Every evening at my local, a police vehicle drives in and parks near the gate.
No one comes out of the car. Instead, a waitress, always the same one, walks to them and has a conversation that never lasts, in my estimation, more than three minutes. Since it is a joint in the same line with several others, it’s easy to see the police vehicle move from one to the other. The ritual is always the same.
When this conversation came up during a discussion on the ongoing police vetting, it hit me that we have allowed the police force to turn into our very own Sicilian Mafia. It runs its own parallel taxation system that we have learnt to live with as long as we are left with a little to fend for ourselves or get home. It has, in turn, made police officers who earn a paltry salary millionaires many times over. We live near this cadre of the rich with their palatial homes, new cars, smart phones and disposable income made from the hard-earned sweat of those who prefer freedom to justice. It is passivity, not an omerta, that sustains this side economy.
Like the Sicilian Mafia, they collect what amounts to protection fees from any joint that has been unlucky to fall in Mututho’s scope. The good man, in trying to stop our sure destruction by the bottle, has created, enabled, and encouraged that mafia system. Each bar, wines and spirits shop and club away from Nairobi pays what might look like a paltry KShs 50 every day while those within Nairobi pay KShs 100. If there are 1000 such joints within a jurisdiction that amounts to KShs. 50, 000 per day outside Nairobi and KShs. 100, 000 per day within Nairobi. Every. Single. Fucking. Day.
This amount covers a ‘license’ to break all Mututho’s laws. Once you have paid your daily tithe you have leeway to close the place when the customers leave, not when the official closing hours end. You can sell pretty much anything, even allow drunkard parents to come to the club with their young children. No questions asked. Live and let live. Pay first though, then live.
In a week, the accounts go up to Kshs. 350, 000 and Kshs. 700, 000 outside and within Nairobi respectively. Every week. This does not include the money other groups such as boda boda riders, taxi drivers, matatus, shops that stock illegal or banned items, and such pay weekly or monthly. These amounts have to be paid religiously if one is to continue doing business within any area. The only businesses exempt from this parallel tax are those owned by members of the Mafia itself, and those owned by the powers that be.
The amount does not include the money collected from bribes by motorists and other offenders. There is a running joke among my friends that one should always include a small fee for bribes after budgeting for fuel and car service. It is impossible to be a motorist in Kenya, especially in Nairobi, without paying the powers that be, so the joke goes.
A small lapse in judgment, like speaking on the phone when the traffic has stalled, will get you within the scope of a smiling uniformed man. The moment you are flagged down, your mind doesn’t run with thoughts of prison or unimaginable fines by a magistrate. Instead, one thinks of how much disposable money is in the wallet and the car, in the MPESA account, how near the nearest ATM is.
A small estimation of how much our Sicilian Mafia is making in a week thus runs into amounts greater than KShs. 2 million per police jurisdiction. Even if we make the assumption that given the ‘taxman’s’ share, and money lost as the kickbacks move up the system, and assume each County boss is left with that KShs. 2 million per week, it means the parallel taxman is earning KShs. 94 million bob. Every week.
There are no operational costs because you and I pay for the fuel used to run this syndicate. We all see it happening but we are fraught to do anything about it. We have poured billions into slaying the ‘dragon’ of corruption, as a hapless former anti-corruption boss famously described his work. We have, it seems, failed. But we still yearn for a Nirvana where we do not pay two taxmen with the little we make.
It is probably time we started asking the moral questions. For example, one of the police bosses was taken to task on why he had received KShs. 900, 000 from David Rudisha, 800m world record holder and in, in typical Kenyan style, a police officer himself. No one has taken the athlete, who is now a strong brand himself and on numerous advertisements and commercials, to task over why he sent the money to his boss.
We like our heroes flawed, like the rest of us. With success comes great kickbacks. We all know what it was and, being the patriots we are, justify it by thinking Rudisha probably made much more than that 0.9m he paid his boss. Our reaction to public vetting should be “Hahaha, we see what you did there, guys.”
I guess the question is who holds more moral responsibility, the bribe giver who ‘only wants peace and to move on’ or the bribe take who is ‘underpaid but willing, with a little chai, to do his public duty’? Does the extent of moral responsibility even matter? I portend it doesn’t, because morality has never been our best attribute. Consumerism seems to be our most recent catch though.
Consider the fact that the ‘chai’ Eric Wainaina sang about a decade or so ago is now a full-grown racketeering system that rivals the Yakuza and the Sicilian Mafia, headed by godfathers we still pay six figure salaries to avoid taking the very bribes that fuel their cars and pay their children’s school fees. That chai system that started with fifty bobs hastily folded and put in an empty matchbox, and thrown at traffic police officers who would try to take them as inconspicuously as possible is now Smaug himself. Tolkien describes Smaug as a ‘…most specially greedy, strong and wicked dragon.” And he is growing.
Today, the bribe taker will openly bargain for a bigger bribe. The euphemisms of chai and kitu kidogo are no longer necessary, neither are icebreakers, this is the way of the land. Any bribe lower than 1000 bob for a traffic offense in Nairobi is considered an insult by and to the bribe taker. The cost of living has driven everything up.
If you do not have loose money to pay the agreed amount to go back to your important business, change is available in the form of 50 bobs and 100 bobs taken from earlier bribe givers. It is possible that since Smaug has now grown so big and so greedy, there are account books run by jurisdictional bosses to make sure the minions are not thieving. Because, honor among thieves.
Public vetting without a thorough soaking and wringing of the little moral fabric we have left is a total waste of time. All it will do is make bribe takers more wary of leaving a paper trail and lo! and behold, a money laundering system will emerge. They will save money under the names of their spouses, children, parents, friends, hand househelps They will make purchases in cash and register them under dummy names. They will invest it in business where they know it will be long long before anyone ever catches them. They are actually already doing this.
As consumerism infiltrates the central national ethos, devolved into a burgeoning middle class with a large disposable income, the opportunities for the parallel taxation system to make money grows. More cars equals more motorists that increase the statistical possibility of multiple traffic offenders willing to pay a quick KES 500 to avoid being lost in the maze that is the Kenyan judicial system.
So, all hail the parallel taxation system. Pay your bribes and be a good Kenyan. Avoid crime and silly mistakes but if you must, be ready to oil someone to look the other way. Do not worry if you do not have enough in your pocket at the time, someone will accompany you to the ATM to withdraw the money, or even loan you some credit to call your people and get the money. They will helpfully point you to the nearest MPESA if they are actually aware of the perils of a money trail. No rush here, bribe giver, says the bribe taker, it’s not as if we are paying rent or anything, or building roads and paying teachers.
All this happens in the span of a few minutes, or a few hours, and each side appeals to the other’s sense of greed and primal survival instincts. The transaction is a marvel as the driver’s license is given back as soon as the bribe is honored (this is now a thing, by the way). It is not happening under our noses, it is happening right before our eyes and to our wallets, and we are in it, deep deep in it.
Maybe someday we will feel the itch to reclaim Erebor; to finally do something more substantial than stage a public surgery to cure a cancer so far spread that it no longer feels like a terminal illness but a way of life.