‘Little Something’ Takes Big Toll on Kenya’s People


Dan Kamau has a bevy of “friends” who pay regular visits to his general goods store.

One of them is a customs officer who for a small fee helps Kamau evade duties on the electronic equipment he imports from Dubai. Another is a city tax collector who demands a small payment to keep quiet about Kamau’s lack of a business license. Then there is the ever-cheerful police officer who almost weekly demands kitu kidogo--"a little something” in Swahili--for nothing in particular.

“I’ve come to know them very well,” said Kamau, who didn’t want to give his real name. “It’s the way of doing business. You have to give something to get something done.”

Kenya is well known for its rampant corruption. Year after year, the anti-corruption group Transparency International ranks this East African country as having among the most corrupt public officials in the world.

But for the first time, a survey by Transparency’s local chapter has shown how ordinary Kenyans are affected by day-to-day petty bribery, known here as the culture of kitu kidogo. Urban Kenyans pay an average of 16 bribes a month, the survey of about 1,200 people found, and six out of 10 residents reported that they routinely bribe the police.


Some Kenyans pay about $100 monthly for bribes--almost a third of their paychecks.

Poor Kenyans recounted to researchers how they fork over bribe money to acquire passports, get driver’s licenses or even secure treatment from public hospitals. Researchers also heard how some police officers pay superiors so they can patrol routes with the best prospects of extorting heftier bribes from rich businesspeople and foreigners.

Transparency International released its findings three days after Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi hired a three-member British team to review his government’s anti-corruption measures. Critics dismissed Moi’s move as a public relations gimmick aimed at appeasing the nation’s international lenders.

Two years ago, the International Monetary Fund suspended more than $200 million in loans to Kenya amid concerns that large chunks of the money would end up in the private bank accounts of a few government officials. Despite pressure from the IMF and other lenders, Moi has failed to establish meaningful anti-graft measures. The lack of IMF funds has helped send the Kenyan economy into a tailspin.

“The problem with corruption in Kenya is that it has reached a level where it has been accepted as a norm,” a local newspaper editorialized after the anti-corruption group published its findings. “Those who refuse to bribe suffer victimization and . . . might in the end never get anything done. In some places, to rise against bribery is to invite the damnation of those who have made corruption their way of life.”

Many Kenyans weren’t surprised by the survey’s findings. For a few months last year, the song “Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo,” or “Land of Bribery,” topped the country’s music charts.

The ditty by 27-year-old Eric Wainaina, a senior at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, refers to a familiar city scene where traffic cops--who earn about $50 a month--stop taxis for minor infractions and demand “kitu kidogo ya chai,” or “a little something for tea.”

“A nation of ‘something small’ is a nation of small people,” Wainaina crooned to a crowd of journalists, diplomats and leaders of nongovernmental organizations gathered here recently for the launch of Transparency’s Kenya Urban Bribery Index.

“If you want tea, sir, go buy Ketepa [a popular brand of tea],” sang Wainaina.

But defying a police officer here often carries a hefty price. Refusing to pay the equivalent of $1.25 could lead to a significant fine or an unwanted date with a magistrate.

John Githongo, who heads the Kenyan chapter of Transparency International, said the survey shows that ordinary Kenyans who refuse to pay bribes face being dragged through a criminal justice system that “is corrupt to its core.”

But Peter Kimanthi, a spokesman for the Kenyan Police Department, named by Transparency as the most corrupt institution in the country, said the survey was unscientific, malicious and meant to embarrass the government.

Kimanthi acknowledged that some corruption exists in his department, but he insisted that police officers are no more corrupt than ordinary Kenyans.

“You need a holistic approach to treat this problem,” Kimanthi said. “The givers of the bribes are breaking the law too.”