How Weak Systems Abet Corruption

Corruption at its base description is a deliberate complacency against good. It is an inability to stand on the moral high ground for right and good. Given, the perpetration of corruption is not based merely on the weak morals of individuals. In fact, one may posit that humans are inherently weak of moral good. Our base instincts are fiercely competitive and selfish at best. We have developed laws and regulations simply to keep these self-interest instincts in check and out of others’ harm.

It thus follows that banking on impeccable morals alone will never succeed as a tool for fighting corruption. Rather, the policy and physical environment in which people operate must be changed to not only discourage corruption but also enable the apprehension of all cases of the same.

Using a real life illustration, I will demonstrate how a weak and disjointed policy environment abets corruption. Flying into Kenya from abroad, every passenger is entitled a free luggage capacity of 46 kg on most airlines in economy class. This is the case with our national carrier, KQ. However, should the passenger’s final destination be Kisumu or Mombasa, the domestic free luggage allowance is capped at 20 kg. Again, this is standard practice in many other countries. Conveniently, KQ will allow international passengers to proceed with the entire 46 kg to either Mombasa or Kisumu free within 24 hours of the incoming international flight. This provision applies at the discretion of the check in staff at the counter. The staff (as proof to warrant the waiver) retain no documentation. Sadly though, therein lays the loophole exploited by KQ’s own errant employees to deny her much needed revenue.

A passenger with excess baggage presents at the check-in counter and is rightly told he will have to pay KSh 250.00 per kilogram above 20 kg. That is KSh 2,500.00 for 10 extra kilos. If the passenger hesitates to pay up, the check-in staff then gives an offer: pay half the amount, get no receipt and proceed with your flight. At this point, the passenger is in a moral dilemma: pay up the entire right amount or play along and save some cash. Our base instincts, honed for self-reward and advantage seeking will go for the later. The morally well-tuned passenger may insist on due process and bear the ‘loss’ gracefully.

But what is KQ’s contribution to this sad scenario? One may safely assume that KQ has not made her staff and passengers know why there is a limit on luggage. Both staff and passengers may simply think KQ’s baggage limits are solely for revenue generation; oblivious to the more important reason, which is safety. Due to this gap in knowledge, the errant staff and willing passenger accomplices unknowingly endanger lives by falsifying baggage weights for the gain of a few shillings. Using posters, leaflets and other targeted media at the airport lounges and in mainstream media, the airline can sensitize passengers on the real reasons the luggage weights need to be accurately declared and recorded. That way, passengers are less likely to take up offers to collude with staff in falsifying weights.

Second, it may be possible KQ is charging too steeply for their customers’ willingness-to-pay. As a result, this creates an incentive to avoid payment on the passenger’s side and an opportunity to activate this incentive on the check-in staff’s side. Of course, the loser is KQ: which still has to carry the extra baggage for no pay at all. It would be wiser to charge less and collect it all than charge heftily yet collect nothing.

Third and probably more important is the operational environment. The KQ staff that receives, weighs and records luggage is neither accountable nor traceable. This gives errant employees enough leeway for corrupt behaviour. Advanced technology today can link the check-in weighing scales to a central database that matches the counter to the attendant and the passenger automatically. This way, every piece of luggage traces to who checked it in, at what time and how heavy it was. This alone is enough deterrent since the check-in staff cannot manipulate the automatic recordings which are reviewed and audited by an independent third party. In more secure environments, the third eye captures all goings on. CCTV cameras are probably the best passive deterrents against petty crime and this kind of corruption fits the bill. Their other advantage is the evidence when crimes occur.

This weakness of policy is also evident at the customs counter. One enabler of corruption is the paucity of information. KRA does not display what items are tax-exempt or otherwise: or how much tax is due on what items. True, this information is available on their website but it would not hurt to boldly display it at their service counters. To add to the opacity, KRA has no way of knowing which of their staff inspected which luggage, at what time and what was brought in. On more than one occasion,  I have witnessed customs staff ask for tax from passengers for one item or another only to drop the demand in exchange for a few thousand shillings into their pockets. Often times, a single attendant or two are unable to inspect all the baggage coming in. Since most of the items on passenger luggage are small consumer items, I wonder whether KRA collects even enough to pay their errant staff in the current set up. One would rather KRA ignored this bit of revenue to stem their losses or if they have to collect it, then go all out: employ enough attendants, display the right information to passengers and even record the inspection on camera and log every baggage inspected to the officer responsible.

