(Note: Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Joseph G. Lehman was invited to Kenya in August to help lead the first African Think Tank Leadership Conference. Below he relates one of his more interesting experiences in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. This article appears in the Fall 2006 Impact at www.mackinac.org/7957.)
I don’t understand Swahili, but that did not keep me from recognizing that things were taking an unpleasant turn. The language of intimidation and corrupted authority transcends any language barrier.
Lawrence Reed and I listened intently to the tense verbal exchange between James Shikwati, our Kenyan host who was driving us to the Nairobi airport that night, and the government security officer who had stopped our car.
The officer circled the car, aiming his flashlight into each of our faces, and ordered James to pull off to the side of the road. We were alone with the officer.
James did not allay our fears. "A good trip turning out badly," he quietly said in English.
The officer turned his attention from James and rapped at the back window where I was seated. He began questioning me, in perfect English, about American seat belt laws, and demanded to know why I wasn’t wearing mine.
I truthfully told him that I’d forgotten to buckle up, at which point he interrogated me about my knowledge of Kenya’s laws, keeping his flashlight pointed in my eyes. I did my best to respond with polite cooperation.
He paused and declared, "I am going to arrest you." Another pause. "And I am going to fine your driver."
I did not believe I would actually see the inside of a Kenyan jail, but I did think that whatever the officer did would be expensive and cause me to miss my flight. He ordered James to step out of the car and open the trunk.
After a few tense minutes we heard the trunk close. James got in the car and resumed driving toward the airport.
James told us he had sized up the situation as a routine shakedown. While examining the trunk, the officer asked James his profession. Quick on his feet, James remembered that, in addition to being president of a free-market think tank, he was publisher of its magazine. "A journalist," he replied.
Then the officer asked James about Larry’s and my professions. James told him we were going to be writing about our trip to Nairobi. The officer asked what publication he wrote for, and James pointed to his bumper sticker that read, "The African Executive," his institute’s weekly journal.
The tables turned. Not only was I not going to be arrested, we were not even going to have to pay a bribe. The officer released us and we made our flight.
For most of us, demands for bribes seem as foreign as Kenya. But we must not take this for granted. The fine line between civilized society and rampant abuse of government power is respect for the rule of law.
This story illustrates that even those who lack such respect still respond to the power of a free press. That is one reason the Mackinac Center will never stop writing and speaking about the ideals upon which our government was established, and where its policies fail to live up to them.