May 24, 2024


This ancient tale of the monkey’s stubborn grasp serves as a powerful metaphor for the pervasive grip of corruption on Kenyan society and governance.

More by Waweru Njoroge

Letting Go of the Banana: Kenya’s Struggle to Escape Corruption’s Trap

Letting Go of the Banana: Kenya’s Struggle to Escape Corruption’s Trap

The Monkey Trap Metaphor

In the dense jungles of Africa, hunters have devised a cunning yet brutal method to ensnare elusive monkeys that would otherwise easily evade capture. A hollow cylinder, crafted from wood or woven material, is securely fastened to a tree trunk. Within this contraption lies a tempting lure—a ripe banana or another enticing bait.

Attracted by the sight and scent of the fruit, a hungry monkey approaches cautiously. With nimble fingers, it reaches inside the cylinder and grasps the prize tightly. But as the monkey attempts to retract its clenched fist, still clutching the banana, it finds itself trapped. The opening, designed to allow entry but not exit, prevents the monkey from freeing itself. Despite frantic struggles and desperate tugs, the greedy primate refuses to relinquish its hold on the coveted reward.

This ancient tale of the monkey’s stubborn grasp serves as a powerful metaphor for the pervasive grip of corruption on Kenyan society and governance. Much like the trapped primate, individuals involved in corrupt practices—both those offering bribes and those accepting illicit payments—cling tenaciously to their perceived gains. They are unwilling to let go, even as the web of corruption tightens its hold on the nation, ensnaring all who are entangled within its grasp.

Graft’s Crippling Economic Toll

In the relentless struggle against corruption, Kenya finds itself entangled in a web of illicit practices that permeate both public and private spheres. A notable example is the 2015 National Youth Service (NYS) scandal, where approximately Ksh 791 million ($7.9 million) was siphoned off through fictitious invoices and fraudulent schemes. This scandal exposed significant vulnerabilities within public institutions and led to the indictment of several top officials, including the then Director-General of the NYS, Richard Ndubai, and the Principal Secretary for Public Service, Youth, and Gender Affairs, Lillian Omollo. (Daily Nation, 2018). The incident highlighted deep-rooted systemic issues, as those entrusted with managing public funds exploited their positions for personal gain, underscoring the pervasive nature of corruption in the country

Another significant case of public sector corruption was exposed in the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA) during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, it was revealed that KEMSA officials had misappropriated funds meant for the procurement of essential medical supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE). An audit by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) estimated that around KSh 7.8 billion ($78 million) had been lost to inflated prices and non-delivery of goods. The scandal not only diverted critical resources during a public health crisis but also eroded public trust in governmental institutions’ ability to manage emergencies transparently and effectively (EACC, 2020).

Private sector corruption is equally rampant in Kenya, with corporate entities often engaging in unethical practices to secure advantages. The 2015 scandal involving the British American Tobacco (BAT) company revealed how the firm bribed officials and politicians to undermine its competitors and influence regulatory policies. Internal documents exposed payments to Kenyan tax officials and legislators, aiming to disrupt operations of rival firms and sway legislative decisions. This case illuminated the pervasive nature of corporate corruption and its detrimental impact on fair business practices (BBC, 2015).

Similarly, the 2016 scandals involving Imperial Bank and Chase Bank further illustrate the extent of corruption within Kenya’s private sector. The collapse of Imperial Bank occurred after its executives orchestrated a scheme to siphon off KSh 34 billion ($340 million) through fraudulent loans and fake accounts, leaving thousands of depositors in financial distress. Likewise, troubled lender Chase Bank irregularly advanced KSh 16.6 billion ($166 million) to various entities, many associated with insiders, endangering billions of shillings belonging to depositors. Notably, one director at Chase Bank lent himself KSh 7.9 billion ($79 million) mostly without collateral or regulatory approval, underscoring the extent of insider corruption. These cases stress how private corruption can have wide-reaching consequences, eroding financial stability and investor confidence, while also highlighting deficiencies in regulatory oversight within Kenya’s banking sector.

