These are hard times for anti-corruption campaigners, and harder still in Africa where activists face harassment and sometimes death. According to United Nations and World Bank estimates, corruption and transfer pricing cost Africa more than $150bn a year.
Michela Wrong’s compelling book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, charts the career of a doughty opponent of this corruption: Kenyan anti-graft campaigner, John Githongo. By describing Githongo’s efforts, Wrong explains the mechanics of corruption within government and business circles and why so much western development policy in Kenya fails.
Wrong, a veteran reporter and former correspondent for the Financial Times, has known Githongo since both were journalists in Nairobi more than a decade ago. Githongo branched into civic activism and in January 2003, days after Kenya’s opposition promised to clean up government and won the general election, he was appointed permanent secretary of governance and ethics .
Outgoing President Daniel arap Moi presided over two decades of state larceny and repression. To cheers at his inauguration, new president Mwai Kibaki proclaimed: “Corruption would now cease to be a way of life in Kenya.”
Wrong’s narrative is part political thriller, part African morality tale. For a generation of Kenyans, she explains, Githongo’s appointment seemed the harbinger of sweeping change.
In fact, Githongo lasted just two years as Kenya’s anti-corruption tsar. After ministerial colleagues sabotaged his investigations and Kibaki declined to back him, Githongo fled Kenya. In February 2005, he turned up on Wrong’s doorstep in London with a taxi-load of suitcases. So began his self-imposed exile.
“These ministers, my closest colleagues, sat there and told me to my face that they, they were the ones doing the stealing,” Githongo told Wrong. “Once they said that, I knew I had to go.”
Githongo brought with him hours of secret recordings of encounters with Kenyan ministers. At first they delicately suggested that he should take less interest in the government’s costly security contracts; later a number accused him of betraying the Kikuyu elite into which he was born. Eventually, a nervous colleague warned Githongo of plans to kill him if his investigations persisted.
Wrong expertly fills in the social backdrop to this story, from the hearth of the liberal Githongo family in Kikuyuland to the air-conditioned offices of Nairobi’s cyber-generation.
Just hours after Githongo arrived in London, Wrong herself faxed Githongo’s resignation letter to State House, Nairobi. Her visitor instantly became an international news story.
Githongo worked through his revelations – secret tapes of ministers admitting to kickbacks and lucrative commissions on contracts that would never reach fruition. Wrong realised she was sitting on an African Watergate. She resisted the reporter’s impulse to extract a scoop from her hounded visitor. Instead, she urged Githongo to keep quiet, lodge the tapes with a lawyer and restart his life.
Githongo, however, was determined to go public. He got a fellowship at Oxford University and invited journalists from Kenya’s Daily Nation for a briefing. The result was the “Githongo dossier” – two weeks of headlines that ruined the Kenyan government’s reputation.
Even Kibaki was unable to brazen it out and sacked three ministers – though he reinstated two of them 18 months later.
The Githongo affair did more than highlight Kenyan corruption, however. Wrong explains that it also emphasised the weakness of western and international financial institutions working in Kenya. Only a few chose to speak out. Sir Edward Clay, Britain’s former High Commissioner in Kenya, was one who did so – much to the embarrassment of Whitehall, which sought to justify increasing its aid.
Wrong ultimately concludes that Githongo’s attempt to bring down the corruption system was “magnificently foolhardy”. He remains undaunted, however. Since former opposition leader Raila Odinga joined a coalition with his rival Kibaki in 2008, Githongo is now trying to build a pan-ethnic organisation for change at the grassroots.
Patrick Smith is editor of Africa Confidential
Fourth Estate £12.99, 354 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39