07. Integrity vs Impunity: It Is a Non-contest

By Kap Kirwok

November 3rd 2012

“Stiffer penalties for exam cheats: 10 years in jail or two million shillings upon conviction” read one of the headlines. This was in reference to the recently enacted Kenya National Examinations Council Act, 2012.

Good. But why did this leave me with feeling mildly vexed, even annoyed?

For the record, I do not condone exam cheating. And, true, I know this is about that magical word integrity and all its substitutes. But the more I think about that heading, the more other words – less magical but equally powerful – starting with ‘I’ come to mind. The words are: incommensurate, inconsiderate, and inequitable. I wonder why. After talking to a friend who is a professor at one of the public universities, I partly now understand why.

Cheating in academia is hardly confined to primary and secondary school level. If anything, as it turns out, it is much more serious at tertiary level. Here, it takes many forms: from blatant bribery – with cash or other favours – to pervasive plagiarism.

This raises the obvious question. If a student pays to obtain undeserved grades, or to clear an academic huddle, is this not cheating? If you plagiarise (notice the fancy term) or copy someone’s work and pass it dishonestly as your own, how is this different from stealing or cheating? Should these not attract the same or stiffer penalties as exam cheating in primary and secondary schools?

And it does not stop there. Professors trawl the internet for ready-made lecture notes or presentations (PowerPoint documents are the all-time favourites) and use them without acknowledging their source. Is this not a form of cheating? How about those who hop from campus to campus dropping off lecture handouts, without actually lecturing – all in the pursuit of more and more money – does this not make students feel cheated?

The truth is, if we fling the net of integrity into the deep, expansive sea of dishonesty, the haul will be very rich in deed. It is a big problem, a very big problem.

True, people from every race and place will cheat if given half a chance. And so it is a matter of scale; which is why we must worry because ours seems to be growing in intensity and scope.

But why is this so? A quest for instant gratification and a love affair with short-cuts is why. Rectitude and honour being on extended leave of absence is why. Poor leadership (sorry, I repeat myself) is why.

It is quite clear that values have shifted. I-can-get-away-with-anything attitude is the new normal. This is what happens when two whole generations are bred on a steady diet of impunity.

Part of the euphoria that attended the promulgation of the new constitution in 2010 was the promise of Chapter 6 on Leadership and Integrity. In it, we saw opportunities to begin to turn the page on years of corrupt leadership and societal rot. The intention, the Constitution says, is ‘to promote ethics, integrity and servant leadership among state officers.’

Very good.

But sadly, even before the celebratory cheers died down, our leaders – and I am afraid we are all complicit through indifference or inaction – begun mutilating this chapter in earnest. Among the provisions of the Leadership and Integrity chapter that have been watered down by parliament include: declaration of income, assets, and liabilities for individuals seeking to become State officers; protection of the independence of the Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission (EACC); safeguarding whistleblowers; and disciplinary measures for the State officers who breach the provisions of Chapter.

All year long, we have taxed our resolve on the issue of whether or not the ICC accused have the right to run for public office. Judging by the support the two ICC-bound presidential candidates enjoy (at least in opinion polls), it is clear our resolve is rapidly weakening. It is now left to the Constitutional Implementation Commission – who has taken the Attorney General and parliament to court – to fight for leadership honour and integrity.

It is going to be a long, lonely battle. Stiffer penalties for exam cheats represent a tiny scratch of the surface. A serious dent will only be made if the problem is tackled top down and bottom up using a wide range of policy and social tools.

A bottom up approach might involve an educational curriculum with a bias on integrity that targets pupils, students and teachers. A top down approach must start from the very top – namely the presidency. The role of strong ethical leadership cannot be underestimated. But it starts with electing a leader of unquestionable integrity.

Is this possible? I doubt it. It seems we are condemned to a course of piecemeal and incremental progress on integrity – a course sometimes marked by spectacular reversals.

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