Corruption in Kenya extends beyond high-profile cases and permeates everyday life, affecting ordinary citizens who often have to pay bribes for basic services. A report by the African Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) revealed that petty corruption is rampant, with Kenyans paying bribes for services such as police assistance, medical care, and educational opportunities. This widespread graft not only strains household budgets but also perpetuates inequality and undermines the rule of law. The normalization of bribery in daily transactions reflects the deep-rooted challenges in curbing corruption at all levels of society.

As highlighted in a previous article, “Kenya’s placement on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) serves as a stark reminder of the enormity of the challenge at hand. According to the most recent CPI report, Kenya received a score of 28 out of 100, positioning it at 137th out of 180 countries surveyed. This dismal ranking emphasizes the imperative to tackle corruption head-on and bolster anti-corruption initiatives in Kenya.”

Losing the Corruption Struggle

Poor performance on such international anti-corruption metrics severely hampers investment and economic development. The World Bank has estimated that improving on just one of six key governance indicators like control of corruption by one standard deviation can translate into a 3-percentage point increase in annual per capita income growth. Put another way, an improvement of just one point on a 0-10 scale of control of corruption translates to a 5.5% increase in investment inflows and a 0.5 percentage point rise in annual GDP growth for developing nations like Kenya.

Fighting this endemic graft has proved extremely difficult, with corrupt interests often deeply entrenched within key public institutions. Independent oversight bodies like the EACC and Kenya’s Office of the Auditor General have long been accused of being compromised and ineffective, lacking sufficient prosecutorial powers, funding and staffing to combat high-level corruption.

Despite efforts to strengthen anti-corruption measures, including the establishment of specialized anti-corruption courts and the passage of legislation aimed at enhancing transparency and accountability, progress has been slow and uneven. The lack of political will to prosecute high-ranking officials implicated in corruption scandals further undermines public trust in the government’s commitment to rooting out graft. Additionally, the revolving door of corruption scandals and subsequent inquiries creates a sense of impunity among perpetrators, further perpetuating the cycle of corruption in Kenya.

The Mirror of Greed

A mirror’s reflection provides a poignant analogy for the psychology driving both parties to a corrupt transaction. Much as the trapped monkey fixates solely on the banana directly in front of it, the government functionary and the bribe-payer can envision only their own self-interest and personal reward in the moment.
The underpaid public servant – whether a police officer, government clerk or procurement regulator – demands a modest “kitu kidogo” (something small) from citizens in exchange for actually carrying out duties they are paid to perform impartially. The businessperson offers illicit inducements to cut through red tape, gain lucrative public contracts, bypass regulations or evade tax obligations.

This “greasing the palms” mentality has become so entrenched and widely tolerated across Kenyan society that its corrosive consequences are rendered opaque to both parties. Just as the monkey remains oblivious to the trap closing around it, perpetrators and enablers of graft become willfully blind to their actions’ broader costs – weakened rule of law, stagnant economic growth, depleted public funds for investment in infrastructure and services, deepening inequality and eroding public trust.

Entrapped by narrow self-interest and greed, both sides cling ever tighter to their perceived windfalls the more deeply enmeshed they become in the corrupt system, unable to see what lies on the other side of releasing their grasp.

A “Necessary Evil”?

For Kenya to move forward and unshackle itself from graft’s stranglehold, a fundamental moral and cultural shift may be needed – one where both citizens and officials develop the fortitude to relinquish their grip on corruption’s tainted rewards, reject illicit exchanges, and embrace transparency, accountability, and ethical conduct as the only path to sustainable prosperity.

But achieving such a seismic attitudinal change will not be easy. To many ordinary Kenyans, modest flattery and inducement of underpaid civil servants to actually do their jobs has become an almost necessary evil for greasing an excruciatingly sluggish bureaucracy and accessing entitled services like healthcare, education, and routine permits.

Does the normalization of at least petty corruption as a means of circumventing institutional dysfunction make some level of graft an unavoidable cost of operating in developing economies like Kenya’s? Some economic research suggests there may indeed be a limited defensibility to tolerating modest “speed money” bribes if they allow firms to cut through stifling red tape and regulatory bottlenecks that could otherwise paralyze investment and business activity.

