When Corruption Rules, The Little Man Always Loses

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It took six months to the day, but we’ve finally got our permits and can now safely and legally exit the country – and, in a rather strange twist – enter (and volunteer) again until January 2015. Mysterious are the ways of the Tanzanian Department of Immigration: it not only took six months to process a couple of pieces of paper, and another visit today to get the permits validated with a barely legible stamp in our passports, but instead of giving us our $550 visas for the duration of our stay, they – very kindly, I must add – gave us two-year ones instead.

We’d heard lots of pretty bad stories about corrupt officials asking for kickbacks in order to process visas or get back stolen passports, and although we’ve thankfully dodged that kind of treatment, the shadow of ‘kitu kidogo’ as the Kenyans call it (‘something small’ = bribes), looms large over everyday life. It does untold damage to the economy, and fundamentally, possibly irrevocably, erodes the trust people have in their elected representatives. Although the problem is well publicized in Kenya (I can only recommend ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’ – a shocking, highly informative primer of Kenyan politics examined through the lens of a mass-scale, high-level corruption scandal) and underlies the fears for renewed ethnic violence after today’s election, Tanzanians – at least on the surface – seem much more passive and resigned about the scandal brewing in their midst. Sadly, however, there would be every reason to rise up to this sorry state of affairs in this beautiful country: Tanzania recently beat Kenya to second place in Transparency International’s East African Bribery Index, only barely trailing behind bribe-soaked Uganda.

Part of the reason for why the issue is so explosive in Kenya is that corruption is a function of power, while power itself is a function of ethnicity. When a certain ethnic group is in power, that ethnic group “gets to eat”, paraphrasing the above-mentioned book, and gets to reap the benefits of all the back room deals and under-the-table arrangements that unchecked, greed-inducing power facilitates. When elections come around, the disadvantaged groups fight back. In Tanzania ethnicity is less pronounced and less used and abused in the political sense, and power has, for a long time, been in the hands of one dominant, multiethnic party. Depending on who you ask, they’ve done an acceptable-enough job at ruling the country and most importantly – again, in contrast to Kenya – keeping it at peace. Tanzania’s socialist legacy has arguably also resulted in a much less confrontational political culture and one that isn’t as demanding and potentially explosive.

But I digress. I guess my point is that in developing countries – sadly particularly in Africa – power seems absolute, politicians, bureaucrats and even the police wield power by withholding, intimidating and pushing people to bribe to get anything done. The Big Men of Africa (and elsewhere) make their people feel small and subservient, in eternal debt, literally and figuratively, to the one that sits in the big office at the back; the one that doles out favors and loans, the one that enjoys that magical aura of power only (stolen) money can imbue.

So why aren’t people really standing up to this systemic disease? Does it even matter what people say, do or demand if the powers that be simply don’t want to act? What amount of public pressure would be needed to break this legacy of looting?

I hope Tanzania will move in the right direction in the coming years, but I can’t say I’m too hopeful. All the locals we’ve spoken to certainly aren’t. It is what it is, they say, and it ain’t changing. ‘God Hates Corruption’ signs may be everywhere here, but as long as those that have power love their money more, the Lord’s words will fall on deaf ears.

-K&B

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