(Header cartoon: “President Uhuru’s and Meat, the People Tour” by Godfrey Mwampembwa. Credit: http://gadocartoons.com/president-uhurus-meat-people-tour/).
“The elected leaders would have tried to come up with an irrigation project but they had just ‘eaten’ money…”
– Citizen from Tharaka Nithi County, Kenya
Tharaka Nithi, a semi-arid county in Eastern Kenya, is one of the three counties expected to benefit from the High Grand Falls Dam, the largest proposed dam in Kenya. Initially launched in 2013, the 150 billion shilling water project (~1.4 billion USD) promises to help control flooding, generate electricity, and hold 5.6 billion cubic metres of water to irrigate more than 200,000 hectares of land. Irrigation is an important issue due to escalating fears over food insecurity, as farmers are increasingly unable to rely on steady rainfall and rising food prices. Despite these concerns, the government suspended construction in 2013 due to claims of inflated project costs and graft or corruption. Construction of the dam is supposed to commence this year, but may be delayed once again due to fears of looting and corruption.
If public funds are not going towards building these dams or irrigation systems, then where is the money going? The Tharaka Nithi resident speculated that the money is filling the pockets of local politicians, like the former teacher turned Deputy Governor Eluid Mati, who attracted attention among residents from the county after “carrying home a large amount of cash.” Members from the public and local leaders questioned Mati’s “overnight affluence” and made multiple tip-offs of potential graft to anti-corruption officers.
How do these publicized acts of corruption shape Kenyans’ view of politicians? To better understand Kenyans’ political behavior, MIT GOV/LAB, in partnership with Twaweza a local organizing specializing in education and governance, trained Kenyan researchers to interview Kenyans about their opinions and interactions with government authorities, political parties, and candidates. Conducted in the lead up to the 2017 General elections in August, these interviews are important in understanding Kenya’s low voter turnout and issues of trust in political leadership. Through an analysis of more than 180 interviews, remarks show instances of corruption in which politicians ‘eat money,’ or abuse their position of power and misappropriate public funds to satisfy private aims. This article explores the visceral descriptions of politicians ‘eating money’ to try and shed light on how citizens perceive different acts of corruption, which are tolerable in some instances, but unacceptable and threatening in others.
Why do politicians ‘eat money’?
The interviews describe politicians who ‘eat money’ as abusing their positions of power by using public funds in order to satisfy their personal interests. According to one Kenyan researcher, eating is a process of accumulation, whereby the politician acts on the opportunity to exploit his or her private access to public resources in order to survive and secure favorable prospects for the future. Symbolically speaking, politicians may ‘eat money’ to fulfill financial or career interests, facilitating favorable business transactions or advancing their prospects of reelection through vote bribery. Politicians who are ‘eating money’ do so for personal gain by “fighting for their stomach” rather than “fighting for the common citizen’s plea.” Instead of going towards community development projects that would benefit the public at large, state resources are instead fueling politicians’ individual greed. Politicians who ‘eat money’ prioritize self-preservation, denying shared access to consumption of state goods, thus leaving voters hungry.
A practical example of ‘eating money’ is bribery. One respondent in Nairobi County, who specialized in security surveillance, described that when conducting business with the Ministry of Health, the official offered money in return for omitting an item in the local purchase order. An internal auditor later identified this omitted item, prompting an audit query that the businessman believes resulted in his lack of compensation. In recounting this story, he explained that, “corruption is bad but it’s one example of a pain that one cannot do without,” suggesting that ‘eating money’ is part of doing business and not always viewed in a negative light.
Not all ‘eating’ is bad
Not all the people interviewed minded if politicians ‘eat’ public funds. One citizen from Nairobi explained, “although eating is bad you would rather eat a little and work.” The citizen elaborated that a “thief is better than fire” because a thief may only steal some things, while a fire may destroy everything. Another respondent from Murang’a County expressed similar sentiments, suggesting that some corruption is tolerable if county officials “eat the money but also build roads and other projects…But now they eat too much.” Mwongela Kamencu, one of the Kenyan interviewers, commented that politicians can often get away with eating as long as the cost of living for citizens is low. If there is a concurrent increase in alleged political corruption and cost of living, then corruption seems to become a point of contention. Public suspicion arises when politicians overindulge with no public projects or assistance programs to show for their actions.
A shopkeeper from the town of Nyeri also sees corruption in the form of bribery as “normal and accepted by the population.” Vote bribery is acceptable because the “giver of the bribes” is seen as someone “who is generous with his/her wealth” and may “help people if given a chance to be a leader.” The generous giver is starkly contrasted with the “non-giver,” who voters may perceive as “mean and just big talk and no action,” as the shopkeeper explained in Kiswahili, “Mokono mtupu haulambwi” (you can’t lick an empty hand). In the case of elections, ‘eating money’ through bribery appears not only normal, but actively expected if politicians seek a competitive edge.
