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Bibles by day and cartels by night is perfectly normal in our debased society



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When he was still Chief Justice of Kenya, Willy Mutunga stated that Kenya’s economy was controlled by cartels.

The statement was almost as radical as Timothy Njoya’s call in the 1980s for multiparty democracy.

Both statements were shocking and sobering, and both would invite vitriol against their authors and, in Njoya’s case, attempts on his life.

But truth is enduring and liberating. Today, not even those who supported and benefited from Kanu rule would deny Njoya’s truth.

And who now would deny the truth of Mutunga’s claim? Since its utterance, the country has been treated to serial revelations that show just how deeply entrenched cartels are in every sphere of life.

They are everywhere. Some imported poisonous sugar and maize. Some determined who got paid by the National Produce and Cereals Board. Others controlled distribution of medicines.

Cartels were in the Lands Ministry. At one point, a Lands official admitted that it was impossible to tell which documents issued by the ministry were authentic. There were cartels controlling government procurement and tendering.

But what is most revealing about the state of our society is that, before the government adopted a tough stance against cartels, Ministry of Education officials, police officers, exam administrators, teachers, headmasters, parents and students were participants in rings that procured, sold and bought KCPE and KCSE exam papers.

Yes, teachers and headmasters transmogrified into shadowy figures of the underworld, procuring and selling papers to the highest bidder.

Some parents would be willing to part with as much as Ksh100,000 ($1,000) to buy a future for their children.

Now, these educators are the ones society has entrusted with bringing up, as the new curriculum boasts, children who are “engaged, empowered and ethical.”

These parents are regular church or mosque goers. They are the same ones who at public gatherings and on TV panels lament the growing moral decay in society.

The government’s tough stance against these exam and other cartels is laudable. But it has had to “militarise the exam.”

The national examination, an event that elsewhere would be a routine exercise overseen by civilian administrators, has in Kenya become a major security undertaking.

The images of papers being transported by armed police and exam centres guarded by police units with automatic weapons aroused mixed feelings.

The first, as intimated above, was relief that government had eventually woken up to the far-reaching implications of a national exam being run or influenced by a cartel.

The second is soul searching: How had we come to this situation, where administering exams was a major security operation?

Why do children have to pass a gauntlet of heavily armed units in order to sit for an exam? The answer is simple and complex. Over the past 55 years we have lost the values around which a sense of community or nationhood is built.

The idea of community assumes a certain level of mutual empathy among its members, basic honesty, a sense of individual responsibility for advancing communal interests, a sense of fairness and justice in members, a belief among members that all, especially the most vulnerable, are entitled to a minimum standard of living.

In oral tradition, allegorical tales are told of how animal societies came to fail because of the greed of individuals or injustice against some members.

Animals that exhibited positive social behaviour were held up as model citizens of animal society.

Today, in enlightened countries, development is measured, not by growth rates and share prices, but by the Human Development Index, which measures the wellbeing of all citizens.

In Kenya, greed became the overriding national value. Taking short cuts was viewed as “clever,” hustling. Liars and lords of corruption rose to the top of the political hierarchy.

It became okay to carry a Bible in the day and oversee the activities of a cartel at night. There was no contradiction between speaking eloquently about the welfare of children and grabbing their schoolfield. It was okay to sell expired maize and medicine even if these caused death.

Wealth became the only measure of success. Thus, a father of two of the boys who dug a tunnel into a bank vault and made away with millions said they had learnt from society. He argued that what they had done was no worse than the theft of billions by politicians.

Similarly, officials, parents, teachers and children buying exam papers were not anomalies. They were true to our national culture. Militarising the exams is treating the symptoms of a chronic societal disease.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.

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