The Art of bribery! Analysis of police corruption at traffic checkpoints and roadblocks in Kenya (Gedion Onyango)
The Art of bribery! Analysis of police corruption at traffic checkpoints and roadblocks in Kenya (Gedion Onyango)

The Art of bribery! Analysis of police corruption at traffic checkpoints and roadblocks in Kenya (Gedion Onyango)

My paper, ‘The Art of Bribery! Analysis of police corruption at traffic checkpoints and roadblocks in Kenya’ shows how police corruption at roadblocks in Kenya involves specific logic, practices and coded languages and how actors are recruited and regulated. Or how they invent and conceal evidence, establish players or networks, form norms and normalise corrupt practices. This is what I describe as the Art of bribery. Generally, this study presents ethnographic data on how the state works in Africa and how corruption impacts its effective operation in Kenya. Its main findings are as discussed below.

Bribery as a network of ‘good fellows’?

Police corruption in Kenya flows within personal and corporate networks that uniquely bring together lower cadres and major players in the police service hierarchy. Like in most conventional corruption situations, unequal power relations and coercion are the primary drivers. With this, motorists pay obligated bribes to circumvent traffic regulations or be on the right terms with corrupt officers while the police maximise illicit incomes for personal and institutional gains. There are also police officers, mainly base commanders, on retainer payments by motorist owners in exchange for ‘protection’ or to maintain good relations. The bribery network also involves court officials and magistrates. Therefore, the court corridors have become corruption negotiation spaces, as courtrooms are spaces for legitimising and punishing fabricated traffic offences. 

Bribery as the rules-of-the-game

The rules are clear: do not involve the oversight institutions and lawyers when dealing with police. Police officers are averse to matatu owners and operatives who think they are more connected and know the law. The same applies to an act of dissent within the service. Consequently, recruits are advised or socialised on ‘how things are done here’. In this manner, institutional structures and culture differentially reinforce corrupt practices through imitation and other learning processes in the Kenyan police service. These learning processes include how a bribe should be taken, whom to be taken from, and how it should be taken. Newcomers were also briefed on past experiences or the nature of local clientele, e.g. their likelihood of reporting extortion, etc.

Negotiating bribes

When flagged at the roadblocks, a lot may happen. The police may decide to impound the vehicle and confine it to the station. Many motorists dislike this route because it automatically shifts the ground of negotiations in favour of the police. First, the police are in the custody of the vehicle. Secondly, it will involve a bigger fish, i.e. the Base Commander, and depending on their moods, the issue may go to the courtroom. Considering the punitive nature of the traffic legislation, motorists make the rational choice by negotiating for bribes because they stand a chance of paying less. 

Bribery as a means of survival

Bribery incomes are essentially a source of livelihood for most police officers. A police respondent stated that ‘ukiangalia vile tunaishi [if you consider how we live], we live in shacks around here. There is no water sometimes, and the rooms are suffocating […] to make it worse, the salary is not adequate given the Kenya of today. What do you expect me to do? We are also humans. Secondly, in Kenya, some actors engage in bribery because it is the in-thing or a way of life, hence an informal code of belongingness in the police and a way to survive for matatu motorists. Corrupt exchanges executed as a group legitimise and create a sense of security among delinquent colleagues than when such transactions are exercised in isolation. 


Tackling police corruption lies in addressing the broader deficits encumbering the rule of law in Kenya. Corruption is a function of the lack of the rule of law and the poor quality of police service personnel and public leadership. The professionalisation of the police should begin by recruiting and attracting highly qualified and educated individuals. Raising the academic competency of the service will steer it toward becoming an intelligent organisation and transform its image. It will also be able to address current political neglect in the forms of under-remuneration and poor living conditions of police personnel. Intensive training of the police on the rule of law and civil rights is needed, on top of conducting public-awareness campaigns and creating less costly and burdensome justice systems. 

The full paper is available here.

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