One of the first Kiswahili words I learned when I first landed in Nairobi in 1989 was “WaBenzi”. As described by Shiva Naipaul in “North of South: an African Journey”, WaBenzi were corrupt politicians and their associates who drove around town in fancy Mercedes Benz, while most people lived on $2 a day or less.
WaBenzi hadn’t got their wealth from hard work but through corruption, which was endemic in Kenya at the time. This wasn’t just the small bribes traffic police wanted when they stopped your car for some imaginary driving offence. It was much bigger than that: overcharging on government contracts meant the “big men”, as they were also known, had big cars, big houses, and big bank account balances.
Western governments, the World Bank and aid agencies put pressure on the Kenyan government to stamp out corruption and in 2002 the newly elected government of Mwai Kibaki appointed John Githongo to a senior anti-corruption role. Githongo was honest and courageous and he went public when he uncovered widespread evidence of corruption at senior levels within the Kibaki government. Githongo’s resulting trials and tribulations are set out in Michela Wrong’s excellent “It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower”. “Eating”, of course, is a euphemism for how the WaBenzi got their money.
Expats used to shake their heads and laugh at how Kenya was messing up its independence, ignoring the history of colonialism: corruption doesn’t get any bigger than taking over a whole country and denying local people a say. When challenged, the response would always be that the West wasn’t like that any longer and anyway we didn’t have such extensive corruption at home.
But corruption is alive and well in UK
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that much of the political class is the same in most parts of the World. They’re all “eating” from the trough with little concern for the ordinary man, woman or, most clearly in recent days, child.
In the UK this began as soon as the first pressures to provide PPE to front line workers emerged at the start of the pandemic. Taking on the role of John Githongo, the Comptroller and Auditor General, in a November 2020 National Audit Office report, documented ‘a high-priority lane to assess and process potential PPE leads from government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords’. Those in this high priority lane had a 10% chance of being awarded a PPE contract, compared to 1% for other suppliers. In many cases there was no recognisable bidding process: more than half the contracts were awarded without a competitive tender.
Despite an outcry about this, any pretence of an honest, transparent procurement process was dropped very quickly. Of course, some of the contracts will have resulted in decent PPE going to where it was needed. Also it’s quite hard to get excited about visors, face masks and gowns.
But when it comes to children’s food…
There was however a massive outcry about the food parcels provided, now that schools are closed, to the parents of children who qualify for free school meals. These food parcels replace £30 vouchers given to parents to spend in supermarkets. From the photographs there’s no way that the small portions food offered represents good value for money. One parent estimated the contents of her parcel would cost no more than £5.22 if bought from a supermarket.
It’s amazing that the government has such a tin ear that they still don’t understand people’s feelings about children going hungry after all the work Marcus Rashford did over the summer. What isn’t amazing is that the firm involved, Chartwells, is a major Tory donor.
Again, the government has only been spurred into action by campaigners such as Rashford and chef Jack Monroe. The Children’s Minister, Vicky Ford, issued a standard apology, saying an investigation would take place, in the hope the scandal would go away.
On television, Monroe astutely observed: “it’s once again people who have got absolutely no idea about the realities that people face in Britain, making decisions for them.” That’s quite a generous assessment. It’s common now to describe what is happening in this country as”cronyism” or a”chumocracy”. It’s neither if these things; it’s corruption by our own “WaBenzi”. Their Kenya counterparts would be proud of them.
What must be obvious to many is that it is the UK government and their friends who are “eating” now; it certainly isn’t the children.