49. The labour pains of change

Kap Kirwok

31st August 2013

The torments that have visited Gladys Boss Shollei, the suspended Chief Registrar of the Judiciary, highlight bigger labour pains that the Jubilee Government, as the chief midwife of a new order, will increasingly witness. The two big issues struggling to be born are change and courage. The two must be delivered in the maternity ward that is the text and spirit of the Constitution.

First, consider change. How does this government – any government – change the culture of corruption, a culture that is at least 50 years deep? How do you change the culture of wearing impunity as a badge of honour? How do you inculcate a sense of civic and national duty in a culture steeped in greed?

In government, it is an open secret that billions are routinely wasted (the correct word is stolen) because ‘mali ya umma’ is seen as no one’s property. In a past testimony to a parliamentary committee, Joseph Kinyua, the former Treasury PS admitted – without the slightest hint of irony- that at least 30% of the government’s budget is wasted. In the current budget, the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya put the figure at 45% or Kshs 480 billion. The actual figure is probably much higher. Besides rigged or unnecessary procurement, inflated invoices, misplaced priorities, ghost workers, and outright theft, there is something more widespread and routinely accepted. It is the daily allowance (per diem) paid to civil servants whenever they are on ‘duty’ outside their stations. In government most work is transacted through meetings, workshops, seminars, and such. Nothing wrong with this. The trouble is that it is such an easy source of supplementary income that the temptation to ‘manufacture’ out-of-station events is great. Events are arranged and sometimes cancelled yet per diem is still paid out anyway. To hide this fact, those who were not listed to travel are also paid. I have no evidence this happens but it is what I have heard. Perhaps it is not as widespread as I am made to believe. Perhaps informers exaggerate, but will those who believe this theft does not happen please raise their hands? I see none.

If such a culture has been going on for 50 years, how do you change it? Is it even possible? Of course it is, and this brings us to courage.

Courage – as we know – is not the absence of fear. “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes” said Maggie Kuhn, a social activist. Winston Churchill added a wisdom angle with this: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” These two quotes capture the essence of what is needed to change deeply ingrained cultures.

As a country, we have signalled our desire for transformational change – for example through the Vision 2030 development blue-print and a new constitution. Recently, the Jubilee Government signalled its intention for radical change in public service by appointing technocrats into key positions in government.

The success or failure of these technocrats will be the result of the interplay of courage and fear. How do you, for example, dismantle corrupt cartels that have dominated the supply of certain items and services to government?
They would have to overcome personal fear. In Kenya’s current reality of unsolved murders, abductions, intimidations and impunity, personal security for senior public officials is not a matter to be taken lightly. Serving ‘without fear or favour’ in public service requires courage.

Besides personal security fears, there is the danger of being fired and your name – along with your reputation – dragged through the mud. In the last 5 months, many heads of government institutions have been fired. Some of these may be justified and part of much needed shake-up. But some appear clearly unwise and unfair. Where is the wisdom in having such a high turnover of CEOs as we have seen with, for example, Kenya Bureau of Standards (three in as many years) and National Social Security Fund (eight in ten years)? And where is the fairness in being fired through the press without being given a chance to state your part of the story? Many have gone down quietly, with bitterness in their hearts. Some, like Mrs Shollei’s have chosen to go down fighting. She must be a firm believer in General Emiliano Zapata’s dictum: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

And yet it is possible to courageously drive needed change. Indeed, change is already happening in many places in small baby steps. But we are talking about here is change on a mass scale. We know this is possible because we have seen it happen before. An overused but still best example is the ‘miracle’ that the late John Michuki performed in the unruly Matatu industry.

Persistence, skill, passion are important in driving change but courage is the key.

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