‘Eating money’ while campaigning
‘Eating money’ seems to be especially nourishing for politicians during campaign season. An individual in Nakuru County elaborated that, “all the politicians care about…[is] how they can accumulate money for their campaigns,” suggesting that money plays a decisive factor in who wins. Money enables candidates’ visibility and “makes a candidate popular as he [or she] is able to hire cars and campaign agents.” Well-funded candidates have a more visible platform on which to make grand promises for development including new roads, schools, electricity, or clean water.
The issue lies in the credibility of these promises. When asked why most Kenyans do not vote, one respondent said that most politicians make false promises only to manipulate individuals and secure their votes. For example, one Member of Parliament (MP) from Siaya County promised tarmac roads, a promise which to this day remains unkept. The respondent who noted this incident suspected that either the MP stole the money or that the money went to “some other purpose that he does not know because the road was not tarmacked.” People more often than not find that after elections, formerly enthusiastic politicians fail to deliver on their campaign promises or often times even disappear from public sight.
When politicians ‘eat money’ at the expense of development projects, like proper roads or irrigation, corruption threatens the entire political body encompassing citizens and politicians. In the long run, voters’ expectations of their politicians dampen over time, which in turn enables the government to continue to be unaccountable. It’s not simply that politicians are eating money, but rather that the corruption is “eating up our country” and “taking our country back and not forward,” as one person framed the issue. As seen in the interviews, citizens lose faith in politicians and much needed development projects remain stalled, all while politicians ‘eat money’ but conveniently promise community-wide change right before elections.
Scholarly explanations of ‘eating money’
What explains this visceral link between corruption and consumption? One theory points to inequitable resource distribution and the resulting consequences of rent seeking and patronage. Newly elected politicians or groups might see it as their turn to eat the resources typically guarded by those in power. Despite attempts to reduce potential rent seeking and patronage rampant at the national level, a study of the 2013 Kenyan county-level elections found that decentralization further enforced “popular expectations that it is everyone’s turn to eat” on a county level. Decentralization instead may have incentivized groups to hoard their access to greater state resources, accentuating the view of politics as a zero-sum game.
Another interpretation links money to a “momentum of value-generating flows of capital and desire…throughout the sociopolitical body” (Hasty, 2005, 278). This conception views corruption as a necessary component, like blood coursing through the body, which facilitates the cycle of business and politics that keeps the political body running. Then again, corruption-filled offices could also be “hemorrhaging,” or experiencing major blood loss as politicians “slice into the veins and arteries of the nation’s economy and slowly bleed it dry” (Hasty, 2005, p.278).
To keep the political body metaphorically alive and healthy, public concerns over the misuse of public funds may be countered with promises of greater transparency or financial discretion. One citizen from Siaya, however, noted that “even though President Kenyatta declared corruption as a threat to national security, the corrupt are not serving jail sentences for their crime.” From the interviews, many citizens said that voting is a way to remove fraudulent politicians from office. Another individual from Siaya likened “not taking part in the voting process” to “electing bad leadership that comes with corruption.”
In contrast, another respondent expressed that it’s precisely because corruption is so rampant that he would “reelect the full stomachs and not the hungry ones,” providing one explanation as to why corrupt politicians are reelected. New politicians have not had the chance to eat yet and may be hungry. Building on this view, another respondent explained the risk in electing newcomers, who might be worse than those currently in office, “you might be running away from a dog only to [the] head [of] a lion which is more dangerous.” If new politicians are elected, they might be more corrupt. Given these insights on corruption, how will the act of ‘eating money’ weigh in voters’ minds in the upcoming national elections?
The insights from these interviews provide an interesting conundrum that Kenyan voters currently face. Do people vote in the politicians who continue to ‘eat money’ while making little progress on their campaign promises? Or, do voters take a chance on the newcomers, who might be no better than those in office?
As the research continues, citizens’ responses are particularly helpful in elucidating how Kenyans understand and perceive political corruption and government. While respondents see politicians ‘eating money’ as the status quo, longer-term issues like food or water shortage are of growing priority. Whether Tharaka Nithi citizens will ever see Kenya’s largest dam remains in the air. As droughts prolong and elections draw near, citizens facing food insecurity worry that politicians might be getting ‘hungry’ again.
Interviews were conducted by Kenyan researchers trained by MIT GOV/LAB, including Brenda Ochieng, Mwongela Kamencu, Nelson Ngige, and Titus Kuria. A special thanks to Mwongela and Titus for consulting on this article.
Lisa Fan (email@example.com) is a senior at Wellesley College majoring in Political Science with a minor in Economics. She worked as a research intern in the spring of 2017 through the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).
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