Technology alone however, is no panacea to corruptible individuals. At the same JKIA, I have witnessed severally parking attendants collude with errant taxi drivers to avoid paying for parking. This happens despite the presence of automatic chip card operated entry barriers into the airport’s parking lots. To begin with, the presence of an attendant at an automatic barrier is in itself defeatist. It is akin to having an attendant at an ATM or automatic door. The most apparent reason for this duplication is that even though entry and exit is automated; some payments are still made in cash and are handled by the attendant. Again, that offers a loophole. Errant attendants collude with some drivers to beat the entire system on the manually operated gates. The net effect is not just loss of revenue to the airport and parking company, but the attendant’s employer is also paying him/or her for work not done. This is yet another demonstration of a weak policy decision; create an automated entry side by side with a manual one. It does not take crooks long to find the gaps.

With a little more investment, the parking company could automate the entire process including cash handling. Without an attendant, such a system is designed to be fail-safe: i.e. when it fails, the barriers open and allow free entry or exit. The knowledge that a failed system will automatically lead to lost revenue means the company will be obliged to keep the system well maintained lest they drop out of business.

Fail-safe systems can be costly nevertheless. A rather queer fail-safe system at JKIA is the police road check. The roadblocks have failed; they allow anything in or out. The modus operandi in the aviation world is to treat every airport, particularly international, as facing significant security risks. JKIA is no exception. It always disturbs me that the police manning the roadblock will only inspect certain cars. As you may guess, these are taxis and other ordinary-citizen passenger car models. High-end swanky limos and SUV’s have an unwritten security pass. Curiously, PSV’s too do not go the scrutiny.


If this profiling were based on any security intelligence, it would not be a source of worry. The sad fact is that this profiling is meant to raise illegal revenue to the police officers in the shortest, safest and most hassle free manner; it has nothing to do with security intelligence. The taxi driver therefore knows beforehand that they must pay KSh 100.00 at the roadblock. They dare not challenge this illegality because often than not, their car has one fault or another that would attract a much heftier penalty. The police on the other hand either does not realise the risk of collecting bribes at the expense of security checks or is simply not bothered. In the end, anyone and anything can drive into and out of the JKIA. Moreover, one does not even have to pay a bribe, just get an imposing car and the police will actually salute as you drive past.

While corruption may be blamed for the officers collecting bribes form errant drivers, a more salient factor is to blame for the large number of vehicles that go uninspected. We have perfected a culture of double standards into policy. This culture serves citizens based on their actual or perceived social class. As a result, ordinary people get security checks while the supposed ‘big men’ take the free pass. The average citizen follows a stricter version of the same laws but the high society has multiple unsolicited concessions at every turn. This not only exposes all of us to deadly security breaches but also takes away the collective ownership of our systems and structures from us. For we do not feel equally served by these system, in fact, some citizens feel unfairly targeted by overzealous rent-seeking officers. It is not surprising therefore how arms and grenades find their way all over the country despite numerous police roadblocks.

Without reiterating the extreme shortage of police officers in the country (in itself an unacceptable infraction on our sovereignty), it makes a compelling case to review the value of most roadblocks as they currently are. It may be better to have fewer real roadblocks than 1001 toll stations in the name of roadblocks. To make the roadblocks more effective for their security objectives, the current rulebook must be shredded. We must employ new innovative measures that hold officers and drivers accountable for their actions and responsibilities. Errant officers must be apprehended and punished in no different way from errant motorists. While at it, any profiling must be based on sound intelligence in the absence of which every vehicle must be equally screened.

As an illustration of radical off-the-box thinking in beating crime, stretches of the US-Mexico border are fitted with surveillance CCTV cameras that upload images to a web portal. Any US citizen can log into the site and virtually patrol the border. When they spot suspicious activity, often drug traffickers and illegal migrants, they alert the uniformed security personnel who review the data and swing into action. We may not copy-paste such solutions but they demonstrate that in a rapidly changing world, we cannot keep fighting crime (corruption, terrorism, etc.) using the same old means.

Finally, even as we change the policy and physical environment in which people operate to deter corruption, it must not be lost on us that someone must want a change for the better. It is easier for those in positions of leadership to lead the war on corruption as they have the resources and legislative framework to do so. The ordinary citizen, an even more important warrior in the fight against corruption, will always be the loser if the system is not aligned for non-tolerance. Short-term gains from corruption are a tempting bait to poorly paid officers and employees who know they will not be apprehended. Even as we need to doubt the moral probity of every individual in order to fight corruption, we need to trust a few leaders to set the ball rolling. It is these leaders that we lack.


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