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Wealth transfer in Kenya is more than meets the eye

Members of the Civil Society and Mombasa’s Local Community in a peaceful protest march along Mombasa streets in Mombasa County on Thursday,017th November,2016.This was during the Red Thursdays Peoples Movement against corruption protest march to signify their anger against corruption and force Institution that are not fighting corruption to resign.PHOTO BY MAARUFU MOHAMED/STANDARD

The Standard, on April 16, 2017, published an article by Dr XN Iraki on the subject of wealth transfer — at the individual, family and national level.

It was an interesting article for several reasons. One, it went to some depth in trying to understand the popular issue of wealth accumulation in Kenya and, more particularly, the question of the legitimacy of methods used in that process.

Two, it delved into the more thorny issue of corruption in the country and, by innuendo, among the different “communities” that make up our social fabric. And third, it made some comparisons between Kenya and the most advanced country on earth, the United States of America, on the issue of innovation.

INNOVATION

Let me start in reverse so that the issues are put in perspective. In the article, Dr Iraki cites data from the World Bank which shows that in 2004, a total of 84 patents were registered in Kenya. Patents are a proxy for innovation. In the US, 356,943 patents were registered in the same year; that is 4,249 times as many as Kenya’s.

By 2014, Kenya had 279 patents against 578,802 for the US, this now being 2,074 as many. In absolute terms, this was a remarkable achievement by a country that had been independent for only 51 years against the 238 years that the US has been independent from our common coloniser, Britain.

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But this is only part of the real story. As I have mentioned above, the US has a post-independence advantage of 4.7 (238 years/51 years). If you adjust the 2014 statistic by this number alone, the US patent advantage falls to 441 times. But, that is not all: the US had a population of 360 million while ours was only 42 million in 2014, an advantage of 8.8 times. If you adjust the 441 times above by 8.8 you get a new statistic of 50 times. So, our paltry 279 patents were, comparatively, not so bad after all.

And this is using publicly available data from the indomitable World Bank which are already biased in favour of the US. How many Kenyans know about patenting anyway?

Before we leave this topic, I suggest that there is another invidious fallacy here: Just what constitutes an innovation? I will come to that later.

WEALTH ACCUMULATION

We in Kenya have over the years been systematically socialised and educated about the evils of wealth accumulation. This has been through school and religious systems that tell us as children that to be rich is sinful. But is being rich so bad?

As anybody who reads the Judaic Bible with an open mind will tell you, being wealthy was considered a desirable pursuit of the human spirit, all the way from the Old Testament (Abraham and his migration from Ur to the land of “milk and honey”) to the New Testament (recall the parable of the rich man and the talents).

This latter is the so-called “Matthew Effect” which concludes with “unto those who have, more will be added and to those who don’t have, even the little they have will be taken away from them and given to the rich”. A Biblical invocation with serious modern consequences.

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A review of many of our own traditional values is entirely consistent with biblical teachings. In most of our societies, poverty was looked upon with derision as it was equated with laziness, just like in the Bible — recall “the ant and the sluggard”.

In my culture, a poor man was not even considered to be worthy of a wife! And in several of our communities, the only way to get dowry for a wife was to go on a raiding mission for cattle at the nearest target — usually a neighbouring tribe. The means used to acquire such wealth were not an issue: the end justifies the means, like in the Nike slogan “Just Do It” or as the American singer 50 Cent says, “Get rich or die trying”.

So there you are: the Bible, your culture or the American dream — same message. You will note that the questions of morality and legality do not arise, just like a lion is not bothered by the morality of eating a buffalo.

WEALTH TRANSFER

This is where hell meets high water. Should you as the creator of wealth be concerned about how you transfer your wealth and to who? Strictly speaking, you are under no obligation to transfer any of your wealth to your progeny, just like the lion cannot transfer any of its “wealth” to its cubs. They must learn early how to make their own hay otherwise you give them an undeserved advantage over other species.

In the Bible, it is again the prodigal son who, in fact, becomes the inheritor of the father’s wealth and not the non-adventurous son who stayed at home. It does not matter if he got broke in the process. In my culture, it is the son named after the mother’s father (githumba) who became the agent to family wealth creation as he did not wait to collect an inheritance from the father but went out to create his own.

In many cases, inherited wealth can become a curse partly because it is not valued highly by the inheritors — just look around.

CORRUPTION

If there is one word that should be eliminated from our lexicon, it is “corruption”. It is a word of dubious etymological origins and anthropology. Many of our local languages do not in fact have a value-based interpretation.

In my own culture, a chief would not agree to preside over a dispute unless a fat ram was slaughtered for him in advance and a suitable libation of beer provided to enable him to come to a considered judgement. Similarly, you never went to see a “big man”(even your father-in-law) for any serious consultation empty-handed. It was an accepted social norm.

My own conclusion is that corruption as we know it was introduced into this country by our colonisers to mess up our social values and, in many cases, force us to abandon them. And they did not even have the slightest compunction in using religion as a bait for the “simple” native mind.

If you really want to know about the source of the scourge, just ask the remaining Brits in this country — luckily, there are many of them still around (and their dutiful students).

So, what in the mind of the native is considered to be corruption or cheating? if you look closely, there is rarely any sense of guilt or wrong-doing. All you have to do is look at the eyes of those charged in court with this “vice”. In fact, you see a look of undisguised triumph. For them, there is nothing wrong in being innovative.

Which brings me to the sting in the tail: If you were to adjust the patents in Kenya by the number of our other “innovations”, would we be so far behind the US? It is all a matter of changing the definitions. Like Shakespeare said: “A rose by any other name smells as sweet”.

 

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