Economic Impact: Productivity vs. Stifling Growth

At its inception, low-level administrative corruption may seem like a shortcut to streamline processes and enhance productivity for businesses operating in environments with cumbersome regulations. However, this perceived advantage often masks the broader repercussions of corruption. While small-scale bribery might expedite certain transactions in the short term, it erodes trust in institutions, distorts market mechanisms, and fosters a culture of impunity. Moreover, research indicates that the economic benefits of such “greasing the wheels” are fleeting and overshadowed by the indirect costs incurred over time. For instance, a separate study by J.W. Finkelstein found that a 1% increase in bribery rates among manufacturing firms in Kenya was associated with a 4.2% reduction in their employment growth compared to non-bribe-paying companies (Finkelstein, 2012).

As corruption metastasizes into grand schemes involving top political and bureaucratic echelons, its detrimental effects on economic growth become even more pronounced. Rather than fostering innovation and investment in high-value industries, widespread corruption skews business activity towards low-productivity services that can circumvent the rule of law. Companies, wary of navigating complex regulatory environments rife with corruption, opt for ventures that offer quicker returns with minimal legal scrutiny. This perpetuates a vicious cycle wherein the economy stagnates, innovation stagnates, and human capital remains underutilized, leading to entrenched inequality and stifled growth.

Corruption’s Societal Impact

Extensive research calls attention to the profound threat posed by large-scale, institutionalized corruption to both economic mobility and human development within a nation. In a notable study led by Charles Ackah from the University of Ghana and Oliver Morrissey from the University of Nottingham, the economic ramifications of corruption were starkly illuminated. Their research found that a reduction in corruption, equivalent to shifting Kenya’s ranking from the 25th to the 50th percentile on the World Bank’s Control of Corruption index, would result in a notable increase of over 0.5 percentage points in annual per capita income growth. It’s worth noting that lower percentiles on the ‘control of corruption’ scale signify higher levels of corruption. According to data from the World Bank’s collection of development indicators, Kenya’s Control of Corruption percentile rank stood at 24.06% in 2022.

Moreover, analyses conducted by Vito Tanzi and Hamid Davoodi, published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as research by Paolo Mauro in the Journal of Economic Growth, have linked higher systemic corruption levels to diminished government expenditures on crucial human capital investments like education and healthcare. These analyses highlight how corruption exacerbates inequality and thwarts skills development, casting serious doubt on the notion that tolerating endemic graft can grease a developing economy’s transition towards sustainable and inclusive growth.

Breaking The Cycle

Efforts to combat corruption in Kenya have faced numerous challenges, including institutional weaknesses, limited resources, and a culture of impunity. Despite the establishment of anti-corruption bodies such as the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), progress has been slow and uneven. Critics argue that political interference, insufficient enforcement mechanisms, and a lack of political will have hampered anti-corruption efforts, allowing corrupt practices to persist with reckless abandon (Mutura, 2020).

However, there have been some positive developments in the fight against corruption, albeit incremental. In recent years, Kenya has seen increased public awareness and activism against graft, with civil society organizations and the media playing a crucial role in exposing corruption scandals and holding perpetrators to account. Additionally, the government has taken steps to strengthen anti-corruption laws and institutions, including the enactment of the Bribery Act in 2016 and the establishment of specialized anti-corruption courts. While these measures represent important strides, much more remains to be done to root out corruption and foster a culture of transparency and accountability in Kenya’s public and private sectors (The Star, 2022).

For Kenya to ultimately escape corruption’s trap, fortitude and moral leadership from all levels of society may be required. Just as the trapped monkey must be willing to let go of its fixation on short-term rewards to win its freedom, so too must all Kenyans relinquish their grasp on graft’s illicit windfalls – no matter how enticing they appear in the moment or how deeply the banana’s grip has ensnared the nation.

Only once this vicious cycle of greed is broken can Kenya move forward and pursue a future where true respect for the rule of law, robust institutions and equitable economic opportunity can firmly take root. While the path towards discarding generations of normalization around corruption will be arduous, it represents the only way out of the trap.


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