warner reports that police corruption is a major challenge in the country not only because of who's in the police force, but who isn't.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: James Kusimba remembers the exact day he hit the glass ceiling. It was June of 1996. He'd been in the elite Kenyan Special Forces for six years. He'd served in the even more elite Kenyan Presidential Guard. But he was still making the equivalent of $87 a month. So he applied for a course to become a sergeant and earn more money.
JAMES KUSIMBA: I answered all the questions that were put to me, and I answered all of them correctly. But I was not successful for a promotion.
WARNER: James did not score high enough to take the sergeant's course, but he was tapped to teach that course the following term - to teach the very material he supposedly wasn't ready to learn. The same thing happened the following year, and the next year and the next.
KUSIMBA: I still was called upon to train the people who had qualified. But, of course, I was not qualified to attend. So over time, I got disillusioned and decided to look around again. That's how I left the police force. Yeah.
WARNER: James turned in his badge in 2004. He's now a security officer for DHL, the shipping company. His salary now is more than three times that of a Kenyan police sergeant, the rank he never attained. And you'd think he'd be happier about that, but he still feels like he missed his calling as a cop.
KUSIMBA: It was very difficult for people coming from some regions to get a breakthrough - and get promoted to senior ranks.
WARNER: His was the wrong region, the wrong tribe, the wrong last name. And while you hear a lot of talk in Africa about a culture of impunity - this allows bad behavior to go unpunished - talking to James and other former cops, I heard the flip side of that story: Good behavior goes unrewarded. And this drives many ambitious, would-be civil servants to quit.
GEORGE MUSAMALI: Because that frustration.
WARNER: George Musamali is another ex-cop. He now runs his own security company.
MUSAMALI: Poor pay, nepotism, promotions that do not come on merit. You see, all that kind of rot makes people get frustrated, and they leave the force.
WARNER: There's a local expression for this sense of frustration and uncertainty.
MUSAMALI: They say here, we feel like we are a drunkard's cockerel.
WARNER: A drunkard's rooster, we would say, because remember, the rooster - or the cockerel - it's the most valuable chicken in the coop. But when the drunkard, who controls these chickens' fates, comes home sloshed and starving, anyone's neck could go on the block, even the rooster's.
MUSAMALI: So people in the service are feeling like a drunkard's cockerel, quite unsure of themselves. They don't know what will happen tomorrow. Will I be in service, or will I have been kicked out? And not because I'm incompetent; because somebody, somewhere, for political reasons, feels uncomfortable working with me.
WARNER: When you can't plan for tomorrow, he says, you grab whatever you can today. This shortsightedness, he says, has been corroding Kenya's security forces for years. It was exposed to the world when footage from the Westgate Mall seemed to show Kenyan soldiers looting cellphones and cash from the very stores they were supposed to be protecting. Kenya's top officials have now vowed to root out corruption. They've even promised a pay raise. But current and former security officials I've spoken to say that real reform means putting aside entrenched tribal politics, and reversing a longstanding brain drain. That'll take more than just punishing a few cops for instances of bad behavior. It means starting to reward individuals when there's work well done.
Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.