Why you should care

Because even the smallest of bribes can stifle an economy when they’re magnified millions of times over.

When a police officer gets caught soliciting a bribe, most people would tend to blame the cop. In Kenya, the government is trying a new approach: clamping down on the people who pay the cop.

And they’re going about it in a strange way, ordering that Nairobi’s public matatus — the beat-up, privately owned vans that ferry most of the city’s commuters — go high-tech. Passengers are being asked to use popular mobile banking applications like m-pesa to pay the fares. No more cash-carrying passengers, no more bribes, the thinking goes.

It’s a hard problem to solve: Traffic bribes account for the majority of self-reported soliciting on the Kenyan website I Paid a Bribe. And precedent would indicate it’s unlikely to work. Certain bus routes outside Nairobi are already cash-free (passengers buy tickets at the station in advance), and yet that hasn’t stopped drivers of those vehicles from bribing the police. When Kenya raised its fines for traffic violations, The Associated Press reported that traffic police increased the size of the bribes they solicit to match.

In 2010, Kenya’s Parliament said that as much as one-third of the country’s national budget is being lost to corruption.

Many in Kenya say government officials aren’t naïve in their hope to stem corruption this way — they’re just plain lazy. High-tech solutions like digital fare cards or mobile phone payment apps abound. But Kenya may be no exception to the rule that ending bribery must begin and end with old-fashioned justice for the people who solicit the bribes.

In a country plagued by endemic corruption from the highest levels of government to the lowest, the stakes are high. Transparency International ranks Kenya among the world’s 50 most corrupt nations. In 2010, Kenya’s Parliament said that as much as one-third of the country’s national budget is being lost to corruption.

Public transportation may not account for the largest and most disturbing of bribes here — that, explains author Michela Wrong, is reserved for Kenya’s higher-ups and elite. But highway bribery is undoubtedly the most visible manifestation of corruption in daily Nairobi life.

Accounting for 21 percent of all traffic in Nairobi, the matatus operate as an economy onto themselves. Conductors routinely leave a 50 or 100 shilling note hidden under the handle of the trunk — cops know just where to reach for it as they “inspect” the vehicle. The money never even exchanges hands.

A Kenyan policeman board a minibus (Matatu) after the vehicle was stopped for a traffic offense in the capital Nairobi.

Police officers stop a matatu for a traffic offense in Nairobi.

Source Antony Njuguna//Corbis

While aggressively navigating the potholes of a tough Kenyan road, one matatu driver explained to me just how he calculates his income and outflows to the penny: If he earns 70,000 shillings in a month ($800 US), the next month he spends 10,000 of that ($115) on large-sum bribes to every cop along his route — a tactic he estimates saves him money over the long haul because the officers remember him and won’t pester him daily. Matatu drivers and conductors must pay off not only traffic cops stationed along their route, but also Mungiki— criminal mafialike gangs.

The matatu originated in 1953 when a man from Narok used his private car to illegally ferry African passengers into British colonial Nairobi. Back then, the ride cost 3 cents (the number three in Swahili is tatu, thus the name matatu originated from the price of the fare). In the decades since, more has changed than price: Some matatus now come equipped with Wi-Fi — an invention younger than many of the well-worn vehicles themselves.

Originally mandated for all matatus beginning July, the precarious cashless directive has since been postponed until December. Not everyone who uses mobile phone banking apps keeps their accounts charged, and few have adopted Google’s new fare cards. Some riders point out that it’s far more cumbersome — for them and the driver — to pay by phone or even card than to simply hand over 30 shillings — less than 50 cents. Matatu conductors are unlikely to turn down a customer offering cash. If anything, cashless payments could spell delays and other hassles — and as a consequence, fewer profits — for the matatu operators themselves.

Corruption on the streets, back roads and highways of the developing world has always been a tough problem to crack.

In a 20-year ethnography published last year, author Mbugua Mungai came to the unsettling conclusion that Kenya’s government lacks the funding or know-how to enforce the rules of the road.

“Law enforcers are aware that their battles with the crews are at best futile, and they lack the will to rigorously enforce even clear-cut regulations like the one that requires passengers wear seatbelts,” Mungai writes. To make matters worse, writes Mungai, “Police officers are often also matatu owners, with the resulting conflict of interest seriously undermining law enforcement; the police choose to enforce only those aspects of traffic regulations that enable corruption.”

The thousands of mostly male drivers, fare-collecting conductors and passenger scouts who run Nairobi’s matatus are notorious for being a stubborn breed. They ignore all manner of traffic laws, swerving in front of other vehicles, running lights and driving recklessly. They’re also a powerful organizing force: In 2004, matatu strikes over new regulations (including allowing female drivers) shut down the city for days. “Government regulation was turned round by the trickster matatu men and presented as official persecution of an already marginalized social category,” writes author Mbugua Mungai.

When it comes to staring down a government, Nairobi’s nefarious public transport underlings seem without parallel. In India, widespread protests organized by the popular Bharatiya Janata Party have so far failed to reverse a government ban on electric rickshaws in New Delhi. In Santo Domingo, public chonchos or publicos operate in a similar way. But the drivers unions there aren’t strong enough to persuade police to kick piratas — illegally operated ‘pirate’ vehicles — off the streets at night. Across the island in Port-au-Prince, passengers will occasionally disembark a tap-tap en masse when a driver refuses to move because he didn’t deem it full enough.

The challenge is to take the ideas … and find ways of inserting them effectively into corrupt and hostile, or merely indifferent and apathetic [environments].

 

Such defiance of the matatu men here in Nairobi would be difficult to fathom. The effects of street corruption here have major implications for foreign businesses and agencies considering business pursuits in Kenya. “Foreign investors should be aware that transportation costs may rise as a consequence of arbitrary demands for bribes at road blocks and other transit checkpoints,” warned the EU-associated Business Anti-Corruption Portal.

One prominent investment risk consultant, Daniel Wagner, predicted that unless the country’s leaders change their tune and decide to tackle corruption with the resources and prowess that requires, “Kenya will continue to muddle along as it has for decades, failing to address the corruption issue in any meaningful way, and squandering the opportunity to become a genuine regional economic powerhouse.”

In 2004, Paul Sturges wrote for the International Journal of Information Ethics that the Information and Communication Technology Authority do have potential to help stem corruption. “The challenge is to take the ideas … and find ways of inserting them effectively into corrupt and hostile, or merely indifferent and apathetic [environments].”

Little has changed in the decade since.

There are no magic bullets, warned the Anti-Corruption Resource Centre in 2013. “The prerequisite for the success of ICT [information and communications technology] solutions is an enabling political environment.” Read: Technology solutions to bribery are unlikely to work unless the government that uses them is already willing to get its hands dirty.

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