African business, politics and lifestyle
Tale of an African whistleblower
A new book on corruption in Kenya is considered so explosive there that copies are only being sold under the counter in Nairobi by some book sellers too nervous to display them openly.
“Within these pages, we stand eyeball to eyeball with corruption. The book is an ironclad tell-all that mercilessly bares all to the light,” said the local Sunday Nation newspaper in a review of Michela Wrong’s book. “It feels dangerous to just read, let alone write.”
Just published, “It’s Our Turn to Eat” tells the story of Kenyan anti-corruption whistleblower John Githongo, who uncovered details of one of the country’s biggest scandals, the $750 million Anglo Leasing affair involving inflated security contracts.
At the heart of the book is a portrayal of an ethnic clique intent on enriching itself and holding on to power – a picture familiar to many other African states.
We are told that, as Githongo’s investigation deepens, the circle of suspects widens to include many senior officials, members of the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s biggest, to which Githongo and President Mwai Kibaki belong. When he made his findings public in 2006, Githongo was vilified by critics for betraying his tribe in exposing “Africa’s Watergate”.
“The title of the book is an appeal Githongo’s colleagues made to him: ‘It’s our turn to eat, John. Don’t rock the boat’,” said former British envoy, Edward Clay, who once equated the Kenyan government’s tolerance of grand corruption to vomiting on the shoes of the donors who provide aid. “For the corrupters it is a sweat provoker,” he said at the book’s launch in London.
Since Kibaki’s disputed re-election set off tribal-based clashes that killed at least 1,300 people last year, a unity government bringing in leaders from other ethnic groups including the Luo and Kalenjin, as well as Kikuyu, has been accused of foul play over everything from the sale of a hotel to fuel and maize supplies.
Even for a nation used to hearing about corrupt practices, the scandal involving the mismanagement of maize reserves has stoked anger at a time 10 million Kenyans face starvation.
“People are really mad because politicians used a system devised to bring down maize flour prices to enrich themselves,” said one Kenyan professional in Nairobi. “The flour is still expensive, inflation is up and drought is threatening lives. People are baying for blood.”
For many kenyans, it seems Kibaki’s promise to end graft, the pledge that first brought him to power in 2002, sounds as hollow as ever.
So, what can be done?
Wrong argues that the key to fighting graft in Africa does not lie in fresh legislation or new institutions.
In Kenya, as in many other countries, the anti-corruption body is “part of the grand corrupters’ game, providing them with another bureaucratic wall behind which to shield, another scapegoat to blame for lack of progress,” she says.
“Rather than dreaming up sexy-sounding short cuts, donors should be pouring their money into the boring old institutions African regimes have deliberately starved of cash over the
years: the police force, the judicial system and civil service”.
Donors, she said, “would do better to target the Western companies, lawyers’ chambers and banks which make it possible for crooked African leaders to spirit hundreds of millions of dollars out of the continent each year.”
Do you think that would help? Do Githongo and other whistleblowers make a difference?