Book review: Joe Khamisi’s ‘Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite, 1963–2017
Despite being a gut-churning story, ‘Looters and Grabbers’ does have some heroes, writes Kelvin Mbithi.
Published 55 years after Kenya’s hard-fought and bloody struggle for independence from not-so-great Britain, ‘Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Plunder by the Elite, 1963–2017’, a 752-page thickly researched treatise by Joe Khamisi, charts the proliferation of a culture of corruption and bribery in Kenyan society. Khamisi, a former journalist and politician, identifies the original sin as the scramble, partition and colonisation of Kenya. These, he writes, “represented one of the first acts of land grabbing and looting” by the ruling elite, the post-independence incarnation of whom he calls wabenzi — a term used in neighbouring Tanzania to describe the Mercedes Benz-owning rich.
Hundreds of acres of land were taken by the colonial regime through crown lands ordinances, making the natives ‘tenants of the crown’. The colonial regime also relied on unconscionable written agreements, such as the 1911 and 1913 Maasai agreements, signed with illiterate leaders. And chiefs and their henchmen used their positions to enrich themselves and oppress fellow Africans to show loyalty to the colonial administration.
However, Khamisi dedicates much of his attention to corruption and bribery under the country’s four post-independence presidents — Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. Each is given a section in ‘Looters and Grabbers’, weaving together a staggering four-part tale of how these presidents, their families and cronies have amassed enormous personal fortunes at the expense of Kenyan citizens.
Corruption by the elite, according to Khamisi, has in some instances threatened the life and health of Kenyans. “Corrupt police and military officials are reportedly bribed to facilitate entry of terrorists resulting in attacks and deaths to innocent civilians in Kenya,” he writes. Another example Khamisi cites is the maize scandal that resulted in a 2009 parliamentary motion — later defeated — to censure William Samoei Ruto, the minister of agriculture at the time and presently the deputy president of the country. MP Bonny Khalwale, who tabled the motion, said at the time that Ruto’s alleged conflict of interests and incompetence created “a national disaster with Kenyans succumbing to death and 10 million people starving”.
Despite being a gut-churning story, ‘Looters and Grabbers’ does have some heroes.
Bishops Henry Okullu and David Gitari, and Reverend Timothy Njoya, for instance, were at the forefront of calls by religious organisations for accountability and plurality on the part of the state. Politicians such as Pio Gama Pinto, Mukhisa Kituyi, Oginga Odinga and Bildad Kaggia criticised the government for perpetuating the unjust colonial legacy. Wangari Maathai and many unnamed Kenyans protested against every act of corruption, looting and grabbing. And they all did so at great personal cost, as the government did not hesitate to threaten, detain, beat and allegedly assassinate critics.
Khamisi notes that such is the current state of affairs that corruption and bribery are encountered everywhere in Kenyan society — from villages to the legislature and judiciary, and even in religious institutions. It is likely that Khamisi, when he made this observation, did not anticipate that ‘Looters and Grabbers’ would itself be looted and grabbed, with “contraband” pdf copies being distributed via messaging apps and the internet. In May 2018, the author announced that he would send readers a genuine copy of the book for 500 KSH (5 USD), a discount of about four times the cover price on Amazon.
Some heeded his call but many more did not.
The theft of Khamisi’s labour brings to mind scenes of Kenyans rushing to accident-stricken trucks carrying food, oil or other materials — not to help but to help themselves. It also brings to mind the theory in the social sciences that the behaviour of leaders more significantly than that of others sets the norms of a society. This abstract concept finds concrete expression in the way Kenyans are often left with little choice but to pay a bribe to access essential government services (or go without), and in how the police frequently extort payments from people they encounter in the line of duty.
Khamisi is careful to point out that “petty corruption” like this, while abhorrent, is often thrust upon Kenyans, and has nowhere near the economic and social impact of “grand corruption” on the part of elites.
The book makes for easy reading despite the heavy topic, thanks to the author’s lucid prose and engaging storytelling. But readers are advised, for the sake of their own sanity, to avoid the temptation of reading it all in one sitting.
Mbithi is a law student passionate about addressing historical injustices and inequalities. He serves on the editorial board of the University of Nairobi Law Journal.
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